A young boy holds his handmade sign while on the shoulders of a man during the march.
A young boy holds his handmade sign while on the shoulders of a man during last Saturday’s march. Photo by Chris Stone

By Amy L. Non

Last Saturday I attended a protest in downtown San Diego with my 21-month baby girl and friends with their babies in strollers. When our babies cried we picked them up, held them close, and kissed their tiny faces.

As a mother, I can feel the pain in my guts, just trying to imagine what immigrant mothers must feel when their children are torn from their arms. As a scientist, I know how the trauma of maternal separation in early childhood can permanently change a child at her most fundamental level — the level of her genes, the material that makes a child who she is. These changes may even be passed on to the next generation, persisting long after this sad chapter in our country’s history is over.

President Trump’s executive order ended the policy of family separation for detained immigrants. But ending this policy is not enough. Over 2,500 children have already been traumatized. Many are being held in prison-like shelters (some even run by private prison-contractors), and there is no current plan to reunite the separated families. In fact, the Department of Health and Human Services has even placed a gag order on some foster facilities preventing the state from locating the children. Many of these children may stay in the United States and become permanent, and expensive, wards of the state.

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To make matters worse, dozens of cases of verbal, physical, and sexual abuse against migrant children by federal officials were just reported in documents released by the ACLU of San Diego. These cases include denial of clean drinking water, kicking children in the head and ribs, even running over a child with a patrol vehicle. These documents provide evidence that this problem is even bigger and deeper in time than the recently separated children.

I study how stressful early life exposures can change the way our genes get expressed. Epigenetics is a relatively new field of research which studies the factors that affect how our genes get turned on and off throughout our lives. Stress hormones can actually cause the addition or removal of chemical tags on certain spots in our DNA. These changes may explain why some traumatized children, and maybe even their future children, will grow up to become less healthy adults.

The extreme stress on children living in shelters, even temporarily, could cause permanent damage to their genomes. In some cases, caregivers are not even permitted to touch the children. A deluge of stress hormones in the blood stream can alter the epigenetic patterns on the children’s genes. These changes can hinder a child’s basic ability to respond to stress in the future, and potentially lead to increased risk of anxiety, depression, or even heart disease.

My colleagues Margaret Sheridan and Charles Nelson recently published research about the traumatic effects on the brain and behavior of children raised in Romanian orphanages. We also found epigenetic differences in the children who spent more of their lives in orphanages, and these differences persisted through adolescence. This finding may help explain why these children experienced decreased health, and impaired brain development, throughout childhood and adolescence.

Early childhood is a sensitive time when brains and immune systems are still developing, and epigenetic marks are first getting established. These migrant children, some as young as four months, are even more vulnerable than a typical child. Many have emigrated in horrific journeys to escape the violence and extreme poverty of their homes in Central and South America. By punishing the parents, the Trump administration is essentially sentencing these innocent children to a lifetime of worse health.

This is not the first time in the United States that groups of minority children have been violently torn from their parents — recall African slavery, Native American boarding schools, and mass incarceration of black parents. But this is the first time we have known so much about the long-lasting neurological, cognitive, and psychological damage this trauma can cause. Now we know that the trauma of separation can also alter the way children’s genes get expressed.

I call on everyone get out on the streets and protest. You can find a local event or create your own at “Families Belong Together.” Or you can donate to legal services to help reunite these families, such as the ACLU or RAICES. Or you can choose to vote for politicians with real compassion. But what we can’t do is mirror the apathy of the current administration. Our protests helped to change this policy. They can help to reunite these children.

Amy L. Non is an associate professor of anthropology at UC San Diego. Her research focuses on epigenetic mechanisms in childhood that may contribute to social inequalities in health.