Editor’s Note: Sally Goza, MD, FAAP, is the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics. The views expressed in this commentary are their own. View more opinion at CNN.
While there’s still so much we don’t know about Covid-19, some basic truths have emerged at how to slow its spread: social distancing, wearing masks, constant hand-washing, disinfecting shared surfaces, limiting large crowds and spending more time outdoors than inside when with other people.
Children and parents currently languishing in federal immigration detention facilities cannot follow these protocols because they are confined in conditions that exacerbate the potential spread of Covid-19. They sleep in shared sleeping conditions, eat in communal cafeterias, use shared bathrooms, and lack frequent access to hand-washing stations and cleaning supplies. The lack of adequate medical care for children in these facilities has been well-documented. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, physicians reported seeing detained children suffering from skin infections, boils and dehydration.
As of July 27, children are court ordered to be released into safer environments in the community where they can be better protected against Covid-19. The parents of these children, however, are not currently afforded the same protection.
Because a court has not ruled that parents need to be released with their children, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has apparently decided to keep families locked up together in unsafe conditions or ask parents to separate from their children. Neither of these options is acceptable.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve seen this before, when the Trump administration enacted its Zero Tolerance Policy in 2018, forcibly separating immigrant parents from their children at the US southern border in a craven and unsuccessful attempt to deter families from seeking asylum in the United States.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Nothing is preventing ICE from allowing parents to be released with their children into the community right now. ICE has the authority to release parents with their children on humanitarian grounds. With the Covid-19 pandemic raging throughout parts of the country, including detention centers and their surrounding communities, the humanitarian choice would be to release parents with their children. Today.
This is a message we’ve shared with ICE in recent letters, including one signed by numerous medical and mental health provider groups: Forcing parents to separate from their children is harmful – it puts children at lifelong risk for physical and mental health issues. Keeping families detained in ICE facilities puts the health and safety of parents and children at risk, especially during the ongoing pandemic. Neither separating nor detaining families is an acceptable choice, our groups said together.
This is a basic truth – plain and simple; just as we know the basic protocols to follow to slow the spread of Covid-19. The evidence is clear. As a pediatrician, I recognize that both detention and family separation are harmful to children’s health. Children should never be subjected to these practices. Especially not against the backdrop of a global health pandemic.
Most importantly, there is nothing standing in the way of our federal government doing what is right for these families. Children and parents must be released into the communities and they must be released together. The moment to act is right now.