New Immigration Policy Separates Children From Parents

Pediatricians say the policy will cause childhood trauma.

Posted May 31, 2018

A mother from a war-torn Central American country has a tough choice in the face of a new U. S. immigration policy. Should she stay in her country and risk her child being killed in war or should she seek asylum in the United States and risk losing her child to foster care or worse? 

The federal government has adopted a new immigration policy that, in the words of White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, is a "tough deterrent" to refugees seeking asylum in the United States. Children, even babies, are ripped from their parents and put in separate detention facilities. Then, "the children will be taken care of — put into foster care or whatever," Kelly said. The "whatever" is not very reassuring. The Department of Homeland Security so far has no policy to make sure these children are reunited with their parents.

Since October, the government has separated more than 700 children from their parents as they entered the United States, according to Office of Refugee Resettlement data reviewed by the New York Times. most of these families have requested asylum, which is their right under international human rights law. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics has written to the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security — now Kirstjen Nielsen — on at least five occasions opposing the forced separation of parents and children at the border.  So have child welfare, juvenile justice and child development organizations.

President of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Dr. Colleen Kraft, points out that research overwhelmingly demonstrates "the irreparable harm caused by breaking up families. Prolonged exposure to highly stressful situations like being forcibly separated from a parent,  is known as toxic stress." It can cause severe trauma to a child. It can even disrupt a child's brain architecture and affect the child's short- and long-term health.

Childhood trauma or toxic stress can lead to learning deficits and chronic health conditions like depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, obesity, and even heart disease. In the long term, these conditions eat up millions of healthcare dollars. 

There's no doubt that the new immigration policy seems cruel. But is it also illegal under international laws protecting asylum seekers? On Friday, June 1, a San Diego federal court judge will hear from lawyers representing parents whose children have been taken from them. The American Civil Liberties Union will request an injunction to reunite hundreds of families and to stop future separations of children from parents at the border.

Many pediatricians have submitted affidavits to the court, challenging the government's actions and sharing physicians' perspectives on the toll the practice takes on children. Members of Congress, like Representative Ted Lieu of California, have also spoken out about the need to protect children. 

Whatever one's personal views on immigration and asylum, most of us would agree that children are a special group because of their vulnerability. They need to be protected. Usually parents fill this role. If the policy stays in place, it is up to the government to protect the children of asylum seekers from trauma that may have severe consequences to their long term health and well being.