By Dennis Walto
For months, we’ve been anguishing over the separation of immigrant children and their families at the border, but not standing idle. We can’t; more than five hundred children remain separated from their families. That’s why on September 25th, Children’s Health Fund convened a roundtable discussion at the 2018 Concordia Summit in New York. The forum focused on the importance of medical legal partnerships and other collaborative services that address the complex set of needs of children precipitated by the current immigration policy. The gathering was attended by 30 medical providers, lawyers, heads of agencies, parliamentarians, business leaders, social workers and communications specialists – each providing a unique perspective and understanding of both the multitude of issues children face, and their viewpoint on programs that mitigate and address these issues.
Each participant spoke powerfully on the negative consequences of the United States government-sanctioned “zero tolerance” family separation policy that had been put in place over the summer of 2018 and Caryl Stern, President & CEO of UNICEF USA, pointedly noted that until we fix the complex issues behind immigration, such as the violence in their own countries that individuals are fleeing, there will be no end to the immigration crisis.
In fact, Dr. Irwin Redlener, Co-Founder and President Emeritus of Children’s Health Fund, who had just returned from a trip to the Texas border, noted that the policy was put in place to deter parents from fleeing their countries. But when he asked women in a detention center, many of whom had been separated from their children, whether a zero-tolerance policy would have stopped them from making the journey, without hesitation, they replied “no.” The conditions that they are fleeing are so dangerous that the idea of providing a better and safer life for their children overrides the potential risks they may face by crossing into the United States.
Anthony Enríquez, Director of the Unaccompanied Minors Program at Catholic Charities, and Dr. Alan Shapiro, Medical Director and co-founder of Terra Firma, as well as Assistant Clinical Professor in Pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Senior Medical Director for Children’s Health Fund’s New York Program, discussed the program they co-founded called Terra Firma, an innovative medical and legal partnership that helps unaccompanied immigrant children navigate the legal system, provides them with high-quality medical care and involves them in activities to recover from their ordeal. Dr. Shapiro’s work is often essential to the legal case of the clients Mr. Enríquez represents: x-rays showing abuse, or mental health assessments that prove deportation would be detrimental. These medical findings are often the saving grace for children. Besides providing critical services, Terra Firma welcomes child immigrants into communities that they can relate to and surrounds them with individuals who have shared similar experiences.
In the spirit of offering solutions, Mr. Enríquez stressed that there are ways for individuals to get involved with Terra Firma. Specific examples he mentioned are individuals who brought in service animals and people who came to lead courses in nutrition and fitness. In addition, the team at Terra Firma gives children the opportunity to be children again as they involve the kids in varied activities such as soccer leagues, photography classes, and field trips.
All agreed with HBO’s VICE News Tonight Journalist Antonia Hylton, who moderated the roundtable, that our work on this issue is truly in its infancy, especially considering continued threats to the livelihood of immigrants, and that children’s health cannot be used as a tool for immigration enforcement. At the close of the forum, I shared the words of Dr. Martin Luther King who said, “…we may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.” Children’s Health Fund is committed to continuing the conversation until innovative solutions have been identified and implemented, that will, in the words of Save the Children President Carolyn Miles, “Ensure that children are treated like children, first and foremost.”