The Epigenetics of America’s Immigration Policy
People will be paying for what’s unfolding on the border for generations
In a recent column written for The Guardian and republished here on Medium, the psychotherapist Yoka Verdoner recounts the trauma she and her siblings have had to live with their entire lives as a result of their separation from their parents during the Holocaust. In that instance, the separation saved their lives, but that they were being placed in hiding with strangers for their own good didn’t prevent the psychological scars inflicted when children are taken from those they love.
In Yoka Verdoner’s case, she states she has struggled her entire life to establish a lasting loving relationship. In addition, her brother has had difficulty holding down jobs, and her sister suffered “from lifelong, profound depression.” Perhaps the commentators and guests typically featured on Fox News would dismiss Yoka and her brother and sister as “actors” and suggest they should simply “get over it,” but anyone making such comments has neither experienced the trauma that comes with families be forcibly separated nor the willingness, or perhaps even capacity, to place themselves in the shoes of a young child who is powerless to truly understand the circumstances, let alone meaningfully influence them.
It will be tempting, when the policy known as “zero tolerance” is finally ended, for the many good people now protesting outside of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) offices, calling their representatives in Congress, and tirelessly tracking children that have been dispersed across the country to underestimate or forget the physical and emotional legacy of these crimes against humanity. The same will be true of the countless reporters now bringing much-needed attention to the crisis. We will thank god that children are resilient. They are, of course, but only up to a point. For hundreds if not thousands that point was yesterday, or weeks ago. For others, that point is right around the corner, we don’t yet know where they are, and the government is showing no signs of moving to reunite them with their family.
This morning the world awoke to the news that many of these migrant children are being drugged. There can be little question that soon stories will be regularly emerging of physical and sexual abuse. In the inevitable asymmetry that develops in the minds of those witnessing one greater outrage after another, those that get through this having endured only weeks or months of separation from those they love can come to be seen as “the lucky ones,” when in fact there is no one trapped in this web that has not been poisoned by the venom of the white nationalism that ultimately inspired this policy.
Whether these children end up returning to their countries of birth or somehow find a way to remain in the United States, they together with the society they live in will end up paying dearly. This trauma has already literally imprinted itself upon their genes. Starting about a decade from now the youngest and most vulnerable among them will begin to have children, and they too will unconsciously carry some portion of this molecular record of the events of the spring and summer of 2018. Donald Trump’s legacy is now literally being written into the DNA of thousands of children. Their genes will be expressing the scars inflicted by his racism long after he is dead and buried.
"Our study indicates that we inherit more than just genes from our parents. It seems to be that we also get a fine-tuned as well as important gene regulation machinery that can be influenced by our environment and individual lifestyle.” That was the conclusion of researcher Nicola Iovino with the Max Planck Institute of Immunobiology and Epigenetics in Freiburg, Germany following a study into the impacts of lifestyle, diet, disease and other environmental factors at the molecular level. Iovino concluded, “These insights can provide new ground for the observation that at least in some cases acquired environmental adaptations can be passed over the germ line to our offspring.”
Other recent studies have found that simply holding and comforting a child influences gene expression in positive ways. In a study published in 2017 by a team working out of The University of British Columbia, scientists found that “The children who experienced higher distress and received relatively little contact had an ‘epigenetic age’ that was lower than would be expected, given their actual age. Such a discrepancy has been linked to poor health in several [other] recent studies.”
That the regular receipt of physical comfort, particularly from a familiar source, has a positive physical as well as emotional impact shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. But our understanding of the profoundness of these impacts at the molecular level is new. Our awareness that these impacts survive for at least one or two generations is even more recent.
Many of the children now in government custody will experience far greater difficulties as adults because of what America has done. In addition to increased risk of disease, more of them than otherwise would have will struggle in relationships, holding down jobs, or develop drug problems. There will be demagogues in the future that will undoubtedly use the consequences of the trauma imposed by Trump and his collaborators as evidence that “these people” are inferior or a threat to society, just as they are doing now. They will claim history should repeat itself on those grounds. The longer the current “zero tolerance” policy continues, the larger the population of troubled youth and adults societies across North and Central America will have to deal with.
Those arguing this is necessary on economic grounds will consistently ignore or deny the hundreds of billions in social costs that will follow from what’s currently happening at the border. They will likewise deny that by returning to them damaged youth that will now be even more susceptible to recruitment into the gangs their parents were fleeing “zero tolerance” further destabilizes the countries migrants are trying to escape. They will continue to claim that the richest nation on earth simply cannot afford to be humane. But the truth is we cannot afford not to be. The sooner we realize human rights is an investment in our collective biological and emotional future rather than a cross we must bear, the better off we’ll be.
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