People of principle have stood aghast for the past year as our president and his administration forcibly separated thousands of children from their parents at our country’s southern border. Instead of being cared for as refugees, families have been torn apart to galvanize xenophobia and reinforce the false narrative that our country is being violently overrun by immigrants.
One of the most disturbing things about the child separation system is that after more than a year, we still know so little about what is actually happening to the children. Where are they are being held? Are they being adequately fed, clothed, and housed? Are they being supported by mental health professionals and given access to legal counsel? It is not even clear that the Department of Homeland Security or the Department of Health and Human Services knows the answers to these questions.
What is clear is that the federal government is both unable and unwilling to ensure reasonable oversight and reporting. And in such a vacuum, state governments must intercede. Lawmakers in New York have shown us how this can be done.
After learning that an uncertain number of separated children were taken from the border and whisked all the way to New York, State Senator Brian Benjamin and State Assemblyman Harvey Epstein co-sponsored a bill known as the SCAR Act: the Separation of Children Accountability Reporting Act. The bill was just ratified overwhelmingly in the New York State Senate and is in committee within the New York State Assembly.
The proposal is elegant in its simplicity, requiring state-certified foster care agencies to report the number of separated children who are in their care in an ongoing way, so that we know how many are in our state and who is responsible for their care. If the federal government doesn’t know or won’t tell us, the onus is on states to find out.
The SCAR Act can and should be replicated in other states. If immigrant children are being taken against their will as far away as New York, then countless other states are probably housing them as well. Recent lawsuits and hearings in the House of Representatives have put pressure on the Trump administration to be more transparent. But we still don’t even know how much we don’t know. And when it comes to the well-being of children, not knowing is not an option.
This should not be a partisan issue. We all have an interest in the well-being of children, and it is difficult to imagine the fear and trauma a child endures when they are ripped (often literally) from the arms of their parents, taken away for an indefinite period of time, and held in inhumane conditions.
The Society for Research in Child Development said “The science is clear: policies that separate immigrant families upon entry to the US have devastating and long-term developmental consequences for children and their families.” This trauma will shape the life of each child long after they are reunited with their parents.
As faith leaders, we wholeheartedly support the bill as a first step in responding to the trauma our government is inflicting upon children. Until we know the magnitude of the pain, we can do little to quell the suffering. We cannot stand idly by, no matter where our neighbors’ journeys began.