Children’s Defense Fund-Texas Releases Report on Dire Mental Health Impacts of Immigration Detention; Offers Community Alternatives

Family Detention

For Immediate Release: May 12, 2021

Contact: Stephanie Cavalier,, 512-993-0819


Austin, Texas – This week the Children’s Defense Fund-Texas—in partnership with Dr. Luis H. Zayas, Dean of the Steve Hicks SSW at the University of Texas – Austin—released From Guards to Guardians, a report that outlines new research findings on the long-term mental health effects of detention on migrant families and calls for the implementation of healthy community alternatives to immigration detention.

The report highlights the long-lasting harm inflicted on children and families through the abusive, traumatic, and dehumanizing practice of family detention, focusing on the impact on children’s and parents’ mental health. Further, it outlines the steps we can take to permanently create a more humane immigration system that protects and supports children and families. This research augments a record established by Dr. Zayas in 2014, when he submitted an impactful professional declaration to the ongoing Flores litigation that outlined his deeply disturbing clinical observations.

Children and families detained for even a short period of time by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) or Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) suffer high levels of anxiety, fear, despair, and depression that have serious and long-lasting impacts—including difficulty navigating our complex immigration system and settling into their new homes, developmental regression or major psychiatric disorders, and impacts on their physical health. Cheasty Andersion, PhD, Director of Immigration Policy and Advocacy at CDF-TX, describes our current system:

“The children and parents who arrive at our border have been buffeted by tragedies beyond many Americans’ comprehension and have little defense or protection against the various forms of violence that pushed them to flee. In response to this human suffering, our current system incarcerates and frightens asylum-seekers and inflicts further trauma upon them through mechanisms such as abuse, medical neglect, and family separation. This is unacceptable.”

Throughout the course of Dr. Zayas’ research, approximately 96% of families shared experiences of maltreatment during apprehension and detention by immigration officers or private prison employees. These practices do irreparable harm to children, like the 9-year-old who, even after his release from detention, “couldn’t get on a [school] bus because he felt they were going to take him away” from his family. This harm, in turn, damages both a child’s ability to adapt to life in a new country and a family’s ability to successfully navigate a complicated, intimidating, and adversarial immigration system.

The report proposes steps to rebuild our migration system in a way that centers the rights and needs of children and complies with the domestic and international commitments the United States has made to human rights. This involves ending the practice of immigrant detention and investing in community-based alternatives to detention; ceasing contracts with for-profit private prison corporations to carry out ICE detention; and prioritizing mental health care, case management, and other wrap-around services for asylum-seeking families.

This report comes as the Biden/Harris Administration and the Department of Homeland Security consider steps to address family detention, such as releasing parents and children within 72 hours of their arrival in the United States. Dr. Anderson and Dr. Zayas celebrate these actions, but emphasize the need for permanent, long-term solutions. As Dr. Anderson wrote:

“The federal government must seize this moment to redress not only the wrongs of the past four years, but also those that date from previous administrations. We must take deliberate and speedy action to fix the deep, structural flaws in our immigration system that existed prior to the Trump administration, including the senseless, expensive, unnecessary, and inhumane policy of Family Detention.”

You can read the full report and its recommendations here. In addition, Dr. Zayas recently published an op-ed in the Austin American-Statesman reinforcing the findings outlined here and the plea to create a humane system of care for children and families immigrating to the U.S.  




Some individuals mentioned in this report may be open to speaking with the media upon request. Please contact Stephanie Cavalier at or 512-993-0819 for more information.


About the Children’s Defense Fund

The Children’s Defense Fund Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. The Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) is a non-profit child advocacy organization that has worked relentlessly since its inception in 1973 to ensure a level playing field for all children. CDF champions policies and programs that lift children out of poverty; protect them from abuse and neglect; and ensure their access to health care, quality education, and a moral and spiritual foundation.