By Marian Wright Edelman
“Little kids are begging and screaming not to be taken from parents, and they’re hauled off. Parents are telling their older kids, ‘Be brave, be brave.’ It’s as bad as anything I’ve seen in 25-plus years of doing this work.”
–ACLU immigration attorney Lee Gelernt
Once again Americans are at a crossroads struggling to decide who we are and want to be as a nation and whether the current Administration’s policies reflect our values or revolt many of us at our core.
The Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) several times this year has joined what has grown now to 540 national and other organizations in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico with expertise in child development, early childhood, child health, child welfare, and juvenile justice on a letter urging the Trump Administration to abandon its harsh and indefensible abusive child traumatizing order to separate children from their parents upon arrival at or near the U.S. border. In May Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a “zero tolerance” policy that requires prosecuting everyone who crosses the border illegally and separating children from their parents.
Many parents charged with crossing the border illegally (even those seeking asylum as they try to escape threats to their lives in their own countries) are being detained in adult immigration detention centers and/or are being summarily deported. Children are being taken away from their parents, transferred to the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and placed in facilities across the country. HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement assumes responsibility for caring for these traumatized children and finding alternative caregivers. In just two weeks in May 2018 as many as 658 children were separated from their parents. Now we even hear reports that some parents are being deported while their children are being left behind.
As a mother and grandmother I can’t fathom such cruelty. These abusive policies lack any semblance of common and moral decency. CDF and hundreds of organizations must continue to protest this cruelty in every possible manner and have said: “We fear these actions will have significant and long-lasting consequences for the safety, health, development, and well-being of children.” This harsh and cruel snatching and separation of children from parents must stop now!
There is overwhelming evidence children need to be nurtured and cared for by parents to feel and be safe and healthy, and that separating them leads to serious, negative consequences to children’s health and development after they are reunited, disrupting the parent-child relationship and increasing children’s risk of physical and mental illness. Adverse childhood experiences, including a family member’s incarceration, are well-recognized precursors of negative child and mental health outcomes later in life.
The joint letter points out that family unity is a foundational principle of U.S. child welfare law – even if often breached in practice. Parents’ rights to the care and custody of their children are afforded particularly strong protection under the U.S. Constitution. Both state and federal law underscore this principle by providing strong incentives for states to keep children safely with their parents and provide services to families to prevent separation and maintain family unity. And the laws of all 50 states and the District of Columbia require that children not be separated from families without evidence that a specific parent posed a threat to the safety and well-being of his or her child.
Many stories have been reported recently about these tragic parent-child separations. A recent Washington Post article profiled mother Silvana Bermudez who fled El Salvador with her 16-year-old son, 11-year-old daughter, and 3-year-old son after gang members threatened to kill her husband for refusing to help them escape police in his taxi and pulled a gun on her 16-year-old. After traveling 3,000 miles to seek asylum in the U.S. they were separated. The three children took a four-hour bus ride to one shelter where her daughter was physically separated from her brothers and Silvana was sent to a federal detention center in Buffalo, New York. She and her husband, who had fled seeking asylum in the U.S. months earlier, were given no information on the whereabouts of their children. At the shelter, Silvana’s older son kept trying to answer his young brother’s desperate question “where’s Mommy” by telling him she was at work or the store and would be there soon. Silvana’s daughter was put in a room with a 4-year-old girl whom she was asked to help give a bottle and put to sleep: “She was alone,” the 11-year-old told the Post. “Without her mom. Without anyone.”
I can still remember the overwhelming panic I felt the day I became separated from my mother at New York City’s big Abyssinian Baptist Church right before a worship service when I was a young child. In the bustling crowd going up into the balcony, I let go of my mother’s hand and became terrified. Happily I was among friendly people who summoned an usher who took me down to the pulpit where the preacher embraced me and asked the congregation if anyone knew this child. My mother, who had been frantically looking for me, said yes and we were reunited immediately. But I recall my panic and fear from even a short separation and find unimaginable the angst of young children being separated from parents in a strange land for days, weeks and months. Parents and children fleeing fearful threats to their lives need protection and support not cruel separation and punishment. I hope everyone in America will tell the Trump Administration that we are better than this and demand they stop this cruel and inhumane separation of children and parents.
There is an opportunity for everyone to take action right now. Contact your Senators and urge them to support Senator Diane Feinstein’s “Keep Families Together Act” (S. 3036) that 31 of her Senate colleagues joined her in introducing on June 8th. The bill would prohibit an agency at the border from removing a child from a parent or legal guardian solely for the policy goal of deterring individuals from migrating to the United States or of promoting compliance with civil immigration laws. Under this bill to keep families together, removal could occur only if there were actions by a state court or other child welfare official that determined it is in the best interest of a child to be removed and a child is in danger of abuse or neglect or danger to herself or others or is at significant risk of becoming a victim of trafficking. The proposed protections also would require establishing a policy for locating separated children, frequent information for separated families on the well-being of their children, and an annual report that describes basic information for each such separation.
Please – everyone – help stop this evil practice of taking away children from parents in a strange land right now. Every one of us who understands that each of these children entering our country with a parent fleeing violence is a child of God just like every one of our own children and grandchildren should express our outrage at these cruel anti-child/anti-family policies immediately. We must be unafraid to stand up, speak out and protest at every turn to say to this Administration that their child abusive actions do not represent us or our nation’s values and to STOP right now. Politics should not be played on the backs of vulnerable children and parents seeking safety rather than harshness in our nation. We are better than this.