Trump's "Zero-Tolerance" Immigration Policy Might Alter the DNA of Future Generations

Trump’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy that involves separating families at the U.S.-Mexico border is “government sanctioned child abuse” according to Dr. Colleen Kraft, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). The position of the AAP is that “children in the custody of their parents should never be detained, nor should they be separated from a parent, unless a competent family court makes that determination.” (1)

Child abuse. These two words shouldn’t exist together. But they do because it happens, and our current administration is a perpetrator.

Child abuse can also be described as child maltreatment, childhood trauma, and adverse childhood experiences. It can be emotional abuse, neglect, sexual abuse, physical abuse, bullying, parental substance abuse, maternal depression, exposure to domestic violence, etc. It can also be exposure to gun violence, war, genocide, and, slavery. And our current administration has added detention and separation of children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Child abuse can lead to devastating, long-lasting effects—risky health behaviors (smoking, alcoholism, drug use, etc.), chronic medical conditions (diabetes, STDs, cancer, heart disease, obesity, stroke, COPD, broken bones, etc.), mental health conditions (depression, suicide attempts, suicide, PTSD, anxiety, DID, etc.), low life potential (lower graduation rates, academic achievement, lost time from work, etc.), and early death.

How?

Let me break it down.

Child development is not just nature versus nurture, it’s nature working with nurture over time. That means that nature and nurture influence each other beginning in utero, continuing through infancy, childhood, and beyond. During this time board time range, if a child or teen is exposed to adverse experiences, and there are not enough protective factors, than the youth’s biology—at a cellular and DNA level—can be altered for the worse. Their gene expression can be altered and so can the development of their neural circuits. Repeated or chronic adversity can overactivate their stress response (the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical axis and the sympathetic-adrenomedullary system) and dysregulate stress hormones and a network of physiologic mediators leading to chronic wear down of multiple organs including the brain. Their brain structure and function can change permanently (altered sizes of the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex). They can have difficulties learning, avoiding danger, interacting with other people, and expressing their true thoughts and emotions. They can develop PTSD, depression, anxiety, dissociative identity disorder, etc. They can have suicide attempts. They might complete suicide. They might end up vulnerable to repeated trauma and/or inflicting violence on others.

And that’s just the short version.

But it gets worse.

There is mounting evidence that the effects of childhood adversity may be transgenerational. The science of epigenetics is burgeoning and there is some evidence to suggest the transgenerational transmission of DNA methylation changes from parents to children. (2) The transgenerational effects may manifest as medical and mental health problems.

Let’s bring it back to the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy. As a result of this “government sanctioned child abuse,” not only can the kids who are being traumatized at this very moment suffer possible genetic changes to their own DNA but they might pass on these changes to their own children someday.

To Trump and his administration, be advised that there is growing scientific evidence that your policies are harming generations to come.

(1) Linton JM, Griffin M, Shapiro AJ, AAP COUNCIL ON COMMUNITY PEDIATRICS. Detention of Immigrant Children. PEDIATRICS. 2017; 139(5):e20170483.

(2) Youssef NA, Lockwood L, Su S, Hao G, Rutten BPF. The effects of trauma, with or without PTSD, on the transgenerational DNA methylation alterations in human offsprings. Brain Sciences. 2018; 8(83):doi:10.3390/brainsci8050083.