Analysis Borderlands

VIDEO: How Border Enforcement Hurts Children

Panelists Alfred Montoya, Harry Gunkel, and Rachel Pearson, at Health on Borders discussion in San Antonio, Texas. Screen grab from video. Image: Greg Harman

Hurts may not always be visible, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t intended, panelists say.

Greg Harman

This week, a handful of parents were allowed to fly into the United States from Guatemala City to claim their children. Not that the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement wanted to release their charges after nearly two years separated from their parents. Rather, federal courts ruled that the Trump Administration acted unlawfully in deporting parents without their children and ordered the family reunification.

Arriving in tears, these parents are but a few of 500 estimated who similarly entered the United States seeking asylum but were coerced by immigration officials into abandoning their asylum claim under threat of separation from their children—only to have their children taken and be deported without them. Widely condemned by the international community for the “Zero Tolerance” policy that made family separation an official state program, the administration publicly shifted its policy to illegally turning back all asylum seekers, ordering them to file their claims from outside the United States.

Now it is from the other side of real or imagined boundaries that asylum seekers must wait pending virtually certain rejection, with little opportunity to present their cases, or seek legal representation. Many of these experiences have been documented in painstaking detail by volunteer witnesses reporting back from the tent camps in Matamoros, Mexico, as compiled in our Weekly Witness series.

Last weekend, a panel discussion in San Antonio examined not only the obvious, intended damages of policies like family separation for children’s mental and physical health but also the less visible forms of violence flowing from border-making and border militarization.

Health on Borders: Panel Discussion

Assembled by Jewish Voice for Peace, an organization dedicated to peace in the Middle East and an end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem, this panel suggested numerous parallels between Palestine and South Texas.

While retired doctor Harry Gunkel spoke of the trauma Palestinians face on a daily basis under Israeli occupation, Dr. Rachel Pearson, a pediatrician at University Hospital in San Antonio, spoke of the impact of rising militarization of the US-Mexico border region. In truth, the detrimental health impacts on children cut across the entire immigration system.

“Any time a parent or family member is deported, that action has health effects across the community—both for children who are related to that person, but also for their neighbors, their classmates, everyone they know,” Pearson said.

It’s not only U.S. jails and refugee camps that threaten children’s health. Living under constant fear of deportation can be just as damaging as living with the real risk of life-threatening violence. And children as young as five are not immune, she said. Sometimes the perception of a life-threatening situation is enough to trigger a life-altering trauma response.

“I think for a lot of our immigrant kids, that is what is happening,” she said.

An audience member poses a question about the mental health toll of immigration enforcement on children. Screen grab from video. Image: Greg Harman

Additionally, for fear of being jailed or deported, parents often don’t apply for public assistance programs to help feed their children. They often don’t call police. Or flee domestic violence. Or go to the hospital.

Across the 100-mile border zone known as The Second River, the same civil liberties assumed in the rest of the country don’t always apply. For instance, Pearson said, guards at immigration checkpoints will generally allow emergency vehicles transport immigrants to hospitals without conducting police enforcement. But not always.

In one case she described, border agents stopped the vehicle, conducted a background check, and then followed the vehicle to a Corpus Christi hospital to stand guard outside the patient’s room until they could take the person into custody. Such actions only increase pressures on immigrants to avoid the medical system.

Likewise in occupied Palestine, where checkpoints exist not only in border zones but throughout Palestinian territories, medical emergencies don’t receive humanitarian priority. Emergency crews are turned away if checkpoint guards considers paperwork out of order, Gunkel said. And when checkpoints are closed, they are closed without exception.

“There is no such thing as medical necessity at the checkpoints,” Gunkel said. “It doesn’t matter what your medical situation is.”

So what has the escalating violence against immigrants meant for those in the public health profession? Pearson said it has energized some to fight openly for human rights: “They are saying, ‘We have to advocate for all children, all families, all patients.'”

However, not everyone is moved similarly: “Others are turning in and turning away, saying, ‘This problem is bigger than us. This is political. This isn’t medical. I’m just going to keep my head down and keep going.'”

But with more and more armed immigration agents moving deeper into the health care system, with more children dying and suffering severe trauma, that response can’t work in the long term, she said.

To begin to undo the damage of these policies, people need to be educating each other and policymakers.

As the day’s third panelist, Alfred Montoya of Trinity University, put it: One of our jobs is exposing connections that aren’t readily apparent, such as the seemingly arbitrary way immigration policies are enforced and the effect this has on families and children forced to live in response to extreme unpredictability.

“It does seem the arbitrariness [of enforcement] is actually the point,” Montoya said. “It falls to us to make that point, that very obvious connection of the mechanism that produces these kinds of things and for what purpose.”


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