Today’s editorial by Dr. Colleen Kraft, immediate past president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, is yet another reminder of how our nation is at conflict with our beginnings as a nation of immigrants. The account of Dr. Kraft and others who have witnessed first-hand the conditions in detention centers at our southern border, where thousands of women and children are being detained, must compel us to examine our collective core values.
“The system is well beyond capacity, and remains at the breaking point,” Kevin K. McAleenan, commissioner of Customs and Border Protection said in a press conference yesterday. “This is clearly both a border security and a humanitarian crisis.” Indeed, it is a humanitarian crisis at our own doorstep and of our own making.
Dr. Kraft reports that even though officials are saying detainees’ needs are being met, “lurking beneath the surface are clues of the toll detention takes on the families staying there.” Further, “Detention replaces the joys of everyday childhood activities with fear and anxiety” and there is no dispute over how elevated levels of stress impact child development.
Extensive evidence shows the damage that trauma and toxic stress inflict on young children. The Graduate Center for the Study of Early Learning, with generous support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, has brought some of the nation’s leading experts to Mississippi to illuminate this very thing. Dr. Pat Levitt and, most recently, Dr. Bruce Perry, shared their many years of research on how early experiences positively or negatively affect brain development, and ultimately, long-term cognitive and behavioral outcomes. Toxic stress can literally change the architecture of the brain to negatively impact learning as well as mental and physical health. While some of the children being held at the border will not remember the specifics of these experiences, the effects are detrimental and enduring.
After visiting the border detention center Dr. Kraft said, “These women and children are experiencing trauma that will stay with them for a long time, and from which they may never fully recover.”
So why? Why purposefully rip families apart when it seems so contrary to “family values” that many in our nation claim to hold so dearly? The theory behind the detention policy is that fear of being separated from one’s children and of being detained will discourage those are considering coming here and entering illegally. However, according to Chairman McAleenan, the number of immigrants crossing our southern border is at an 11 year high. The policy hasn’t worked, and there is no evidence it will work. So, one could conclude that perceived personal self-interests and desire to maintain majority status are actually much more important to many Americans than “family values”.
The overwhelming majority of people attempting to enter the U.S. through Mexico are families coming from Central America, many who voluntarily surrender to authorities at the border, and are seeking asylum from countries that are ravaged by violence, corruption, criminal gangs, human rights violations, and abject poverty. There is no evidence to support claims that terrorists and drug cartels are invading through the southern border.
We often hear the question, “Why don’t they just get in line and come here legally?” The short answer is, they can’t. First, there is no line; there are multiple steps and many complex hoops to jump through in order to get a “green card” (officially, a “permanent resident card”) and delays are built into the system. If they applied for a green card in their home countries, it would almost certainly be years or decades before legal entry is allowed. As of now, it takes at least 22 years. for a person from Mexico to get a green card, and other Central American countries are similar.
There are millions of immigrants who have lived in the US for decades, held jobs, bought houses, paid taxes, supported their families, sent children to college, and made valuable contributions to their communities. Many have spent thousands of dollars and years trying to find legal pathways to citizenship with no success. In order to gain citizenship, those who entered the country without a green card must return to their home country and face a 3-10 year wait before being allowed back into the U.S.
But these people cannot wait.
Seventy percent of those attempting to cross the southern border now are families and unaccompanied minors seeking asylum from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, where criminal gangs notoriously target children. Honduras is the world’s most dangerous place for children under the age of 19 with a child homicide rate more than 10 times the global average, according to Save the Children’s End of Childhood report. Families face the impossible choice of having their children put in great danger by being part of a gang or being murdered for refusing to join.
After making what must be a difficult decision to leave everything that is familiar and enduring a long, dangerous journey, many arrive at our border sick, dehydrated, exhausted, hungry, and frightened. Adding to the difficulty by further threatening, detaining, and pulling screaming children from their parents’ arms does not promote our nation’s best interest and certainly not the children’s.
It is obvious that the American immigration system is broken and needs to be fixed, and there are no easy answer or quick solutions. It needs to be done in a logical, compassionate, comprehensive manner with sufficient resources dedicated to eliminating the backlog of applications that causes desperate people to attempt to circumvent a hopelessly bureaucratic and backlogged system. But until that happens, children should not be collateral damage in political promise-keeping.
by Dr. Melody Musgrove