Why we must protect immigrant children

I am an American citizen who comes from a family of immigrants from West Africa, so I have a vested interest in the issue of immigration and families. My father came to the U.S. on a student visa and scholarship as a Ph.D. candidate at Florida State University in 1980—one example that immigrants are capable of greatness.

I have worked with international NGOs and the government of Sierra Leone, West Africa, as well as leading an HIV prevention program in Harlem, N.Y. I am a master’s of Public Health candidate in the CUNY graduate school of Public Health and a mother raising up two Black children in the community of Central Harlem. My deepest passion is in supporting adolescents, women and young adults and their families in becoming fully engaged in their health and well-being.

For children to succeed, they need to develop a sense of safety, and if events disrupt this sense of safety, children will not be trusting of their environment and will form insecure attachments. Dr. Nadine Burke, a pediatrician, discussed the “Adverse Childhood Experiences” study during a TED Talk. Burke explained how toxic stress and childhood trauma impair social, cognitive and emotional development and how those impairments have detrimental effects on physical and mental health across the life span. Studies have shown that children who are separated from their families after migration develop depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety.

Imagine after the long, grueling journey of travel in unsafe conditions with your family, you arrive to the port of entry and are approached by government officials. You are told, “Your children are being taken away briefly for questioning,” in a language you do not understand. According to statistics provided by Customs and Border Protection to Congress, 658 children were split from 638 adults who were put into the “prosecution process” from May 7, 2018, to May 21, 2018. News reports depict children crying themselves to sleep because they don’t know where their parents are. One Honduran man killed himself in a detention cell after his child was taken from him. Upon being separated (more like ripped apart) from their parents, children are officially designated “unaccompanied alien children” by the U.S. government—a misleading category that typically describes people under the age of 18 who come to the U.S. without an adult relative arriving with them.

Child welfare experts such as pediatricians have argued that the Trump administration’s policy of separating children from parents can have harmful, long-term health and emotional consequences for children. Furthermore, these children live in fear, have trouble concentrating and learning and exhibit behavioral problems. If left untreated, the psychological trauma could result in early death. Ultimately, we need to keep families together and reunite those torn apart immediately to prevent this trauma.

Sincerely,

Leeann Rizk

Concerned Harlemite, mother, scholar, advocate and educator