Influencers wear T-Shirts with the slogan to honor the ongoing struggle for migrant mothers who have been separated from their children at the U.S. and Mexican border.

Phenomenal Mother Campaign
Credit: Lily Glass Photography

May 21, 2019

Another migrant child died in United States Customs and Border Protection custody yesterday after being apprehended crossing the U.S. and Mexico border and held for six days. The sixteen-year-old Guatemalan boy is the sixth immigrant child death in U.S. custody since September 2018.

It's a tragic example of the ongoing humanitarian crisis at the border, an issue that goes in and out of the news as we learn more about the conditions for immigrants in detention from the physical detention centers to family separation.

Several activists are working to keep attention on the families at the border.

Phenomenal Mothers

Pink t-shirts flooded Instagram feeds on Mother’s Day, all reading “Phenomenal Mother.” The shirts were modeled by celebrity moms, activists and maybe a mom in your carpool group. But it’s not a mom-brag. It’s a message to remember the mothers separated from their children at the southern border and to join the fight to reunite these families.

You might have seen the shirts on favorite celeb moms such as Debra Messing, America Ferrera, Connie Britton, Padma Lakshmi, Troian Bellisario, Mayim Bialik and more. All total, more than 65 chimed in.

“I honor all mothers. And this shirt, in particular, is honoring and acknowledging the strong & resilient migrant women who are fighting to keep their families together,” wrote Connie Britton on Instagram. “My heart is with these mothers, children, and families.”

The “Phenomenal Mother” slogan was inspired by Maya Angelou’s Phenomenal Woman poem (along with the entire larger Phenomenal Woman campaign), drawing attention to the families separated at the United States and Mexico border.

“We wanted to renew the conversation around family separation and draw attention to the fact that this crisis is still ongoing,” Phenomenal Woman Action Campaign founder Meena Harris told “There is a continuing humanitarian crisis at the border, there are still countless children that remain separated from their families, there are still children and families who are being held in detention.”

Border Patrol Agents Detain Migrants Near US-Mexico Border
Credit: MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 12: A two-year-old Honduran asylum seeker cries as her mother is searched and detained near the U.S.-Mexico border on June 12, 2018 in McAllen, Texas. The asylum seekers had rafted across the Rio Grande from Mexico and were detained by

The campaign’s goal is to honor the mothers fleeing poverty, gang violence, and domestic abuse “literally carrying their children in their arms across thousands of miles to come here for a better life,” Harris said. The shirts are a homage to these asylum seekers who were separated from their families, “who on Mother's Day and who today and who for the last year have gone to sleep without their kids—and are still trying to fight to get them reunited.”

The proceeds from the shirts benefit Families Belong Together, a joint effort to end family separation by nonprofits such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Women’s Refugee Commission, MomsRising, and Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

Background information on family separations

Thousands of migrant families were separated in 2018 after a new zero-tolerance immigration policy went into effect in the spring. The policy required families illegally crossing the border to be split up and detained in separate facilities. President Donald Trump ended the policy in June 2018, after it was labeled a violation of the rights of the child by the United Nations and a federal judge intervened. As of December 2018, the government had identified 2,737 children who were separated from their parents while the policy was active.

However, there may have been thousands of more family separations dating back to 2017 not counted in the 2018 data. There’s no clear answer on the total number of children separated from parents, but the government filed court documents in April indicating it might take up to two years to identify them, analyzing nearly 50,000 cases.

Migrant Child and Border Control Agent
Credit: John Moore/Getty Images

The long term effects of family separation

That’s potentially two years of a child’s life away from his or her family—and even a short separation could cause lasting damage to a child’s health. Numerous health professional organizations, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, spoke out against separating families.

“Highly stressful experiences, like family separation, can cause irreparable harm, disrupting a child's brain architecture and affecting his or her short- and long-term health,” the AAP published in a 2018 press release. “This type of prolonged exposure to serious stress, known as toxic stress, can carry lifelong consequences for children.”

Julie M. Linton, M.D., FAAP, co-chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Immigrant Health Special Interest Group and a pediatrician in North Carolina, talked to in June 2018 about potential long-term effects.

"They may have changes in their bodily function, which may look like toileting difficulty, bed-wetting or children soiling themselves," Dr. Linton said. "They may have eating problems or sleeping problems, changes in their behavior. They may be anxious or depressed or numb or detached or have exaggerated responses. So, someone drops a pen, and they jump, more than you would expect a typical kid to react. They may have changes in their learning or development, difficulty with memory or organization, or regression with their milestones, so trouble with speech development and language."

The majority of the estimated 2,700 children were released to parents or sponsors, however, there are still children remaining in detention facilities where conditions are reported to be dire. And as of May 2019, six migrant children have died in U.S. custody since September 2018.

It’s an issue that clearly has no end in sight, especially with record numbers of families crossing the U.S.-Mexican border—although families are now legally required to be kept together in detention centers. In the past, some asylum seekers could receive "humanitarian visas" while they awaited an immigration court date, but the Trump administration now requires many asylum seekers remain in detention facilities. As of January 2019, it takes an average of 578 days for an asylum case to be completed. That's a year and a half in a detention center, which could be a prison or a tent city.

Immigrants and supporters demonstrate during a rally in support of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) Immigrants and supporters demonstrate during a rally in support of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program
Credit: PAUL J. RICHARDS/Getty Images

How to help migrant parents & children

If you're moved by everything these migrant families are facing, there are ways you can get involved. You can call your elected representatives, raise money for nonprofits giving supplies or legal advice to immigrants, train to become an official advocate for a child facing deportation, or if you are a doctor or nurse, volunteer at a border health clinic.

Mother and campaign founder Harris recognizes not everyone can take a trip to the Mexican border or start their own fundraiser. But every little bit counts.

“Ordinary people can make an impact no matter how small. It's really about that first step and showing up, whether that means buying a $35 t-shirt and posting online and talking about family separation and detention and using your voice. That matters.”

Harris said the most important thing someone can do is to keep migrant families at the front of people’s minds—sometimes a challenge in our current news-alert filled days. But that’s why she’s encouraging people to keep wearing the shirts and posting and talking about the phenomenal mothers at the border.

“I often have people say, ‘well I'm not a celebrity or I don't even have a following,’” Harris said. “I believe that ordinary people stepping up to do this is actually much more effective within your own community and within your own circle than a celebrity is.”