Stop expelling and separating immigrant children and parents during COVID

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The separation of children and families at the border was deemed unconstitutional with an executive order to stop back in June 2018. So why are children still at risk of the government separating them from their parents? 

Earlier this month, two Salvadoran sisters, 8 and 11 years old, came to the U.S. border seeking protection but were sent to Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program. They came back to the U.S. border again and were approved for reunification with their mother in Houston. But Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is currently moving to deport them back to a country where their lives are endangered, and where they have no adult to care for them.

This is despite a federal judge’s ruling last month that the administration has violated the Flores settlement that mandates “safe and sanitary” conditions and to make “prompt and continuous efforts” to release children and reunify families in the U.S. while their immigration cases proceed. The government has turned their attention away from the protection of children at our border over the past few weeks due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Children have traumatic options when they come to our border. They can (1) be quickly expelled to countries with high rates of child trafficking and violence, where they may or may not have an adult to care for them; (2) kept in a U.S. sponsored shelter but then awoken at all hours and flown out of the country without the family being aware; (3) can be separated (even if infants or toddlers) if their parents relinquish custody; or (4) can remain indefinitely detained with their families during the pandemic, despite a ruling that found insufficient measures to protect children and families in detention from COVID-19. 

All of these “options” are abusive to children. As a child/adolescent psychiatrist and humanitarian protection adviser, I’ve worked for over a decade with unaccompanied children and their families. The government is creating an allostatic load of stress that can accumulate and cause irreparable physical and mental health damage to children. 

Alejandro, a 17-year-old boy in the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center told me in an interview prior to the pandemic, “I had to leave El Salvador after a gang kidnapped me. I escaped but they’re after me. I know my father is dead, and don’t know if my brother is alive.

Today I’ve had 14 days of good behavior, so hopefully I’ll move down a level to a different shelter. I saw aunts, family, and friends taking others away from the shelters, but I’m the only one left.” 

These children crossing the border know uncertainty (if they will live through violence), waiting (for sponsorship or the next shelter), and isolation (from support and culture). 

On top of this, children crossing the border are also facing ambiguous loss, unsure if family and friends are alive or safe, cultural bereavement, and the traumatic loss of loved ones.

Studies are overwhelmingly clear on the toxic physical and mental health effects of family separation and detention on child development and health. Forcing detention or separation from parents during a global pandemic only furthers the abuse these children have endured. 

The COVID pandemic presents a public health safety risk, and the President has the power to block foreigners from entering the country to prevent a “serious threat” of worsening the pandemic. But officials are deporting children who were in the U.S. prior to the pandemic. This week, the Trump administration extended indefinitely the policy that allows children to be immediately expelled at the border, though it violates the Trafficking Victims Protection Act and the 1980 Refugee Act. 

Expelling children to violent situations, detaining children with parents in filthy conditions without the capacity for hygiene, or separating children from parents, are not suitable solutions during the COVID-19 crisis. We need to promptly release and reunify children with their families and end family detention. Our society should not be one in which some children and families are more deserving of basic human rights than others. 

Suzan Song, M.D., MPH, Ph.D. is a Harvard- and Stanford trained physician, currently Division Director of Child, Adolescent & Family Psychiatry at George Washington University and a humanitarian protection adviser. She has clinically served unaccompanied children, asylum seekers, and survivors of torture for over a decade.


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