Doug Kapustin/For The Washington Post
Doug Kapustin/For The Washington Post

While kids around the country have already started the school year, hundreds of children are waking up to yet another day behind bars. These children, many younger than 6-years-old, are being held in prisons simply because they and their mothers attempted to seek protection from extreme violence in their home countries in the Northern Triangle of Central America, where homicide rates are among the highest in the world. While it’s no surprise that they have sought refuge in the United States, a country long recognized as being a leader in welcoming refugees and a place where many already have family ties, it’s hard to comprehend why the federal government continues to treat them like criminals.

Ironically, this week President Obama will be hosting a gathering as part of the UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants to signal the United States’ increased commitment to refugees worldwide. But what about the commitment to asylum-seeking mothers and children right here in our backyard? What about the 6-year-old boy who says he’d rather die than spend another day in detention? Or the 9-year-old girl who was captured on camera, sobbing outside a Berks facility in Berks, Pennsylvania while protesters called for her release? Or the sweet toddler I met in Artesia, New Mexico two years ago, who spent most of her days wiping her mother’s tears?

As happens far too often with debates on immigration, the impact on children often gets overlooked. Even when the subject is immigrant children, it unfortunately seems to get lost that they are indeed children first and foremost, which means that they’re not only in need of the care and protection of responsible adults, but they also deserve to have their best interests considered in decisions that impact upon their well-being.

Child welfare advocates and medical experts, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, have been denouncing the detrimental impact of family detention on children ever since the Administration expanded the practice in the summer of 2014, when the number of families and children entering the United States from Central America first hit record numbers. Research consistently shows that even a short amount of time in detention harms a child’s mental and physical health and can exacerbate conditions in children who have already undergone extreme trauma. Testimonials from medical and mental health experts who have visited these family prisons confirm symptoms of PTSD in children, including weight loss, inability to sleep, and regressive behaviors such as separation anxiety and children chewing on their own hands and arms.

Further evidence that these facilities are inappropriate for children is the recent court decision regarding the 1997 Flores settlement, which established guidelines for the treatment of migrant children, including restrictions on time spent in detention. Just this past July, a 9th Circuit panel of judges upheld a lower court decision that the detention of children—albeit not that of their adult mothers—is indeed a violation of the Flores agreement. Furthermore, the Berks family detention center continues to operate despite having its license revoked by the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services at the beginning of the year. And despite efforts by the Texas Department of Family Protective Services to quietly create a new category of license specifically for family detention centers, this past summer a judge also blocked the licensing of the country’s largest family detention center in Dilley, Texas.

For those of us in the child rights community, it is simply unfathomable to comprehend how the U.S. government can continue to enforce a policy that not only violates both international and domestic law but has been proven to be detrimental to the health and safety of vulnerable children. In every U.S. system that serves children—from the education system to the child welfare system—there is a recognition that policies and practices should be informed by research and seek to achieve the best possible outcomes for the children involved. So why is it that our nation’s leaders continue to allow a lower standard for the treatment of migrant children from Central America? Doesn’t every child deserve the best care our country can provide, regardless of the color of her skin or where she was born or how she came to need our help and protection?

It’s important to note that family detention represents just one of the flawed strategies of the Obama Administration’s failed approach to deter Central American children and families from seeking refuge in the United States. Following the initial height of the crisis in 2014, the U.S. government ramped up other enforcement efforts as well, including collaboration with Mexico to intercept migrants in route to the U.S. and prioritizing the removal of recently arrived border crossers. This tough approach was adopted in an effort to send a clear message to future migrants, and it wasn’t one of welcoming.

While increased enforcement drove numbers down slightly in 2015, recent data shows that the number of children and families expected to arrive from the Northern Triangle this year will be close to 2014 levels. The reason? Because when a child’s life is in danger, a parent will do what instinct tells them to do: send their child away to safety or flee together as a family. No deterrence policy can stop a parent from trying to save their child’s life.

The solutions to the root causes of the Central American refugee crisis are complex, and it will take a long-term effort to address the deep seeds of violence and corruption that are plaguing the Northern Triangle. But many of the short-term solutions are within reach, and they can immediately improve the lives of thousands of children. For example, we can ensure that all children and other vulnerable individuals who enter the U.S. are provided legal representation in their immigration proceedings. We can also ensure that all children, especially those that arrive alone, are provided with the best possible services while in the custody of the federal government and after release to sponsors in the community. The approach should be one of child protection first and foremost, not enforcement.

And we can finally free the children currently locked up in jails that should have never been built in the first place. Because for them, each day that goes by in detention is another day of a precious childhood lost.

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