By Kim Belshé, Executive Director, First 5 LA
In recent weeks, the Trump administration’s new border crossing policy has separated more than 2,000 children from their migrant parents.
Heart-wrenching photographs of small children in cages at federal processing facilities and reports of parents separated from their children at the southern border, including one father from Honduras who killed himself after his wife and son were taken from him, have dominated mainstream news.
At First 5 LA, we believe in staying true to our mission and values, and speaking truth to power. The Trump Administration’s practice of forcibly separating children from their parents is immoral and unacceptable. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Los Angeles, California or McAllen, Texas. We stand firmly against any policy that deliberately causes trauma to children. We stand firmly against any policy that intentionally uses children as political pawns.
As experts in child development, we know that when our government separates children from their parents at the border our government is causing toxic stress — intense, repetitive or prolonged adversity without an adult’s positive intervention. Toxic stress can usually be seen when a child survives a natural disaster or lives in deep poverty, a war zone or a refugee camp. Instead, the disaster these children are facing is entirely man made.
Where children are separated from their parents for a long period of time, they remain on high alert, and their bodies endure prolonged and severe toxic stress as a result. That interrupts the brain’s architecture at a critical time of development.
Experts emphasize that the long-term toll of toxic stress is both physical and mental. Children separated from their parents are more likely to experience behavioral problems, drop out of school, and struggle with substance abuse or be diagnosed with chronic illnesses, such as diabetes or heart disease.
Children currently in detention facilities eventually are placed in a shelter or with a sponsor while they navigate immigration court proceedings. At the same time, they are struggling with multiple levels of separation. The initial trauma of being separated from their parent or guardian is compounded by further trauma of the days, weeks and months without their parent. In the meantime, those children have none of the familiar surroundings of their prior home; many struggle with even being able to communicate in a new language and wonder whether they will ever see their parent again.
While the Trump Administration continues to defend the separation of children and parents at the border, Congress is considering several immigration proposals, some of which address family separation. But it’s not clear how much support the proposals will receive, even in the face of growing public backlash.
Tasked directly by voters to urge leaders and lawmakers to prioritize the wellbeing of children, First 5 LA is deeply concerned and stands alongside child advocacy and human rights organizations. Recently, First 5 LA joined 540 organizations across the country in signing the Renewed Appeal from Experts in Child Welfare, Juvenile Justice and Child Development to Halt the Separation of Children from Parents at the Border letter urging the Secretary of U.S. Department of Homeland Security to abandon current policies and practices that systematically separate immigrant children from their families.
While this version of the border crossing policy has since been rescinded by an Executive Order signed by the President, the effects of this deliberately imposed trauma on children and their families separated at the border may last a lifetime.
Despite this being an ever-evolving situation, our long-term goal as an organization is to provide information and perspective to help decision makers and leading stakeholders make better, more informed decisions. As advocates for kids, we see our role as highlighting the impact every policy has on children.
Newcomers to America push our economy forward with their skills and ideas. We need policies to harness that energy for our nation to help build a stronger economy and a brighter future for kids and adults alike. Our immigration regulations at every level should reflect the deep American belief that people are people, and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.
We will continue to urge leaders and lawmakers to make budget and policy decisions that prioritize young children.