The Trauma of Immigrating to America: An Interview with a Seasoned Immigration Lawyer

By: Dana Asby, CEI Intern 

A flood of articles, papers, and other news reports about the detrimental effects of the trauma caused by separating families at the border used neuroscience and appeals to morality to convince the current administration to change its immigration policy. However, in a few short weeks, monumental damage was inflicted on hundreds of parents and children. Americans were startled, upset, and angry about ICE sending over 2,000 children to holding camps. Yet, the damage produced in our fight to keep immigrants from entering America continues as the result of other, related policies. In recent months, even immigrants who are here legally, are not immune to stress that these policies are causing. Some have been harassed and risk deportation because of events as minor as appearing in court for a traffic violation.

I spoke with Ben Simpson, an immigration lawyer with Cohen Formane Barone, LLP who has been defending immigrants in New York City’s immigration court for nearly a decade, about the trials that foreign nationals must overcome when they come into contact with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Connecting Science to Personal Experience. Mr. Simpson echoed the sentiments of the Society for Research in Child Development, which released a paper by ten researchers underscoring the fact that Latinos in America not directly affected by the current immigration crisis are nonetheless experiencing increased levels of anxiety. Mr. Simpson described how an immigration proceeding can be extremely stressful for the entire family at all steps along the way:

  • When a parent is taken into custody by ICE, it is usually a sudden event, sometimes occurring in the middle of the night. Spouses and children don’t know when or if their loved one will return, inducing feelings of anxiety and stress.
  • The majority of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. live on a fixed income since their employment opportunities can be limited by policy and fear. If the breadwinner of the family is taken into ICE custody, because the person is detained for weeks at a time before being granted a hearing, the family incurs lost income and frequently the individual loses his/her job.
  • Families are left scrambling to obtain enough money for food, rent, and medical needs. All too often, the path ends in an eviction notice, throwing these families further into despair.
  • Families are also hesitant to turn to social service agencies for help because they are uncertain about whether ICE might locate them through these avenues.
  • ICE has even been known to intercept children and parents at schools, even though schools are supposed to be safe havens where ICE cannot intervene.
  • Anxiety and fear can damage a young child’s brain development and impair socio-emotional skills, leaving children in a state of chronic anxiety and trauma that impedes their academic and socio-emotional development (Bobbitt & Gershoff, 2016).

With New York immigration courts currently operating at a delay rate of three to nine weeks between being detained and being given a court date and release, the amount of time a family spends in uncertainty and chaos continues to rise as the failing system is increasingly overburdened with cases. The current administration is enacting policies that might make the situation worse by encouraging judges to cut corners in order to process a higher number of cases instead of devoting funding to hire more immigration judges (Wheeler, 2018).

The  Future of Immigration Court. Mr. Simpson reports that overworked immigration judges, who may have closed cases for undocumented immigrants who have not had any contact with the criminal justice system in the past, are now forced to try these cases because of new policies sent down by the Department of Justice. Many of these defendants, who typically do not have the means to hire high quality immigration lawyers, are denied a public defender because their case is not criminal. Non-profit organizations often step in to provide assistance pro-bono (Samuels, 2018). Most defendants cannot pay the bail bond that ranges wildly from a $1,500 minimum to up to $50,000. The chaotic home environment that begins while parents are stuck in detention centers continues during the long process of an immigration court case, which can take years to resolve.

Science has made it evident: heightened and sustained stress does lasting damage not only to those experiencing it, but to their families and broader community as well (Shonkoff & Garner, 2012; Roche, Vaquera, White, & Rivera, 2018). If America wants to embody the declaration written on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,’ we must rethink the immigration court system and develop one that does not cause families, many of whom include children who are American citizens, to live in households filled with fear, chaos and stress. (Thanks to Tom Coe for making this photo available freely on @unsplash 🎁)


Bobbitt, K.C. & Gershoff, E.T. (2016). Chaotic experiences and low-income children’s
social-emotional development. Children and Youth Services Review, 70, 19-29.

Bouza, J., Camacho-Thompson, D.E., Gustavo, C., Franco, X., Coll, C. G., Halgunseth, L.C.,
Marks, A., Stein, G., Suarez-Orozco, C., & White, R.M.B. (2018). The science is clear: Separating families has long-term damaging psychological and health consequences for children, families, and communities. Society for Research in Child Development Statement of the Evidence.

Roche, K., Vaquera, E., White, R. M. B., & Rivera, M. I. (2018). Impacts of immigration
actions and news and the psychological distress of U.S. Latino parents raising
adolescents. Journal of Adolescent Health, 62, 525 ‘“ 531.

Samuels, A. (2018, June 18). Here’s a list of organizations that are mobilizing to help immigrant
children separated from their families. The Texas Tribune, online edition.

Shonkoff, J. & Garner, A.S. (2012). The lifelong effects of early childhood adversity and toxic
stress. Pediatrics 129, 1, 232-246.

Tchekmedyian, A. & Davis, K. (2018, June 27). California federal judge orders separated
children reunited with parents within 30 days. LA Times, online edition.

Wheeler, R. (2018). Amid turmoil on the border, new DOJ policy encourages immigration judges
to cut corners. Brookings Institute website.


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