Justice for Immigrant Children

Dear Senators,

As your concerned constituents, we ask for your commitment to oppose the separation of children from their families during immigration proceedings. Separating children from their parents in border detention is inhumane, and Allied Communities of Tulsa Inspiring Our Neighborhoods (ACTION), an organization of 24 churches and nonprofits working to make Tulsa a better place to live, stands in opposition to this practice that the Trump administration has established as a standard of enforcement.

The administration has stated clearly that it intends to follow a “zero tolerance” policy of separating children from families as a deterrent to immigration.

  • Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that if an unauthorized immigrant brings a child across the United States–Mexico border without documentation, “we will prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you as required by law. If you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle children over our border.”
  • Kirstjen Nielsen, head of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), told a Senate panel that children separated from their parents at the border are transferred to the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) within 48 hours.
  • An HHS facility operated in a former Walmart store near Brownsville, Texas, is holding about 1,500 separated children, and HHS has opened a “tent city” facility that is holding hundreds more in Tornillo, near El Paso. There are reports that HHS is considering opening facilities to hold the children at four military bases in Texas and Arkansas.
  • White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, formerly the Homeland Security secretary, defended the separation practice, saying about the immigrants, “They’re not bad people. They’re coming here for a reason, and I sympathize with the reason. But the laws are the laws,” adding that separating children “… could be a tough deterrent — would be a tough deterrent.”
  • The New Yorker (June 18, 2018) reports that the administration has no plan for reuniting the affected families, compounding the horror.

After a decline in 2017 compared with previous years, border apprehensions have risen sharply in 2018. Many people arriving at the border are fleeing persecution they faced in their Central American home countries. Between October and April, more than 700 children have been separated from their parents as they entered the country, according to Office of Refugee Resettlement data reviewed by The New York Times, and most are from families seeking asylum. There are numerous reports that more than 2,000 additional children have been taken from their parents since. Many children as well as many adults come to the United States unaccompanied by family members. Nonetheless, 40 percent of people seeking entry come with family members, and it is heartless — indeed immoral — to break families apart when means to hold them together in the interest of the children’s welfare are available.

Studies by psychologists, neurologists, pediatricians, and other medical professionals overwhelmingly demonstrate that breaking apart families causes irreparable harm to the children. Parents and other familiar caregivers buffer children from prolonged exposure to stressful situations, and the absence of this protection leaves children susceptible to learning deficits, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder, among other conditions. These conditions are exacerbated by other challenges faced by migrants such as hunger, illness, and physical abuse. Scores of child welfare, juvenile justice, and child-development organizations have petitioned Homeland Security to end separation of children from their families, yet the practice recently was reaffirmed and defended by the administration.

“We have to break up families,” President Trump said. “The Democrats gave us that law, and they don’t want to do anything about it.” The President’s statement about the law is false, and all Senate Democrats and many of your fellow Republicans have expressed opposition to “zero tolerance” as it is unfolding. Will you join them?

There is no law that mandates separation of children from their parents when the complaint is solely attempted entry without documentation. Asylum seekers arriving at a point of entry without paperwork are to be referred for immigration proceedings. Administration statements on enforcement changes should not be allowed to obscure that most immigration offenses are civil and not subject to procedures that include family separation. People arriving at the border, subjecting themselves to inspection and representing their circumstances truthfully, are not committing any crime. Vigilance is needed to ensure that points of entry remain accessible those seeking entry, that these people are not handled as criminals, and that their families are not subjected to improper treatment.

Jaana Juvonen, a developmental psychologist, and Jennifer Silvers, assistant professor of neuroscience, both of UCLA, describe in an article in The Washington Post (May 15, 2018) how the scientifically verified harmful effects of child separation meet both United Nations and U.S. definitions of torture. The U.N. definition, incorporated in federal law, describes torture as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as … punishing him or her for an act he or she or a third person … has committed or is suspected of having committed.”

The separation of children from their migrant families is a local as well as a national issue. During the 2014 surge in child refugees from Central America, HHS temporarily used military bases in Oklahoma as well as in California and Texas to house children. Facilities at several locations across the country are in use for unauthorized immigrant detention now, and in some cases children are housed thousands of miles from where their parents are detained.

ACTION and other congregations and nonprofits in Oklahoma ask that you publicly renounce the practice of separating children from their parents and work with us and your fellow Senators toward ending this legally indefensible and morally reprehensible practice.