Two years ago, we watched in horror as our employer separated children from their parents as part of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy. We pulled the fire alarm: two of us told Congress that forced separation and child detention significantly threatened children’s health and safety. The over 2,000 traumatized children separated from their families face a lifetime of increased risk for significant health issues like anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder —despite the administration’s discontinuance of the policy.
Now, during the largest public health crisis of the new millennium, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is posed to enact family separation once again.
We are medical experts for the Department of Homeland Security contracted by the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties to ensure immigration detention facilities are providing adequate medical and mental health care. We cannot remain silent as ICE considers compounding our current crisis by harming immigrant children. Children must be released from detention, and they must be released with their parents.
Why is ICE reverting to family separation
A federal judge recently ordered the release of children from three family residential centers, citing the imminent danger of COVID-19 exposure if they were to remain in detention, and another judge asked ICE to release these children’s parents. ICE wants to release the children but keep their parents in detention. To us, physicians and DHS whistleblowers who have warned not only about the physical and psychological harm to children in detention but also about the severe health threats to immigrants posed by the rapid spread of COVID-19 in detention, this reflects the knowing infliction of harm on children and families.
When we raised the alarm two years ago, we warned Congress and the public about the foreseeable harm detention causes to migrant children — many of whom had suffered the trauma of forced separation — and how that harm was imminent in light of systemic weaknesses in ICE’s ability to provide adequate medical and mental health care. Earlier this year, we warned DHS in February and Congress in March about the severe health threats to immigrants, workers and the public posed by the rapid spread of COVID-19 through the congregate setting of detention facilities. To mitigate both of these problems, we consistently advocated risk-based population reduction: the release of immigrant detainees.
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Rather than heed these warnings and recommendations, echoed overwhelmingly by the medical community, the government instead ignored the advice of its own experts and failed to release most of the nearly 30,000 immigrants from detention facilities around the country. Worse, ICE is now trying to repeat its shameful sin of the past — separating children from their families — and exacerbate the trauma to families in detention who know they are unable to protect themselves from a deadly, rapidly spreading pandemic.
COVID-19 should not be an excuse for family separation
This virus is both deadly and rapidly spreading, especially in congregate settings like immigration detention facilities. But using the threat of COVID-19 as an excuse to separate young children from their parents is indefensible on moral, ethical and medical grounds because ICE has always had the discretion to release families into the community. If ICE even attempts to separate children, it will be nothing less than state-sponsored child abuse. Adverse medical and mental health consequences will predictably ensue.
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While the COVID-19 epidemic has changed everything, one thing remains the same: The detention of families with minor children is unjustifiable. Children do not belong in locked detention facilities because of the documented and unavoidable medical and psychological risks. The pandemic has exponentially increased the dangers and risks associated with this detention policy. COVID-19 has already caused outbreaks and deaths in a number of congregate detention settings. In the face of threats to health and life, families who present no threat to the community should be released from detention. There is no legitimate argument to justify placing families at further risk of harm. This unimaginable — and intentional — cruelty must stop. It’s well past time to end the detention of immigrant families. Another round of family separation is not the answer. Release all children with their parents.
Scott Allen is professor of medicine emeritus at the University of California at Riverside. Pamela McPherson is a child and adolescent psychiatry specialist in Shreveport, Louisiana. Josiah Rich is professor of medicine and epidemiology at Brown University. All are whistleblowers, contracted by DHS as subject medical experts, represented by the Government Accountability Project. The opinions expressed are their own and do not reflect those of the U.S. government.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Family separation at the border is unacceptable, even during COVID times