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Immigrant children are… children.
That’s an important point that can easily be lost in the discussions about what our country should do with immigrants and refugees. In the past few months those discussions have grown more heated, with new executive orders, discussions of a border wall, and rhetoric about the danger of letting people into the United States.
In fiscal year 2016, 59, 692 unaccompanied children and 77, 676 individuals in family units were apprehended at the border. These are not drug dealers or terrorists; they are people looking for a better life. It’s important to remember that children don’t immigrate, they flee; they come from poverty or violence, or both.
And as children, they deserve care and compassion. Their needs are different from the needs of adults — and they cannot care for themselves. Not only that, there is extensive research that shows that toxic stress in childhood can harm the developing brain and developing body, and lead to not just short-term but long-term physical and mental health problems. What we do, what we let happen, can literally last a lifetime.
That’s why the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has released a policy statement entitled “Detention of Immigrant Children.” It is one of several statements the organization has made regarding the health and well-being of immigrant children in response to recent events, including President Trump’s executive orders on immigration and news reports that the Trump administration is considering separating mothers and children at the border.
Here are the key points of this new statement:
- Children should never be separated from their parents or caregiver. This causes significant stress for children. Not only is the separation itself stressful, but families also serve to buffer children from further stress. Families may be separated in detention or processing centers, especially if there are male family members; only one family detention center accepts men, and the processing centers where families arrive first are segregated by gender.
- Children should never be placed in detention centers. Detention itself is frightening and damaging to children, and the conditions in detention centers are very poor. Children do best in community settings, with their families. This is why the AAP recommends that immigrant children and their families be released to community settings.
- All children in the United States should have access to health care, education, and other essential services. This, says the AAP, should be true no matter where a child or their parents were born. Along with access to doctors, this means that immigrant children need access to health insurance.
We all want America to be great. But as we strive for greatness, it’s important to remember the words of Mahatma Gandhi: “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.”