Members of a caravan of Central American migrants walk to the U.S.-Mexico border crossing in April. / Photo by David Maung

Thousands of families across the country still grapple with the ramifications of family separations at the border that began in 2017.

Many families have yet to be reunited. And although the U.S. government has identified roughly 2,700 children who were separated from their families at the border since July 2017, we generally still don’t know the full number of families impacted.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, advocates say family separation has started again in immigration detention facilities that house families.

Even the families that have been reunited now have to grapple with the trauma of the separations, on top of the challenges of adjusting to life in a new country. Earlier this year, the group Physicians for Human Rights concluded that the family separations at the border constituted torture.

In November 2019, a judge ordered the U.S. government to begin providing mental health screenings and treatment to roughly 2,500 separated families. Over the past year, Seneca Family of Agencies, a nonprofit mental health organization, has been trying to track down the families who qualify for treatment, but has faced several challenges. Finding and helping these families during a pandemic is difficult. Plus there’s a June 2021 deadline by which they need to make contact with the families in order for them to access the services.

The organization has also struggled to find families because of the information the U.S. government provided them. For example, often the last known address provided was an immigration detention center. Seneca has said it tried to contact more than 2,200 families, but so far has only been able to locate and connect with 337.

The organization has largely had to rely on social media and grassroots outreach to find the families. They then try to find a local provider who has experience dealing with trauma, is bilingual and has the cultural competency to work with immigrant families. Under the settlement, families are entitled to up to 25 sessions, though providers can lay out different plans for families depending on their need.

“The impact of the separation is often buried,” said Seneca Director Johanna Navarro-Perez. “It’s a monolith. Some of them, to this day, may not have spoken about it.”

Most of Seneca’s team has a psychology or social work background, said Seneca outreach coordinator Pablo Martinez. By showing genuine curiosity in the families’ experience, Martinez said, the team is often able to get them to open up. Families have generally been receptive to receiving treatment, though sometimes they have barriers, like transportation to and from providers, if they don’t have a car. The pandemic has provided an opportunity for telehealth appointments, which has made that part a little easier.

“The experiences are different, but the symptoms are from mild to severe,” Martinez said. “Nightmares, anxiety, depression, panic attacks. The symptoms are all over the place. And the symptoms can come later. They might seem OK right now, but in the future will experience symptoms.”

One mother and daughter whom Martinez recently spoke with are experiencing nightmares and panic attacks, he said. The daughter can’t see men in law enforcement uniforms or be in school separated from her mother without feeling overwhelmed.

The pandemic has added a whole new level of anxiety. It’s also meant that many clinics have had to close because of financial issues, giving Seneca fewer providers to turn to in certain places.

“Our families have been impacted by COVID,” Navarro-Perez said. “Some have tested positive. We have seen certain families say, ‘That’s great you’re talking about mental health, but we can’t work and need to figure out how to put food on the table.’”

Impacted families can access mental health services by calling or texting Seneca’s confidential and toll-free hotline at 844-529-3327 or emailing

A Whole New Level of Border Waits

A little over a week ago, U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced it would be conducting additional inspections for non-essential travelers and limiting non-essential travel at the border to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, NBC 7 reported.

That weekend and Monday saw 10-hour traffic jams to cross the border, the Union-Tribune reports. An 87-year-old woman suffered a heart attack and died in her car that Sunday while waiting to cross into San Ysidro. A few vehicles ran out of gas, and one car caught fire during the weekend implementation of the new measures.

But after a weekend of hellish traffic jams, northbound border lanes into San Ysidro were nearly empty last Tuesday morning, the Union-Tribune reports.

In a newsletter last Monday titled “CBP or COVID – What’s Worse for San Ysidro?” the San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce blasted the new measures.

Since border restrictions initially began in March, 13 percent of San Ysidro businesses — about 100 actual businesses — have permanently closed, the chamber wrote. Those businesses “that are still managing to survive, are operating at a 55 percent loss in normal revenue.”

The newsletter goes on to say “the arbitrary border restrictions, and punitive actions against those not fitting some whimsical definition of ‘essential,’ is causing more harm than good. The 1,000 jobs lost due to arbitrary border restrictions are essential to the 1,000 families that somehow depended on their wages.”

On the Asylum Front

A federal judge blocked U.S. Customs and Border Protection employees from conducting the initial screening for people seeking asylum, setting back one of Trump administration’s attempts to quell asylum requests, the Associated Press reports.

Be sure to check out this deep dive into how asylum works and all the problems riddling the asylum system from the Union-Tribune. It includes an explanation about how incomplete, inconsistent and erroneous asylum data is and an interactive so you can see what it’s like to go through the asylum process yourself.

More Border News

Maya was Voice of San Diego’s Associate Editor of Civic Education. She reported on marginalized communities in San Diego and oversees Voice’s explanatory...

Leave a comment

We expect all commenters to be constructive and civil. We reserve the right to delete comments without explanation. You are welcome to flag comments to us. You are welcome to submit an opinion piece for our editors to review.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.