Let’s get back to basic American family values
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As first generation Americans, our families’ stories of immigration are familiar. They came to this country decades apart, from different parts of the world, but with a shared hope for a better life—a better future—for their children.

Phil, the co-founder and President of Families USA, was 5 years old when he fled World War II Paris with his family just two hours ahead of the German Army. His father, a member of the French Army, left for London disguised as a Polish officer to join the new Free French Army. Phil, his sister, and mother headed for safety as successful asylum seekers. After the war, the family was reunited and moved to New York. At age 10, Phil became a U.S. citizen.


When I was 9, my family emigrated to the U.S. from Iran during the “brain drain”—a wave of migration of academics who were escaping a repressive regime that peaked in the late 1980s. My parents came to the U.S. for economic, political, and social reasons, but first and foremost, to provide a better life and more opportunities for my sister, and me.

As immigrants, both my and Phil’s lives have unfolded like the true American Dream. Phil went on to found three high tech companies creating thousands of jobs and the nonprofit, Families USA Foundation. I received my PhD from Yale University in developmental psychology and have spent the last decade advocating for policies that improve the lives of vulnerable children and families. But today our stories would have played out differently. My family would be barred from entering the country because of President TrumpDonald John TrumpA better VA, with mental health services, is essential for America's veterans Pelosi, Nadler tangle on impeachment, contempt vote Trump arrives in Japan to kick off 4-day state visit MORE’s “Muslim ban,” which restricts travel from several majority Muslim countries to the U.S. As for Phil, his family crossed into the country without proper documents, and so he too, would not have been allowed into the U.S. Today, our families would face an immigration system bent on excluding non-white immigrants and hostile to asylum seekers.

Our journeys did not involve crossing dangerous terrain, walking for days, or risking our lives to land at a border that would tear our families apart. Yet, this is the story of thousands of families who have -- since May 6 when the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy went into effect -- arrived at the U.S. border to exercise their legal right to seek asylum only to have their children taken from them.

Let’s be clear, family separation—even for short periods of time—is distressing, traumatic, and damaging to the health and wellbeing of children. The trauma children experience when they are removed from their parents can have significant and life-long effects, particularly for young children.

Although President Trump issued an Executive Order to end the administration’s practice of family separation on June 20, the order failed to outline a plan for how it would reunify the nearly 3,000 children who have been separated from their parents. To date, more than 570 children remain in federal custody, and in an alarming number of cases, some have been deemed ineligible for reunification by the Trump administration. For others, the administration cannot find records, which may have been destroyed. Many families have been separated now for months, deepening the traumatic experience. And, for those reuniting, the transition has been difficult.

Every decision this administration makes when it comes to these immigrant families has real and lasting consequences. This is a critical time to take stock of what we know, much of it from decades of research and experience in the child welfare system that should guide this administration’s approach, starting with the most basic of lessons learned in working with families—children do best when they are raised by their families and in their communities, as long as they are safe.

Separating children from their parents and placing them in federal custody represents a return to the long-discredited practice of forcibly institutionalizing children with devastating consequences for their immediate and long-term health and wellbeing. In the child welfare system, over the past decade, the percentage of children placed in “group home” settings has significantly decreased, reflecting a growing consensus within the field that restrictive institutional settings for children should be used sparingly, for short periods of time, and only when absolutely necessary because children in congregate care experience poorer outcomes than those in family-based settings.

Our nation’s leaders, indeed all of us who can, have a responsibility to ensure that the families who have been separated are immediately reunited. And, that is just the first step. The families who have suffered under this policy need access to resources and services to help mitigate the physical and psychological impacts of being separated, including access to evidence-informed treatment to address trauma. Families seeking asylum also need assistance in navigating often lengthy, resource-intensive, and difficult legal proceedings—toddlers cannot represent themselves in court.

At the highest levels of our government, people charged with protecting children and ensuring their health and wellbeing have abdicated that responsibility. From decades of experience in the child welfare field, we know what needs to happen. Children need to be with their families. This administration forcibly separated families and now must be held accountable to reunite them quickly and take immediate action to provide the full range of supports and services families need once they are reunited. The administration created this problem and it has the resources to fix it. It’s as simple as that.

Shadi Houshyar, PhD, is director of Early Childhood and Child Welfare Initiatives at Families USA Foundation and Phil Villers is president of Families USA Foundation.