The Department of Homeland Security said on Friday that almost 2,000 children have been separated from their parents in the first six weeks since the Trump administration enacted its "zero tolerance" policy for immigrants crossing the border without documentation. Medical groups are warning of the mental and physical health risks of separating families.
DHS secretary Kirstjen Nielsen doubled down on the controversial policy on Monday, saying: “This department will no longer stand by as law enforcement is attacked for enforcing laws passed by Congress. We will not apologize.”
There is no law that requires separating children from their families; the Trump administration has chosen to do so as a result of enforcing its policy, announced in April, of criminally prosecuting adults who cross the border illegally, rather than referring them for civil deportation proceedings.
Families are usually allowed to remain together during civil proceedings. But if parents are jailed while awaiting criminal trial, children are separated from their parents because the children aren't being charged with a crime. Some administration officials have cited a court ruling known as the Flores settlement, but that ruling did not require breaking up children from their families. The government has three options under Flores: release families together, pass a law that would allow for family detention, or separate the families.
Local reports allege that some DHS officers tell parents that they're taking their child for a bath, only to never return them. The children are housed in separate shelters run by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) until they can be placed with sponsors or foster families.
These shelters tended to house teenagers who crossed the border alone, but medical experts are worried about young children who are without their families. Colleen Kraft, the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, told NPR that during a recent trip to a shelter in Texas's Rio Grand Valley, she saw a girl who was under 2 having a fit. "Just crying and pounding and having a huge, huge temper tantrum. This child was just screaming, and nobody could help her," Kraft said. "And we know why she was crying. She didn't have her mother. She didn't have her parent who could soothe her and take care of her."
Condemnation of separating families has been swift. Here is a running list of medical groups that have denounced the policy for the mental and physical health risks it poses. We'll update this story as more groups release statements.
American Academy of Pediatrics
"The AAP urges the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice to immediately end the policy of family separation. Separating children from their parents contradicts everything we stand for as pediatricians—protecting and promoting children’s health. We know that family separation causes irreparable harm to children. This type of highly stressful experience can disrupt the building of children's brain architecture. Prolonged exposure to serious stress—known as toxic stress—can lead to lifelong health consequences."
Read the full statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics.
American College of Emergency Physicians
“ACEP recognizes the right of the United States to secure its borders, but as emergency physicians, the practice of separating children and parents suspected of entering the US unlawfully is cruel and will do great harm to the children. These separations will significantly escalate mental and physical health risks for both children and their parents.”
Read the full statement from the American College of Emergency Physicians.
American College of Physicians
"Childhood trauma and adverse childhood experiences create negative health impacts that will last an individual’s entire lifespan. Separating a child from his or her parents triggers a level of stress consistent with trauma. Families seeking refuge in the U.S. already endure emotional and physical stress, and separating family members from each other only serves to dramatically exacerbate that stress."
Read the full statement from the American College of Physicians.
American Medical Association
"Families seeking refuge in the US already endure emotional and physical stress, which is only exacerbated when they are separated from one another. It is well known that childhood trauma and adverse childhood experiences created by inhumane treatment often create negative health impacts that can last an individual's entire lifespan. Therefore, the AMA believes strongly that, in the absence of immediate physical or emotional threats to the child's well-being, migrating children should not be separated from their parents or caregivers."
—letter sent by AMA’s chief executive officer James Madara on June 19 to DHS secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, HHS Secretary Alex Azar, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions
During last week's annual meeting of the American Medical Association, the AMA's House of Delegates voted to adopt a resolution to oppose the practice of separating migrating children from their parents or caregivers at the US border. AMA Board Member Bobby Mukkamala said in a statement: “Children leaving the chaos of their home countries should not be further traumatized by the U.S. government policy of separating children from their caregiver. It’s inhumane and risks scarring children for the rest of their lives.” The full policy has yet to be published online.
American Psychiatric Association
"Any forced separation is highly stressful for children and can cause lifelong trauma, as well as an increased risk of other mental illnesses, such as depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The evidence is clear that this level of trauma also results in serious medical and health consequences for these children and their caregivers. Many families crossing the United States border are fleeing war and violence in their home countries and are already coping with the effects of stress and trauma. These children deserve our protection and should remain with their families as they seek asylum."
Read the full statement from the American Psychiatric Association.
American Psychological Association
"Psychological research shows that immigrants experience unique stressors related to the conditions that led them to flee their home countries in the first place. The longer that children and parents are separated, the greater the reported symptoms of anxiety and depression for the children. Negative outcomes for children include psychological distress, academic difficulties and disruptions in their development."
Read the full statement from the American Psychological Association.
American Public Health Association
"As public health professionals we know that children living without their parents face immediate and long-term health consequences. Risks include the acute mental trauma of separation, the loss of critical health information that only parents would know about their children’s health status, and in the case of breastfeeding children, the significant loss of maternal child bonding essential for normal development. Parents’ health would also be affected by this unjust separation. More alarming is the interruption of these children’s chance at achieving a stable childhood. Decades of public health research have shown that family structure, stability and environment are key social determinants of a child’s and a community’s health."
Read the full statement from the American Public Health Association.
National Academy of Medicine
"We urge the USDepartment of Homeland Security to immediately stop separating migrant children from their families, based on the body of scientific evidence that underscores the potential for lifelong, harmful consequences for these children and based on human rights considerations. Reports from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine contain an extensive body of evidence on the factors that affect the welfare of children – evidence that points to the danger of current immigration enforcement actions that separate children from their parents. Research indicates that these family separations jeopardize the short- and long-term health and well-being of the children involved."
Read the full, joint statement from the National Academies of of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
Advocates stress that elected officials need to hear from people who disapprove of this policy. The ACLU has a script you can use to call your Congressperson. You can also donate to local groups including the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), the largest immigration legal services provider in Texas, and of course, the ACLU.
Update 6/19/18: This post has been updated to include statements from the American Medical Association and the American College of Emergency Physicians.
Update 6/20/18: This post has been updated to include letter to White House officials from the American Medical Association and a statement from the National Academies of of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
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