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

Updated: May 26, 2021

By: Dana Asby, CEI Intern 

I spoke with Ben Simpson, an immigration lawyer with Cohen Formane Barone, LLP who has been 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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. ICE has even been known to intercept children as they are on the way to school.

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.


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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