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Separating Families at U.S. Borders is a Public Health Issue


Over the last year, as a result of a new policy established by top officials in the Trump administration, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has separated at least hundreds—and possibly thousands—of families at the border with Mexico who are seeking asylum in the United States.

According to several news reports, once separated, parents are being denied access to information about what’s happening to their children, many of whom are apparently held in government facilities for days or weeks in sealed enclosures. Some of the children are toddlers, too young to be questioned and too young to understand why they are being taken from their parents. In some cases, U.S. border officials have failed to return children to their families promptly after parents are released.

The administration has defended this new policy with two primary arguments: (1) the parents have broken federal law, and this is what happens to those who break the law; and (2) the policy will deter immigration.

In fact, the administration is separating families who are following procedures to apply for asylum at the border, not having violated any law. Moreover, other families who have been detained after crossing the border are fleeing violence for a safer life and will seek asylum at the first opportunity to do so. These families have not committed a felony and should not be treated as threats to public safety. Further, there is no evidence that the new policy has led to the intended result of substantially reduced immigration at the border.   

The evidence points in a different direction: The administration’s policy is damaging children, their families, their communities and public health.

Our field recognizes the importance of avoiding Adverse Childhood Experiences for the healthy growth and development of children. Trauma early in life contributes to a broad range of serious health outcomes, including social impairment, disease and disability, and early death. The harsh treatment of children at the border will affect their health and their lives for many years to come. The trauma to their parents is also devastating, and the lasting consequences to thousands of families will be profound.  

These family separations violate the most widely ratified of all human rights conventions, the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Last week, the human rights office of the United Nations objected to forced separations at the U.S. border, stating “the use of immigration detention and family separation as a deterrent runs counter to human rights standards and principles,” and “there is nothing normal about detaining children.”  

A number of organizations are working in courtrooms and on the ground to help immigrant children and families and contest other related policies.

We stand with these organizations. There are many in our School and in our field who plan to use evidence and a commitment to human rights to seek an end to the unacceptable practice of separating children from their parents in search of asylum in the United States.


Ellen J. MacKenzie, PhD '79, MSc '75
Bloomberg Distinguished Professor 
Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health  

Joshua M. Sharfstein, MD
Vice Dean for Public Health Practice and Community Engagement
Professor of the Practice, Department of Health Policy and Management
Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

Cynthia Schaffer Minkovitz, MD, MPP 
Chair, Department of Population, Family and Reproductive Health
William H. Gates Sr. Professor
Director, Women's and Children's Health Policy Center
Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

Chris Beyrer, MD, MPH '91
Desmond M. Tutu Professor of Public Health and Human Rights
Department of Epidemiology
Director, Center for Public Health and Human Rights
Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

Paul Spiegel, MD, MPH '96
Professor of the Practice, Department of International Health  
Director, Johns Hopkins Center for Humanitarian Health
Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health


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