A view of inside U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) detention facility shows children at Rio Grande Valley Centralized Processing Center in Rio Grande City, Texas, U.S., June 17, 2018.

© 2018 Reuters

In a McAllen immigration detention center last week, I talked to a cheerful 5-year-old boy and his mother. They’d crossed into the United States seeking safety after fleeing violence and threats at home. Later that day, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents took him away from his mother. The next day he told me: “I don’t know where she is.”

Today he turns 6. He’ll spend the day surrounded by people he doesn’t know, likely without any idea of what’s happening to him or when, if ever, he’ll see his mother again.

President Donald Trump’s new executive order probably doesn’t change anything for this boy or the 2,300 or more children torn from their parents’ arms. Officials with the US Department of Health and Human Services, which looks after unaccompanied migrant children once they leave CBP custody, sent mixed messages about whether the order applied retroactively – we don’t know how or if the government will reunify the thousands already separated. Trump signaled that the order might not take effect until his administration can get around a court order setting time limits on detaining children.

The order exchanges one harmful approach for another. Instead of forcibly separating families, it would detain families together indefinitely. The order puts detained families in the custody of the Defense Department, not the Homeland Security Department (which currently oversees family immigration detention) or Health and Human Services (which has custody of unaccompanied children).

The armed forces aren’t child-care providers, and they shouldn’t have to be. It’s not clear what they’ll do with the families they’re suddenly tasked with caring for, though the hastily erected tent city in Tornillo, Texas, may offer some indication.

We know what indefinite detention does to children and their families. I’m at a meeting in Montréal where mental health professionals are presenting research on the harmful effects of immigration detention.

Locking children up has devastating and long-lasting psychological consequences, even when children are held for relatively short times. The adverse impact is even more pronounced for children who have fled death threats, violence, or other serious harm.

Indefinite detention is particularly harmful. The research clearly shows uncertainty causes profound distress. It  matches what Human Rights Watch has heard in interviews: families in prolonged, indefinite detention in the US described depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. I heard the same, along with horrifying accounts of self-harm, from children and adults held by Australia in its offshore facilities on Nauru

Indefinite detention for children means indefinite trauma. Let’s not be fooled into accepting a false choice between different ways of damaging families seeking safety.