The Negative Effects of Separating Families at the U.S.-Mexico Border

The current U.S. practice of separating immigrant children from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border will have harmful, lasting effects on all members of the family, especially upon children and their parents. 

Research in Family Science demonstrates that children experience increased anxiety, depression, fear, and confusion when separated from their parents. Children may also experience financial and housing instability, internalizing and externalizing behavioral difficulties, academic problems, and social withdrawal. Children placed into foster care may begin to experience boundary ambiguity the longer they are separated from their parents and as they grow closer to new caregivers. Long-term effects of separation on children include damaged parent-child relationships and emotional trauma.

These outcomes may all be experienced regardless of the length of separation. Even if and when families are reunited, research suggests that families will continue to experience many of these same negative effects in the long term. Even the threat of detainment or deportation is damaging to parents’ ability to care and provide for their family, and this fear and uncertainty creates a harmful environment for child development. Negative outcomes of detainment or deportation include trauma and stress, economic and emotional instability, ambiguous loss, and changes to the family structure that may lead to a permanent family dissolution.   

Research published and cited by the National Council on Family Relations demonstrates the importance of keeping families together. Findings were gathered from the references below. See additional resources and statements from other organizations below for more information.



Berger Cardoso, J., Scott, J. L., Faulkner, M., & Barros Lane, L. (2018). Parenting in the context of deportation risk. Journal of Marriage and Family, 80, 301-316. doi:10.1111/jomf.12463

Dreby, J. (2012). The burden of deportation on children in Mexican immigrant families. Journal of Marriage and Family, 74, 829-845.

Solheim, C. A., & Ballard, J. (2016). Ambiguous loss due to separation in voluntary transnational families. Journal of Family Theory & Review, 8, 341-359. doi:10.1111/jftr.12160

Vesely, C. V., Letiecq, B. L., & Goodman, R. D. (2017). Immigrant family resilience in context: Using a community-based approach to build a new conceptual model. Journal of Family Theory & Review, 9, 93-110.


Additional Resources

American Psychological Association. (2018). Immigration resources. Retrieved from

Chaudry, A., Capps, R., Pedroza, J. M., Castañeda, R. M., Santos, R., & Scott, M. M. (2010). Facing our future: Children in the aftermath of immigration enforcement. Washington, D.C.: The Urban Institute

Crosswhite, J. (2018). Communicating with Congress: Writing letters. NCFR Report, 63.2, 7-9.

Glick, J. E. (2010). Connecting complex processes: A decade of research on Immigrant families. Journal of Marriage and Family, 72, 498-515. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3737.2010.00715.x

Enriquez, L. E. (2015). Multigenerational punishment: Shared experiences of undocumented immigration status within mixed‐status families. Journal of Marriage and Family, 77, 939-953. doi:10.1111/jomf.12196

Noah, A. J., Landale, N.S. (2017). Parenting strain among Mexican‐origin mothers: Differences by parental legal status and neighborhood. Journal of Marriage and Family, 80, 317-333. doi:10.1111/jomf.12438

National Council on Family Relations. (2018). Resource Collection: Immigration and Families Resources. Retrieved from

Society for Research in Child Development. (2018). The Science is Clear: Separating Families has Long-term Damaging Psychological and Health Consequences for Children, Families, and Communities. Retrieved from


Further Statements from Research Organizations

American Psychological Association: Statement Regarding the Traumatic Effects of Separating Immigrant Families 

American Public Health Association: Separating parents and children at US border is inhumane and sets the stage for a public health crisis

Center on the Developing Child: Statement by Center Director Jack P. Shonkoff, M.D. on Separation of Families

March for Science: Stop the Separation of Immigrant Families

National Council on Family Relations: Statement of the NCFR Board of Directors in Response to the U.S. Executive Order on Family Separation | NCFR Response to President Trump Executive Order on Immigrants and Refugees 


The National Council on Family Relations is the premier professional association for the multidisciplinary understanding of families. NCFR has a membership of nearly 3,000 family researchers, practitioners, and educators. For more information on the National Council on Family Relations or its scholarly publications, visit the NCFR website at


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