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Families Belong Together: Separation Endangers any Chance for Lifelong Health

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The image of a crying 2-year-old girl whose mother is being searched and detained near the Mexican border in Texas has become an iconic symbol of family separation that far too many have seen on repeat this week.

The gut-wrenching sounds of children crying while being separated from their migrant parents has been cast across the media and directly to our ears through television, computers and our phones and tablets. In one recording, you can audibly hear children gasping for air, as they sob and scream for their parents in Spanish. It broke my heart to hear that. 

The health of a child is critically shaped through the nurturing experience of trusted adults. Young children in particular need a stable, responsive relationship experience with a caring adult from the start. Yet, at this very moment, the future health of those children we have seen and heard the past few days is endangered because of this trauma they are experiencing. As one headline noted, separating children from parents is: “A recipe for toxic stress.”

A couple of days ago, an executive order reversed the policy of separating migrant children from their families. However, there is still no clear process for reuniting families who are already separated. More than 2,300 children have been separated from their parents since May 5. With no clarity on when families will be reunited, it is also unclear how long this type of stress may continue. And more devastating effects may be down the road, as proposed changes to immigration policy for public charges could affect immigrants who are applying for a green card through a family-based petition and unnecessarily disrupt access to health care, food and other things that are essential for keeping health in reach.

Any child who experiences trauma repeatedly or for a prolonged period of time will likely experience toxic stress, which can cause lasting harm to both mental and physical health. That is why the Colorado Health Foundation intentionally focuses on this aspect of early childhood social-emotional development within our organizational strategy. We aim to ensure that young children have the opportunities to develop social-emotional skills and the resiliency they need to live healthy lives. That takes at least one caring adult in their life at every moment – a parent or guardian they trust and know is there for them.

As the leader of a philanthropic organization focused on bringing health in reach for all Coloradans, it is part of our role in the community and in the field of philanthropy to speak out on issues like this that directly impact the health of our most vulnerable.

Every child – no matter where they are born – deserves the opportunity to be cared for at the most vulnerable time of their lives. In Colorado, we know immigrants already living here are facing the same challenges as those in the Border States. According to the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network (RMIAN), the organization has, over the last several weeks, “met with dozens of parents at the Aurora immigration detention center who came to the United States seeking protection, and then were cruelly separated from their children, some as young as five years old.”

At our core, we believe that health is a basic human right and that everyone deserves the opportunity to have what they need to be healthy. The Foundation provides funding to many organizations fighting for the health of immigrant communities in Colorado. In fact, I am proud to share that we have recently donated funds to both RMIAN and the Justice and Mercy Legal Aid Clinic to provide needed legal support to immigrant communities in our state. We also support those communities, alongside others in the philanthropic community, by calling for policies that reflect America’s founding principles and honor the tradition of welcoming those who seek a better life.

But donations and statements can only get us so far. We should have zero-tolerance for children facing the dangers of toxic stress and growing up without the chance to be healthy. This is a moment in time where every form of story matters. We should not turn our eyes and ears away from the reality of the trauma these families are experiencing. They are the truth. In fact, stories in all forms are our most important currency at a time like this. They help us to highlight those who are invisible and ensure anyone being unfairly and inhumanely treated is not forgotten.

The 2-year-old girl crying for her mother in the now famous image… she is from Honduras. According to the photographer, John Moore, she and her mother had been on the road for a month. In a story published by the Washington Post, Moore shared that he accompanied the two for a few moments while they were searched and until they both stepped into a border patrol van and departed. He will never know their fate. But he – and all of us – fear they were separated.*

No matter what it takes, those images, sounds, stories and experiences must remain on the front line of our efforts to ensure that immigrant communities are given a fair, humane opportunity to live better lives.

UPDATE: The Foundation, alongside more than 200 philanthropic organizations across the country, recently signed a joint statement in support of immigrant rights.

*Since the publishing of this blog post, we have learned that the young Honduran girl was not separated from her mother. This update was reported by ABC News and several other media outlets.

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