Op-Ed: Opposition to Family Separation and Indecent Conditions in Children’s Detention Centers

Ann Umemoto, Board Chair of Westchester Children’s Association

What is happening to children at our borders is unacceptable.  A few months ago the news reported that children were being forcibly torn from their families when they crossed the border into our country.  More recently news reports revealed the unsanitary, unsafe conditions at the detention centers, conditions that no child should have to endure. Some children are held for many weeks.

Taking care of the youngest and most vulnerable among us is a humanitarian issue, a moral issue.  It is the responsibility of adults to take care of the young.  If our government is going to confine children as they try to enter our country, our government should provide the children with basic human needs, like food, soap, toothbrush, a bed, diapers for the younger children, and essential life-saving services, like medical care.

Scientific evidence indicates that children suffer long term problems from childhood trauma, like being abruptly taken from the adults they love, like unaccompanied minors being held indefinitely.  The scientific community has decried this treatment of children who are being hurt not just now but quite possibly for their entire lives, harming their physical and their psychological well-being.  Westchester Children’s Association was among the earliest in our county to describe the harmful impact of adverse childhood events (ACEs) on child development and later on adult health.  Out of basic decency, this inhumane treatment should stop.

Of course, the situation is not simple and easy.  If our government insists on separating children from the adults they travel with in order to ensure their safety, then government should complete its investigation quickly and reunite children with their families promptly.  This would be more compassionate than the current practice of separating families, not informing children about the status of their adult companions and not keeping the adults informed about the children in custody.

I feel a special connection to these families.  All four of my grandparents immigrated to this country from Japan in the early part of the twentieth century.  Their children – my parents — were born and raised in this country.  My mother, a US citizen by birth, told me that after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, government agents took her father, just as they took many other Japanese American men, because they suspected them of being spies.  They weren’t.  Her family was separated.  Both my mother’s and father’s families were imprisoned without trials in “internment camps” in the US.  My immigrant grandparents who were denied citizenship, my parents who were born in this country and over 100,000 people of Japanese ancestry were forced to live in these camps.  None of them were ever convicted of any serious acts of espionage or sabotage.

One of the proposed detention centers for migrant children was Fort Still, a former World War II internment camp for Japanese Americans.  Fort Still in Oklahoma was also once used to hold Native Americans.  We shouldn’t let bad episodes of American history be repeated.  Good people shouldn’t stand at the sidelines.

The migrants and refugees coming to our country now are here to escape bad situations in their homelands.  Immigrants are coming here for the same reason my grandparents came to this country. They are trying to enter the “land of the free, home of the brave.”  We can treat them fairly and justly while still protecting our safety and security.  But to achieve that, many of us must have the courage to stand up to protect these vulnerable children and to demonstrate that we are indeed the home of the brave.

Ann Umemoto is a resident of White Plains.  She is also board chair of Westchester Children’s Association.

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