For the past several weeks, details about the conditions in the migrant detention centers along the southern border have been making national headlines. Many of us have been watching this situation closely since May of 2018 when a zero-tolerance policy for prosecuting every undocumented border crossing was officially enacted. This policy resulted in the separation of over 2,000 children from their parents, and reports of the children's’ treatment drew international criticism. Because of the widespread outcry, this policy was reversed six weeks later, and efforts began to reunite families.
While not at the same scale as during the time of the policy, recent reports suggest that at least 900 children have been separated from their families since the policy was rescinded.
It is difficult to get a clear sense of what is actually happening at the border, but a few first-hand accounts are coming to light:
A law professor who toured a children’s detention facility in Texas says, “what we saw are dirty children who are malnourished, who are being severely neglected. They are being kept in inhumane conditions. They are essentially being warehoused, as many as 300 children in a cell, with almost no adult supervision.”
An official statement from Customs and Border Protection notes that, “U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) leverages our limited resources to provide the best care possible to those in our custody, especially children. As DHS (Department of Homeland Security) and CBP leadership have noted numerous times, our short-term holding facilities were not designed to hold vulnerable populations and we urgently need additional humanitarian funding to manage this crisis.”
Unicef Executive Director Henrietta Fore says, “I am deeply concerned for the well-being of migrant children at the U.S.-Mexico border. Having already faced perilous journeys, some children are now being sheltered at facilities that are not equipped to meet the needs of this vulnerable population...Children should not be in unsafe environments that can cause toxic stress and irreparable harm to their health and development. This is a dire situation requiring urgent action and funding to provide children and families with essential services and support.”
We also have statements from some of the children who have been held in the detention centers:
Regardless of where we individually stand on the United States’ immigration policy, the conditions along the border are traumatizing for children. Further, the U.S. policy of separating children from their families at the border and through ICE raids will have lifelong implications.
When children are separated from their parents, it disrupts one of the most essential bonds in human biology, and one upon which a child’s sense of safety is reliant. Forced and prolonged separation from parents causes damage to the part of the brain that deals with attachment and fear, and causes long-term damage. This damage includes higher rates of depression and anxiety later in life, as well as increased aggression, withdrawal, and developmental difficulties.
A Call to Action
Robert F. Kennedy said, “Every time we turn our heads the other way when we see the law flouted, when we tolerate what we know to be wrong, when we close our eyes and ears to the corrupt because we are too busy or too frightened, when we fail to speak up or speak out, we strike a blow against freedom, decency and justice.”
As a child, I vividly remember learning about the Holocaust. As someone of German lineage, I struggled to understand how my own people could enact such cruelty to others, and how average citizens could turn a blind eye to the injustices taking place in their cities and towns. I felt ashamed to call myself a German and I promised myself that, if called upon, I would fight for justice and equality.
Now is one such time to act. Separating families and housing migrants in inhumane conditions, especially those that have already experienced deep trauma, run against one of our stated values as a country. This value is famously memorialized by Emma Lazarus’ poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty, a part of which reads,
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Far from opening a door and showing kindness to people who have already suffered so much, our current policies are doing further harm. And, let us be clear, this harm is not only being done to the individuals directly impacted by our policies, but also to the reputation of the United States on the world stage and to the soul of our country here at home.
Like with Nazi Germany, I believe that people will look back on this time and study our response to this crisis. As an adult with my own challenges and obligations, I am also starting to understand what may have happened in Germany almost 100 years ago--the nearly constant examples of hatred and cruelty, the deep divisions in our government, and the imbalance of power that is allowing an entitled few to dismantle the rights of so many, can be paralyzing. At a time when White Supremacists are being emboldened, when Women’s and LGBTQ+ rights are being rolled back, and when mass shootings are a way of life, it is easy to question our impact. How many protests can one person attend? How much money can one donate? To which cause should I dedicate my limited energy and resources? Do my voice and actions really make a difference?
Rather than dwelling on what I may not be able to do, I am trying to stay grounded in the agency I do have. This quote, drawn from the Talmud, sums up my sentiments:
“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now. Love mercy now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”
Each one of us must decide how to contribute to this work, and all of our efforts are desperately needed. One simple way is to show more kindness--to ourselves and our loved ones, to strangers we encounter, and even to the telemarketers that disrupt our dinners. Each smile and gentle response chips away at the hatred that surrounds us.
If we have the means and the ability, we can also choose to do more. As someone who has dedicated my life to educating youth, the separation of children from their families is the place I am choosing to focus my attention. Children should not pay the price for our faulty policies and systems.
Since I have a voice and a platform, I plan to use it to the extent that I am able. I am also collaborating with my friends and colleagues to identify further ways that we can speak up and speak out. You can follow this link to learn about ways to get involved.
Perhaps another cause captures your heart and attention. Please consider ways you can support it--either in your own words and actions or as a part of a larger initiative. Do not discount the importance of your contribution. You are needed, just as you are, and in whatever way you feel able. Now is the time to act. Thank you!
Binford, W (2019). “A first-hand report of ‘inhumaine conditions’ at a migrant children’s detention facility,” PBS News Hour. Accessed from the internet on July 14, 2019, https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/a-firsthand-report-of-inhumane-conditions-at-a-migrant-childrens-detention-facility?fbclid=IwAR1ptSdWHqFiJ2NrYCsRIpGdlZyimpMRuqmCMQT0A_3Jgbziz__LkGK2WUY
Burnett, J (2019). “How the Trump administration’s ‘Zero tolerance policy’ changed the immigration debate,” NPR. Accessed from the internet on July 1, 2019 at https://www.npr.org/2019/06/20/734496862/how-the-trump-administrations-zero-tolerance-policy-changed-the-immigration-debaDzung, X et al (2019). “Psychologists and pediatricians know that families belong together: A call to action.” Blog post, Union of Concerned Scientists. Accessed from the internet on July 13, 2019, https://blog.ucsusa.org/science-blogger/psychologists-and-pediatricians-know-that-families-belong-together-a-call-to-action?fbclid=IwAR1GIlTKA9Er08SCtKSX8tFkNLZQE5aSZ-m93caHE4yHehPFvyf8Mp5ecWE
Fore, H. (2019). Press Release, “Migrant children in the U.S.lack protection and services needed to ensure their wellbeing,” Unicef. Accessed from the internet on July 21, 2019, https://www.unicef.org/press-releases/migrant-children-us-lack-protection-and-services-needed-ensure-their-wellbeing.
Jervis, R and Gomez, A (2019). “Trump administration has separated hundreds of children from their migrant parents since 2018,” USA Today. Accessed from the internet on July 13, 2019, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2019/05/02/border-family-separations-trump-administration-border-patrol/3563990002/
Rhodan, M (2018). “Here are the facts about President Trump’s family separation policy,” Time Magazine. Accessed from the internet on July 17, 2019 at https://time.com/5314769/family-separation-policy-donald-trump/.
Sergent, J et al (2019). “Chilling first-hand reports of migrant detention centers highlight smell of ‘urine, feces,’ overcrowded conditions.” USA Today. Accessed from the internet on July 17, 2019, https://www.usatoday.com/in-depth/news/politics/elections/2019/07/16/migrant-detention-centers-described-2019-us-government-accounts/1694638001/
Spagat, E and Galvin, A (2019). “More than 900 children separated from families at U.S.-Mexico border despite judge’s order that the practice be curtailed, ACLU says.” Newspaper article, Chicago Tribune. Access on the internet on August 1, 2019 at: https://www.chicagotribune.com/nation-world/ct-nw-children-separated-mexican-border-20190730-oweu26wvr5eetlgapc6v2sojxu-story.html?fbclid=IwAR2LGsamEE-6xCqCADDSdM623OTt2EUsbm28mccNz_slGpMXxyGWICok9S0
Unnamed chlidren (last updated June 28, 2019). “Statements from kids in detention centers,” Families Belong Together. Accessed from the internet on July 14, 2019, https://www.facebook.com/pg/fams2gether/photos/?tab=album&album_id=2372730559459601
Wan, W (2018). “What separation from parents does to children: ‘The effect is catastrophic.” Washington Post. Accessed from the internet on July 14, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/what-separation-from-parents-does-to-children-the-effect-is-catastrophic/2018/06/18/c00c30ec-732c-11e8-805c-4b67019fcfe4_story.html?fbclid=IwAR0hEEBROtCoZEifCdX0qAcqC-Pj-7WsQvmgSKZN9CG3gBTM6Fu7_-LW4jI&utm_term=.8931e77d4c46