Migrant parents arrived at an Annunciation House shelter in June 2018 to prepare to be reunited with children who had been taken from them by Border Patrol agents during the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" immigration enforcement efforts. (Robert Moore/El Paso Matters)
By Rep. Mary González

If your child’s pediatrician told you that your actions were “counterproductive and threaten the short- and long-term health” of your child, how would you respond? Like most parents, you would immediately alter your behavior to ensure that your loved one is developing in healthy, safe, and holistic ways. 

The American Academy on Pediatrics told our nation’s leaders that highly stressful experiences, like family separation and child detention can cause irreparable harm by creating toxic stress, disrupting a child’s brain architecture, and affecting both short- and long-term health. Yet, there are still hundreds of children and families in migrant detention facilities across our country, predominantly in Texas. 

State Rep. Mary González

So, if we trust and act on our doctor’s warnings individually why have we been ignoring their collective voice on the issue of family separation at the border for years?  

In 2018, thousands of Americans protested at the horror of family separation under the Trump Administration’s zero tolerance immigration policy. Under this policy, U.S. Customs and Border Protection separated children from their parents or guardians, mostly from South and Central Americ who crossed the border seeking asylum or without documentation. 

The children were then scattered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services among more than 100 Office of Refugee Resettlement shelters across the country. The public soon learned that the policy didn’t include measures to reunite separated families. After public and bipartisan political outrage, on June 20, 2018, President Trump signed an executive order ending the family separation policy.

However, despite the official end of the separation policy, hundreds of children have since been separated from their parents or guardians. The New York Times reported that by July of 2019, 911 additional children had been separated from their families. By December 2019, this number grew to 1,100 separated families. On Jan. 18 of 2020, the Los Angeles Times reported the official count of children separated from their parents was 4,368.  

The harms of family detention and child separation have been magnified during the recent coronavirus pandemic. ICE’s new “binary choice” policy forces parents to choose between agreeing for their child to be released and separated from them or waiving their rights under the Flores Agreement, and staying together in detention indefinitely. 

Described by Judge Dolly Gee of the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles as “hotbeds of contagion,” detention facilities are not adequately protected from the spread of COVID-19. Amnesty International has reported a severe lack of soap, hand sanitizer, and face masks in detention centers with close living quarters, community bathrooms, and insufficient medical services. 

As of Sept. 2, 2020, there have been 5,670 positive cases of COVID-19 in detention facilities out of the total detainee population of 20,302, according to ICE. Furthermore, NPR recently reported that people in Texas ICE detention centers are 15 times more likely than the public to have COVID-19.

As the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, alongside the advocates and resource groups that tackle this issue daily, we continue to fight and advocate for these families and their children. These unjust practices have not ended, and thousands of families are in need of collective awareness and advocacy. 

The continued mass detention of children and the equally abhorrent choice of separating children from their families is child abuse and can even be considered torture, according to Physicians for Human Rights. 

There is a way for our immigration policies to live up to our American values – allow families to utilize humanitarian parole and community alternatives rather than detention. We urge concerned citizens to use their voice and their vote to advocate against family separation and child detention. 

This shameful chapter of United States history is our burden to change and rectify.  

State Rep. Mary González, D-El Paso, is vice chair of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus.

Cover photo: Migrant parents arrived at an Annunciation House shelter in June 2018 to prepare to be reunited with children who had been taken from them by Border Patrol agents during the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration enforcement efforts. (Robert Moore/El Paso Matters)