“Tejas means friend” and other lies we tell ourselves.

If you hear me speak more than a few sentences, you’ll hear the unmistakable accent. And as soon as I can find a natural way to fit it into the conversation, I’ll tell you flat out: I’m from Texas.

As a Texan, I was required to take one year of Texas history in the seventh grade, a statewide tradition since 1946. In Texas history, you’ll undoubtedly learn a few facts that every one of us 29-million Texans has engraved in our hearts.

1.     You don’t pick bluebonnets. They’re a sacred part of our state’s landscape.

2.     Texas was a sovereign nation once: the Republic of Texas. 

3.     California may have more people, but we’re bigger in size.

4.     “Tejas means friend”.

I’ve always found the root of the state’s name to be fascinating, because it has evolved with the land itself and represents the story of Texas. The word traces back to the Caddo word for “friend”, taysha. That word would be misspelled and mispronounced to be Tejas and eventually, Texas. For those of us whose hearts are deeply intertwined with the “Lone Star State”, the root of the word feels right. It embodies our roots, who we were, and the Southern hospitality on which we grew up. The origin of Texas’ name does NOT embody who we are today.

Texas has become the frontline of continued inhumane policy experimentation by the Trump administration. To deter undocumented entry to the United States and tamp down the number of asylum claims made at ports of entry, Trump and his nominated officials began separating children from their caregivers. 2,654 children were taken from their parents, guardians, and chaperones during the peak of this policy’s enforcement, and most of those children were detained in Texas.

The science around this matter is still developing, but one thing is certainly clear: this is bad news for the cognitive development and mental health outcomes of these children. In fact, the picture is becoming clearer that family separation policies produce rates of toxic stress and trauma that are as detrimental to the child psyche at the violence as the violence and insecurity they are fleeing. Researchers, and even the United Nations, cite evidence that separating children from their caregivers creates the type of emotional disturbance and dysregulation seen in survivors of torture.

We aren’t talking about acute emotional disturbance that will recede after reunification. The child’s brain has evolved to be incredibly respondent to its environment. Continued exposures to “fight, flight, or freeze” (especially in the absence of a trusted attachment figure) train the brain to bypass emotional inhibition and complex, rational thought to depend on more primitive survival mechanisms. This means permanent alteration of the brain, shrinking the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus (the parts of the brain that largely control decision making, working memory, and personality expression).  Their brains, and often their relationships with the parents, may never recover. 

“Here we have taken away what science has said is the most potent protector of children in the face of any adversity—the stability of the parent-child relationship”

– Jack Shonkoff

It’s not just theoretical damage happening in research studies void of a human face. Children inside these Texas detention centers have reported high rates of insomnia, decreased ability to concentrate, diminished literacy (even in their native languages), severe mood swings, and feeling constant states of panic and fear. And when they leave, their medical records (including any psychiatric care they’ve needed or received) are often incomplete. Many of these children will receive asylum in the United States, and we will have to face the mental health epidemic we created with a mental health system that is underfunded and culturally inadequate.

Sweeping separation of families and detainment of children was theoretically stopped, but the Human Rights Watch has found that nearly 200 children have been subject to the continuation of this policy since last year. There is no law on the books in the US that requires the separation of families at the border. This was a policy decision that can be rescinded as quickly as it was haphazardly implemented.

These children have often experienced trauma before they ever arrive at our border. They have left the familiarity and comfort of home. They are often physically vulnerable at the end of their migration journey. And they are welcomed with something that, for most of them, is even more traumatic: facing the hostility of a foreign country all alone.

This isn’t exclusively a Texan issue. ICE detention centers now exist in all 50 states. And it isn’t uniquely American, as 100 other countries have policies that allow children to be detained as part of standing immigration policy. But Texas has become ground zero for what the inhumane treatment of children looks like. Texas is no longer a land of Southern hospitality. It certainly isn’t embodying the state motto of “friendship”. And no one should be angrier about what’s happening in our home state than Texans ourselves. 

This article was written in memory of the children who needlessly died in Texas as a result of inhumane immigration policy. These faces represent the failure of all of us.

From top left to bottom right:

Mariee Juarez, aged 2, died after leaving a detention center in Dilley, TX

Carlos Hernandez Va’squez, age 16, died in US custody in Brownsville, TX

Jakelin Caal Maquin, age 7, died in US custody in El Paso, TX

Juan de Leo’n Gutie’rrez, age 16, died in US custody in Brownsville, TX

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