A Conversation with Dr. Luis Zayas

March 13, 2024

Immigrant Child and Adolescent Mental Health Expert and Member of the Keeping Kids Safe Campaign Leadership Council 


Q: Could you tell us about your background and how your work and research led you to join the Keeping Kids Safe Leadership Council? 

I’ve been involved with issues of immigration, deportation, and immigration enforcement for almost 20 years. It started when I was at Washington University in St. Louis and a couple of immigration attorneys approached me about doing a psychological evaluation of a seven-year-old child whose father was in deportation proceedings. The child and her siblings were U.S. citizens. We needed to show that there would be negative effects on the child, should the father be deported. This child was particularly vulnerable because she had developed what we call selective mutism and only spoke only under circumstances where she felt very safe. We won that case, and the father was given legal permanent residence. After that I continued to do psychological evaluations for children in immigration court. 

Then when the migration surge happened in 2014, I was invited by a group of attorneys to visit one of the detention centers in South Texas. That got me involved in the issue of children in detention with their parents. It started out with mothers and children, then fathers and children, and then unaccompanied children as well. Along the way I met Mary Giovagnoli. I read some of her writing, and invited her to come and give a talk at Wash U. She was not at KIND yet. Then she went to work with KIND and invited me to be part of the Leadership Council. [Mary is KIND’s Senior Counsel for Policy and Advocacy]. 

At that first Leadership Council meeting in Washington, I said this is the place for me, because what KIND is doing is precisely what we need to get done, which is to protect kids, in this case through legal representation—especially the unaccompanied minors who are at the greatest risk. These kids need support. No one can go it alone. Attorneys can’t go it alone to try to prove the case. They need expert witnesses and support. As a behavioral scientist, that’s what I can contribute. That’s how we’re going to change the world, through teamwork.  


Q: You have a powerful Ted talk on the psychological impact of child separation at the U.S- Mexico border. As a developmental psychologist, could you speak about the developmental impacts of this type of trauma on migrant children, and especially on unaccompanied and separated children? 

We know that the most critical years in the child’s development are the early years, birth through the first couple of years, in terms of the early wiring of the brain. And we know that consistency and predictability in the child’s environment are essential. Those early years are so important. The attachment to caregivers is vital for children to develop their cognitive abilities, reasoning, judgment, and social abilities. There’s cognitive and linguistic development and then there’s emotional regulation. Children’s ability to regulate their emotions comes from those early years. When we talk about those early years, the key is to have a minimum of disruption in a child’s life. What I’ve seen over the years is that the migratory process itself, and the manner in which children are held or treated by customs and immigration enforcement, disrupts that ideal process. 

In my latest book, I have a graph showing the stages of migration, from the hardships that began to mount in a child’s home country through the departure, the mid-migration period, going into U.S. custody, and then being released. At home, children are subject to poverty and violence and government instability, all of the things that we read about. And of course, that disrupts a child’s life. If the parent is constantly anxious and gunshots are being heard around them, it affects the child. We see this in the inner cities of the United States. Children grow up anxious because of what is around them. Those conditions disrupt children’s lives. And then they have to go through a migratory process, which causes further disruption. Especially younger children who don’t understand may ask, “Why are we being imprisoned? Why am I in this place? Why is my mom so sad?”  

Then they’re held in detention and deprived of the common human experiences that children need, riding their bikes, playing in the backyard, in the patio, in the backyard or neighborhood with friends, neighbors, walking to school, attending church on Sundays—all of that is taken away from kids when they’re in detention. 

There’s also a constant threat to children’s psychological and physical integrity in detention. What we have learned through our work is that the jailers aren’t always nice to children. There are a lot of good people working in the system trying to do the best they can, but not everyone. There are instances of guards threatening and mistreating children. So, we see the disruption of family routines and rituals and parents—if they’re there—are stripped of their parental authority. 

These conditions mean children are growing up in instability. Once kids have been released from detention or returned to their countries, life stabilizes somewhat but there’s still uncertainty that one day they or their parents are going to go to immigration court and find out their fate: we get to stay, or we have to go. And those backlogs, you all at KIND know better than I do how long it takes.  

As I say in the TED Talk, it doesn’t matter to me whether you’re on the left or on the right, conservative, progressive, liberal. I think we should operate under the principle of compassion and the values that we purport to have in the United States of caring for others. You’re tired, you’re poor, all the wretched of the world comes and we will receive you, you’ll be comforted. To mistreat kids intentionally or by omission, it should not happen. That’s always what’s driven me. It’s not about politics, it’s just about what we should do. Those kids may remain in the United States, they may go back to their countries, but the least we can do is ensure that their health and well-being remains intact.  

We know that your childhood sets up the rest of life. At the very least, we should not be causing pain, stress, and further trauma, but rather facilitating life and development. In some places I’ve said, we should be guardians, not guards. 


Q: Your most recent book Through Icebox and Kennels, published in 2023, is about how immigration tension harms children and families. Could you tell us a bit more about the book and your research for the book? 

Two weeks ago, the book won the 2023 book award from the Society for Social Work and Research! I wrote the book with the idea that I didn’t want it just to go to scholars. I wanted to inform the public. I wrote it in a way that would draw people in and would explain what is going on, to inform people of what’s going on with these children. The book takes us through when I first became engaged with this issue in 2014, the cases I encountered and their impact on me, and how difficult they were. These experiences inspired me to continue the work of advocacy. Most of it involved working with attorneys, and I provided support as a behavioral scientist. The first two chapters are about my encounters.  

The chapters that follow are pictures along the way, how in 2018, the decision to take children away from their parents was reached by Attorney General Sessions and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen. There’s a chapter titled, “I didn’t sign up for this,” which was a quote from an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) supervisor. I told him, “You’re jailing children, mothers.” He called me outside, out of earshot of anybody else, and said to me, “I didn’t sign up for this.” What he meant was he wanted to fight the cartels, the bad guys at the border. He didn’t want to be here imprisoning and overseeing mothers and kids.  

The second part of the book is my analysis of the migration process and the harms done drawn both from my clinical work, our research, and what was reported in the media. The last chapter is my appeal for humanity. There’s a look back at history that this is not the first time that parents and children have sought refuge—it goes back long before any of us were here. You think back to the Jewish families who were sending their children through underground railroads and things like that to get out and find safety. The parents who sent their kids in the Peter Pan flights from Cuba, the Vietnamese families, the Afghan families, the mothers of the Lost Boys of Sudan. This is not the first time. We keep repeating ourselves and I say, we should not be.  

I think we could have avoided where we are today. Had we, instead of building the border walls, if we had invested in those countries, if we had encouraged companies to set roots in Central America… I’ve been in Central America, and people don’t want to leave. People love to stay in their ancestral homes. The lands, they know the food, the culture, the music, the sounds, the sights, the smell of home. They don’t want to leave that. I remember a mother I met telling me, “You know, sir, we didn’t want to leave.” She explained they were middle class for their little town. They had two cars and three boys going to school. They had cattle. They did not want to leave. “But,” she said, “when the gangs began to threaten our boys and our daughters, we had to leave.” I heard that constantly, they did not want to leave. Most people don’t. Had we instead invested in those countries where there’d be protection for those kids, but also jobs for the boys and the girls, we probably wouldn’t be here today. 

The people we see migrating, whether it’s North Africa and the Middle East into Europe or Central Americans into the U.S., they leave because they have to. People are risking their lives to find safety.  


Q: What are you most looking forward to about being on the Leadership Council and being part of the Keeping Kids Safe Campaign? 

Change. I’m looking forward to change, and that’s what inspired me about the first Leadership Council meeting, the possibility that we can change our policies and our practices. We may not be in a position to do a wholesale change of our immigration policies, reform it, but one step at a time we can make change. The first one being to provide legal representation to children and create children’s courts in immigration. I tackle that in my earlier book, Forgotten Citizens, the issue of kids in immigration court. The best interest of the child is not known there. You have to prove it, but it’s not required. I am excited and proud to be part of KIND’s Keeping Kids Safe Campaign, a group that wants to see very focused change in how we handle these cases and treat children, especially unaccompanied children.  

We would all like to sit down and write an entire new immigration system today. It’s not going to happen, but we can change some things and build it brick by brick. For that reason, I’m really eager and enthusiastic about being on the Leadership Council. 

Keeping Kids Safe Campaign

KIND’s Keeping Kids Safe campaign is a 10-year initiative designed to transform outdated laws, shift conversations about child immigration to center child protection, and reform the way the current U.S. immigration system—and subsequently protection systems across the globe—treats children. KIND envisions a future in which unaccompanied children receive the protections they deserve.