There is no justifying the unrelenting trauma the U.S. government is purposely inflicting on children and parents separated at the southern border as an explicit deterrent to immigration from Central America. It is an unconscionable use of overt cruelty as governmental policy. And many Americans, even ardent Trump supporters I have spoken with, say they find this policy abhorrent.
But compounding the trauma of separation are the conditions for children during the weeks and months of uncertainty that follow it. Children are being subjected to emotional shock treatment at detention centers that the government has set up to warehouse them as they wait for reunification.
Two people below President Donald Trump are directly responsible for this. There is Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who seemed downright gleeful at the press conference in May when he announced the new “zero tolerance” policy that led to virtually every family seeking asylum being subject to separation from their children.
That was terrible enough. But once separated, the care and well-being of children in custody falls entirely under the jurisdiction of U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar. And the management of these children may be the most extreme case of governmental child abuse and neglect in memory.
You could make a good case that Sessions, as well as Azar, should be forced to resign since the AG also has a major role in the development and implementation of grossly inhumane policies. But Sessions’ beat is essentially law enforcement; Azar, on the other hand, literally oversees “health and human services” for the children transferred to the custody of his agencies. For this, he is uniquely culpable.
The psychological—and sometimes physical—trauma experienced by these children has been well reported, though fresh details of sadness and horror continue to trickle out; unbearable glimpses into the Hell our nation has put these kids and their parents through.
There are reports of “cold boxes” many families have to endure based on some perverse theory that freezing cold ambient temperatures could prevent or treat infections. There are regulations imposed in child detention centers that prohibit workers from comforting a sobbing baby or toddler. There are lawsuits detailing the profoundly unethical use of injectable tranquilizers to “control” terrified young children.
The story of what’s happening to the children of asylum seekers from Central America may be of greater moral import than everything else that’s vying for front-page coverage. It’s an issue that may permanently besmirch the perception of America. We are, to be sure, an imperfect country. But we have always been based on core, unshakable values like democracy, freedom, generosity and fairness.
And so, Azar must go.
But that would not be enough on its own. Here’s what else needs to happen now.
First and foremost, we must immediately reunify children who have been deeply traumatized, many destined to suffer lifelong psychological and physical consequences. At the end of last month, U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw ordered that every separated child under the age 5 be reunited with family by July 10; those over five by July 26. The latter date is fast approaching. But of the 103 separated younger children, as of July 12, only 57 were reunited.
Of the remaining 46, some were not returned for legitimate reasons having to with unverifiable claims of parentage or parents with serious criminal histories like child cruelty, smuggling, trafficking and so on. Those are certainly legitimate concerns. But what will be the fate of the children who remain in limbo because of issues, albeit serious, regarding parents or adults who accompanied them across the border? For those children, the trauma continues, unabated.
We need a plan.
Secondly, for the older children—the next wave Judge Sabraw ordered returned—reunification may be an even bigger problem. The deadline looms and the stress and psychological trauma continues with no end in sight.
Maybe, in dribs and drabs, sad-eyed children, many now terrified to a state of numbness, will be headed back to reunite with their parents in the dangerous neighborhoods they fled months ago. The problem is that this process has already taken far too long. The damage has been done. Congressional leadership must appoint a special overseer to monitor the process and assure us that reunification is proceeding with due haste and that policies separating children from parents are ended.
Third, there are new legal strategies being pursued that should be accelerated. Questions are being appropriately raised as to whether Border Patrol or Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents—or the agencies themselves—are subject to prosecution under child abuse laws which exist in every state. Yes, they have a certain degree of immunity, but that protection is not unlimited.
And what about U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) workers assigned to the child detention centers? Multiple reports by eyewitnesses suggest that there has been widespread neglect of children under their care. Those workers should also be prosecuted.
In a surreal statement earlier this month, Secretary Azar said that what the government is doing for immigrant children is “one of the great acts of American generosity and charity.”
This grotesque distortion of reality reflects profound incompetence and a lack of basic compassion. That’s all we need to know to justify calling for his immediate resignation even as we have a moral obligation to do so much more to rectify one of the great tragedies of our American history.
Irwin Redlener is a pediatrician and president emeritus of Children’s Health Fund. He is also a professor at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University and the author of The Future of Us: What the Dreams of Children Mean for 21st Century America.