Marian Wright EdelmanOp-EdOpinion

MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN: Immigrant Children are Still Children

The Trump administration’s cruel treatment of children and families at the border has not stopped. Children continue to die in the custody of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), including 16-year-old Carlos Gregorio Hernández Vásquez, who died May 20 just hours after being diagnosed with the flu.

Despite the law requiring unaccompanied migrant children to be transferred to the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) within 72 hours, Carlos had been held for more than a week in a processing center in McAllen, Texas, where CBP said “large numbers” of migrants were displaying symptoms of flu-like illness. When staff there diagnosed Carlos with influenza on May 19, instead of being hospitalized or given additional medical treatment he was given Tamiflu and transferred to the Weslaco Border Patrol Station. The next day he was found unresponsive during a welfare check.

Carlos’s family in Guatemala told reporters he loved soccer and played bass and the piano, but had left home alone in hopes he could help support his parents and eight siblings, including a brother with special needs. His death came just days after a Guatemalan 2-year-old detained by CBP died after spending several weeks in a Texas hospital with pneumonia. And that was just three weeks after Juan de León Gutiérrez, another unaccompanied 16-year-old in federal custody who had been detained by Border Patrol, died April 30 at a hospital from a brain infection. At least six children have now died while in federal custody.

Apparently undeterred by these tragic deaths, the administration is taking new steps to deprive the children it is holding in custody of basic necessities. Last week, the administration cut funding for education, recreation and legal aid for migrant children and youth in federal shelters. An estimated 13,200 minors are currently being held in shelters contracted by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). The Children’s Defense Fund recently joined more than 100 other organizations signing on to a letter to the Secretary of HHS and other federal leaders condemning the decision.

As the letter explains, “It is widely recognized in international, federal, and state law that children are unique from adults and should be afforded special protections that support their developmental needs.” That’s why the Flores settlement, the existing agreement that limits the length of time and conditions under which federal officials can detain immigrant children, requires the government to place children in the least restrictive setting that is in the best interest of the child.

It’s also why the services the administration is taking away from these children — including English, math, science and reading classes and outdoor activities such as soccer and basketball — are essential to their development.

These are also children for whom the social connection created through education and recreation is incredibly important. As our letter states: “Many unaccompanied children experienced incredible trauma in their home countries, such as abandonment, sexual or physical abuse, witnessing violent crime, or kidnapping. In some cases, children were also abused or trafficked during their journey to the United States. Recreational, social, and educational enrichment activities — such as playing sports and opportunities for creative expression — are particularly important for children and youth who have experienced trauma, as these activities may help to alleviate stress and foster resiliency. Without them, children may have fewer formal opportunities to connect with each other, establish trusted relationships with caring adults, and productively express their energy and emotions.”

Immigrant children are still children. They are our children. It doesn’t matter how a child came to be in our country — once they are here, in the wealthiest and most powerful nation on earth, it is our duty and our obligation to care for them, support them and give them the opportunity to grow up and thrive. Instead, we are cruelly stripping away their chance to learn, to play and to connect. And in the worst and most unforgivable cases, we are letting them die on our watch.

Even for an administration already known for its cruel treatment of immigrant children this is another heartless and disgraceful step too far. We are better than this.

Edelman is founder and president emerita of Children’s Defense Fund.

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