ACP Says Family Detention Harms the Health of Children, Other Family Members

Washington, DC (July 5, 2018) — In a new policy issued today, the American College of Physicians (ACP) emphasized the negative health impact of forced family detentions in immigration cases, and the considerable harm to the physical and mental health of the detained children and other family members resulting from being held in government detention centers while the adults’ immigration status is resolved.

In response to a recent court decision ordering the administration to promptly re-unite the thousands of immigrant children who had been separated from their families under the “zero tolerance” policy,  Department of Justice lawyers are now arguing in court that the government should be able to detain children and families for an indefinite period of time in federal detention centers. This could result in families being detained for months, even years, until a determination is made on the parents’ or other adult primary caretakers’  immigration status, including for immigrant families seeking to be accepted into the U.S. as refugees.

ACP strongly opposes the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy that resulted in children of immigrants being separated from their parents, based on evidence of the immediate, traumatic, and lifelong health impacts on children, and other family members, and has called for families to be reunited without delay. Prolonged family detention is not an acceptable alternative, because it simply adds to and prolongs exposure to trauma that causes great harm to the health of children and their families. 

“ACP continues to oppose family separation because of the significant, life-long, negative health impact on children and their family members,” said Ana María López, MD, MPH, FACP, president, ACP. “The health impact of prolonged family detention would be similar, as it is consistent with experiences known as Adverse Childhood Experiences which result in emotional and physical illness and chronic disease.”

Dr. López noted that when the American Academy of Pediatrics reviewed the evidence on the health impact associated with detention of immigrant children for a 2017 policy paper, it found that “studies of detained immigrants, primarily from abroad, have found negative physical and emotional symptoms among detained children, and posttraumatic symptoms do not always disappear at the time of release.”  ACP considers the evidence that Adverse Childhood Experiences lead to adult mental and physical health and sociobehavioral disorders to be strong.

ACP’s new policy on The Health Impact of Family Detentions in Immigration Cases states:

1. The American College of Physicians continues to strongly oppose the separation of children from their families in immigration cases because of the immediate and long-term health impacts on families and calls for immediate re-unification of those that have been separated.

2. ACP believes that forced family detention—indefinitely holding children and their parents, or children and their other primary adult family caregivers, in government detention centers until the adults’ immigration status is resolved—can be expected to result in considerable adverse harm to the detained children and other family members that may follow them through their entire lives, and accordingly should not be implemented by the U.S. government. ACP concurs with the position of the American Academy of Pediatrics that separation of a parent or primary caregiver from his or her children should never occur, unless there are concerns for safety of the child at the hand of a parent, primary family caregiver, or other adults accompanying them. Efforts should always be made to ensure that children separated from their parents or other relatives are able to maintain contact with them during detention and that community-based alternatives to detention should be implemented to offer opportunities to respond to families’ needs in the community as their immigration cases proceed.

3. In every immigration policy decision affecting children and families, government decision-makers should prioritize the optimum health interests of the child and of the entire family.

“Childhood trauma and adverse childhood experiences create negative health impacts that will last an individual’s entire lifespan. Families seeking refuge in the United States have already endured extreme amounts of emotional and physical stress, family detention only serves to dramatically exacerbate that stress and produce illness,” concluded Dr. López.


About the American College of Physicians

The American College of Physicians is the largest medical specialty organization in the United States with members in more than 145 countries worldwide. ACP membership includes 154,000 internal medicine physicians (internists), related subspecialists, and medical students. Internal medicine physicians are specialists who apply scientific knowledge and clinical expertise to the diagnosis, treatment, and compassionate care of adults across the spectrum from health to complex illness. Follow ACP on Twitter and Facebook.

Contact: Jackie Blaser, (202) 261-4572,