A View from Washington, Family Separations as an MCH Issue
August 2018

Amy Haddad
Director of Policy and Government Affairs
Association of Maternal & Child Health Programs

In early June, many of us were shocked to learn that the Trump administration’s new “zero tolerance” immigration policy resulted in the separation of children from their families. As an organization devoted to promoting maternal and child health, AMCHP weighed if and how to take a position on what would normally be an immigration policy issue – and therefore could be considered outside our wheelhouse.

However, AMCHP soon joined the chorus of public health and health provider organizations in urging the administration to reverse the policy and to immediately take steps to reunite families who had been separated. Our statement  highlighted the well-documented “impact of adverse childhood experiences on a variety of physical and emotional health problems that last well into adulthood,” and noted that “separation from their parents is undeniably a traumatic event for these children.”

Bipartisan opposition to the policy of separating families and the conditions under which immigrants and asylum-seekers are being held stood out in a Congress where bipartisan agreement on anything is rare these days. In an effort to take a stand against the situation, members of Congress have visited detention centers, introduced bills, and passed amendments in committee. In July, the House Appropriations Committee passed a slew of amendments to the Labor, Health, and Human Services and Education appropriations bill as well as the Homeland Security appropriations bill, including amendments that: express the view of Congress that families shouldn’t be separated; fund mental health services for children who have been separated from their parents; prevent the forced medication of separated children without a medical assessment, including a trauma assessment; fund health services, alternatives to detention, and family case management services; and prohibit Immigration and Customs Enforcement from using restraints on a pregnant detainee in most circumstances.

However, none of these amendments will go into effect until the underlying bills to which they were attached become law – possibly months from now, if at all. With President Trump recently again stating that he would be willing to shut down the government over a lack of funding for a proposed border wall, it’s probable that issues related to immigration – and specifically the issues related to separating families – would dominate a lot of the discourse around preventing a government shutdown as we near the Sept. 30 deadline for passing funding bills for fiscal year 2019. While I am optimistic that the government will not shut down, we need to be prepared for all possible scenarios.

As the countdown until fiscal year 2019 begins and current government funding expires, part of that preparation is continuing to weigh the role AMCHP will play in any debate or actions on issues related to immigration and family separations. AMCHP’s 2018 Policy Agenda is clear that we will promote policies to address the prevention and mitigation of adverse childhood experiences and toxic stress, and it is primarily through this lens that we will remain engaged where possible.