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Beyond borders: Children at heart of local implications, impressions of Trump’s immigration policy

From left, Dr. Joan Luby, Kristine Walentik and Meredith Rataj discussed practices along the United States’ southern border and their impact on St Louis-area immigrants and refugees.
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio

On Friday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Don Marsh discussed the local ramifications of a news story that continues to rock the nation: the treatment of migrant parents and children along the U.S.’s southern border.

Joining him to talk about President Donald Trump’s evolving immigration policies were three St. Louis-area residents whose areas of expertise shed light on the real-life impacts of those policies.

Kristine Walentik, a staff attorney with St. Francis Community Services, was one of them. Over the past five years, she’s represented hundreds of unaccompanied migrant minors seeking asylum in the bi-state region.

The stricter and rapidly changing federal immigration policies make those efforts more difficult.

“The announcement last week [by Attorney General Jeff Sessions] has made it harder for us, for the immigration attorneys and the clients themselves … but we are not stopping the fight,” Walentik said. “We are going to continue to try to challenge this and to fight it and find ways to also fight for our clients to be able to stay.”

The stress and trauma that members of the local undocumented community experience is palpable, she said.

“The uncertainty is where the stress really comes in,” explained Walentik, who also recently visited a Texas detention center where she assisted migrants seeking asylum. “They’re not sure what is going to happen to them and how long they’re going to be able to stay in the U.S. if they’re going to be able to stay. They have that fear that they will be killed if they’re returning to their home country. And yet sometimes under our laws, it doesn’t qualify [for asylum].”

Her colleague Meredith Rataj, an SFCC site director and bilingual therapist who provides support to St. Louis-area immigrants and their families, emphasized the adversity these clients have faced even without the recently revealed practice of separating parents and children at the border.

“What we see is children who have experienced an intense amount of trauma in their home country and then significant trauma also in crossing the border, and now you’re adding more trauma being separated from parents for that subset of children,” Rataj said. “And then just the acculturation stress of coming to a new country, learning a new language, being united with family members who maybe you knew before, maybe you didn’t, and adjusting to what those relationships look like.”

The experiences of the most recent children to cross the southern border will likely stay with them long into adulthood, noted Dr. Joan Luby, the Samuel and Mae S. Ludwig Professor of Child Psychiatry at Washington University’s School of Medicine. She studies early childhood emotional development.

“My objective as a child psychiatrist is to promote health and to make children well,” Luby said. “I think if your objective was to make children sick both physically and emotionally, what we’re seeing happening at the border would be the formula to do that.

“Basically you’re seeing families where children are in transition – they’ve been taken from their home, and they’re traveling with their parent in dangerous circumstances – they reach the border, they’re frightened, they’re stressed. And then, as a young child, to be separated from your caregiver abruptly – not know where your caregiver is – that is just an incredibly intense stress, and basically it’s child abuse. Full stop.”

Luby described the Trump administration as “the most hostile to the interests of children that I can think of in modern history.”

“We have a lot of research now, both in animal models [and] looking at humans,” she added, “looking at children who have been in facilities like institutional settings where we’ve looked at the effect on their cognition, on their emotions, on their brain development – and these forms of early adversity have enduring effects.”

St. Louis Public Radio listeners joined the on-air conversation as well, and several callers focused their questions and comments on conditions in the home countries that migrants are fleeing.

“I think that we can all agree that whatever policy we put into place on our border, it’s really a Band-Aid, as a lot of your callers are saying,” Rataj said in response to one of them. “And I think they’re right, that we need to look at what’s happening in the home country and maybe even take a hard look at what our country’s interactions, our history with those countries, and what we’ve done to create the situation.”

She added that many immigrants and refugees would echo such sentiments.

“This is not their first choice,” Rataj said. “It would take a lot, probably, for a lot of us to leave the United States. So you can imagine what it takes for these clients, or these immigrant families, to decide that they need to leave. What we hear from children every day is that they miss, terribly, their own countries.”

Another listener asked about how the sheer processes surrounding immigration court impact what is going on.

“There aren’t a lot of resources, and processing people while detained is one of the issues with this latest executive order,” Walentik noted. “If they’re going to indefinitely detain the families while they’re processing through the asylum process, it’s going to be months, and we don’t have enough judges, we don’t have enough resources on the border.”

The conversation also touched on several ways that local residents can get involved and help. Rataj pointed listeners to a page on the SFCS website with information about donating, volunteering and advocating. The organization also has a fundraiser on Facebook to help cover costs to help serve unaccompanied minors who come to St. Louis from the border.

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex HeuerEvie HemphillLara Hamdan and Caitlin Lally give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.