About four years ago my friend Allen, an internal medicine doctor in New York who runs the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture, called me because he needed a pediatrician to go with him and a small group of advocates to visit Artesia, N.M.
I asked, "Why Artesia?"
He told me there was a military training center that had hurriedly been converted into a holding area for family units fleeing Central America who had been apprehended at the border and were being transported to facilities like these for processing. A small group of us was allowed to tour the facility, talk to staff and interview mothers who were there with their young children.
It was the middle of the desert in the summer. They referred to the way stations where they were processed after detention as las hieleras (the iceboxes). As terrible as I thought the situation was then--holding women and children, spotty legal representation, the randomness of deportation--what has been happening right now--U.S. government officials separating young children from their parents--is unimaginable brutality. Torture, when it comes right down to it.
Hundreds of thousands of Central Americans have arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border in the past 10 years alone, fleeing violence, corruption and poverty in their home countries. How bad would it have to get for you to navigate up to 1,500 miles to leave home? We talked to women who had watched family members murdered, been threatened with kidnapping or other acts of violence, and just had to go.
Under the previous administration, when accompanied or unaccompanied minors arrived at the border, mother-child units went to places like Artesia or were allowed to reunite with family members in the U.S., and older children were sent to different facilities until they could be united with family in the U.S. The trauma experienced by these women and minors in their home countries and during the trek to the U.S. was bad enough, but once here our government made an effort to keep families together. Not anymore.
Over the last few years, I have been on the receiving end of many of these children who relocated with family to Arkansas after arriving at the border. As a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics, I was proud of our national leadership's efforts to improve this situation, and I am proud to have stood with our 66,000 members across the country to call for an immediate stop both to the separation of young children from their parents and the placement of these children in so-called tender age shelters.
These shelters are prisons. We know that the impact of this trauma on the brains of the infants and toddlers you've seen on television and on your news feed will last a lifetime. The fact that our government enacted this policy to single-handedly endanger the health and well-being of innocent children is inhumane. The research on the development of the brain has never been clearer: Toxic stress that is inflicted in the first 1,000 days of life has far-reaching effects on development, learning, behavior and development of disease.
I have had the privilege of caring for children from immigrant families for my entire career. I am the grandson of Mexican immigrants.
I know that immigration is a deeply divisive issue that has proven almost impossible to solve. It will not be solved by forcibly taking kids from their parents and locking them up behind fences. America is better than this. Pick up the phone, write a letter, tell your members of Congress to do all they can to make it stop. Now.
Eduardo Ochoa, MD, FAAP, is an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and practices pediatrics at Arkansas Children's Hospital, and is a past president of the Arkansas Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Editorial on 06/22/2018
Print Headline: Better than this