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Don't Separate Migrant Children from their Parents

As a medical trainee who works with children and families, I am encouraged by the order to release children who have been held for more than 20 days in the detention centers run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) by July 17, as issued by Judge Dolly M. Gee of the United States District Court for the Central District of California. This order is critical in light of the insufficient measures put in place in detention centers to ensure that children and families are protected against COVID-19. Not only are families in these centers unable to practice the evidence-based social distancing that states and federal government agencies have promoted throughout this pandemic, but they also often lack access to masks, hand washing supplies, and cleaning supplies - basic necessities that are critical in the face of an unprecedented viral pandemic.

While the decision by Judge Gee stating that ICE must work to release the children with “all deliberate speed” is a step in the right direction, either along with their parents or to suitable guardians with the consent of their parents, dire concerns remain that children may be separated from their parents in facilitating this release. Such a policy would ignore the overwhelming evidence of harm from detention and from separating children from their parents, which has been articulated by multiple American medical societies, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, which represents the voice of pediatricians across the U.S. Family separation can cause irreparable harm to children and is an act from which many families may never convalesce. As our government leaders are undoubtedly aware, multiple courts have ruled the practice unconstitutional.

As medical trainees, we are obligated to safeguard the rights of children and share our concern regarding the safe release of children with their families. Releasing children is a positive step, but separating parents from children to facilitate this release will likely cause children and their families irreparable harm, not unlike the Zero Tolerance Policy that separated thousands of children from their parents.

I have had the privilege of treating immigrants and asylum seekers and have witnessed firsthand the serious detriment that the threat of detention poses to the health and well-being of children. I have also had the honor of working alongside immigrant physicians who have stood by their neighbors to provide care to families across the U.S. during the COVID-19 pandemic. While I advocate for all children in this crisis, I recognize that refugee children are disproportionately at risk.

In light of these recent events, I implore the leaders of the Department of Homeland Security and ICE to release children responsibly with their parents or to a suitable guardian in conjunction with the June 26, 2020 ruling by Judge Dolly M. Gee. Children should be released from ICE detention with their parents immediately. Families belong together.

Rebecca Leff is a medical student at Ben Gurion University in Beer Sheva, Israel. She serves on the Physicians for Human Rights National Student Advisory Board’s Advocacy Committee.

Please use this letter as a template by which to send a letter of your own to DHS and ICE leadership.


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