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Keeping children with families isn’t a partisan issue, it’s a human rights issue

Protesters rally against the practice of separating children

Protesters rally against the practice of separating children from their parents and families being kept at the Broward Detention Center in Pompano Beach, Fla., Thursday. Credit: South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP / Carline Jean

When I was 7, gunmen shot at my father’s car as he frantically tried to drive away.

When I was 12, a masked robber pointed a rifle at my head inside my favorite restaurant, while other robbers aimed rifles at my family as my parents handed over our valuables.

When I was 16, my mother’s friend was kidnapped while running errands. (So many kidnappings in my life: my grandfather, my high school classmate, my principal’s husband - he didn’t survive.)

These are just some of my stories. Like many other Hondurans, I could tell you many more, though my family was among the lucky ones. We didn’t live in a neighborhood driven by gang violence or in a town run by drug cartels.

And I didn’t stay. The right combination of money, education and connections got me a visa and the right to come to the United States legally. I am 31 now, a pediatrician trained in public health.

The Hondurans and other migrants coming in to the United States through the southern border today do not have these privileges. They are desperate to escape from a place with no hope, and the chance they could migrate here legally is near impossible. But instead of helping, the United States government is punishing them even more by separating them from their children, choosing to prosecute them for their illegal crossing, rather than determine whether they merit asylum.

It is easy to label these people “criminals.” It is easy to say that we are enforcing the law and they are lawbreakers. The nameless, faceless and voiceless are easy to punish. What do you say to the traveler who had a brother murdered or a daughter raped? What do say to them now that they are the parent of a toddler they have tried to protect by traveling across the vastness of Central America to seek a better life in the United States, only to have that child taken away while they are hauled off to a federal prison?

Right now, immigration policy is not the issue. Our collective humanity is at stake. The Department of Homeland Security is punishing people by separating children from their parents upon arrival at the border. Homeland Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen has and continues to endorse and justify this cruel policy. Even if reasonable people think that we should detain families for crossing the border, why can’t we agree that separating families by taking away their children to be held separately is inhumane and a violation of their fundamental human rights? Especially when there appears to be no mechanism in place to reunite the families once the parents are processed.

The government has justified it by saying that “something must be done.” The American Academy of Pediatrics has warned that this policy is causing toxic stress to children and urges the administration to immediately end this policy. The Vatican has spoken out as well. My home institution of public health experts wrote a strong letter to the administration highlighting it as a major public health issue.

As a pediatrician I have a sacred duty to protect children from abuse. This policy of separating children from their parents is child abuse that will damage not just one child but an entire generation of children. Providing them food, water and a television does not make it any less abusive. As an immigrant from Honduras, I know their fears and their stories all too well. As a mother, I must speak up for those that cannot.

So please, I urge you: Call your senators, join rallies, speak out. The administration has the power to end this policy without Congress having to act. But if they won’t, supporting Democratic California Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s bill, the “Keep Families Together Act,” is a start. The bill, which has the support of every Senate Democrat, would outlaw family separation at the border except in instances where there’s evidence that the child is being trafficked or abused.

This is not a partisan issue, it is a human rights issue.

Dr. Maria E. Rivera is a pediatrician and preventive medicine physician at Johns Hopkins University. These are her views and may not necessarily represent the views of her institution.