The Trump administration’s forced separation of migrant children from their parents as a way to coerce Congress to agree with its proposed immigration policies is problematic on numerous fronts. Not only is it immoral but it is also damaging for the children involved, resulting in harms that range from toxic stress and abuse, to human rights violations. It has been opposed by most reasonable human beings. Those who have stepped up to speak out include Hollywood celebrities, parents, religious leadersphysiciansteachers, and members of the American Psychological Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics. Even a few politicians have had the decency to publicly state that removing children from their parents is harmful. Despite this, anxious children are being removed from helpless parents whose only sin was their wish to come to America to build a better life for their children. Instead of embracing young immigrants as resources to build a better future, not just for them but for society as a whole, the current policy treats them like criminals.

As the USA child rights policy chair for the International Hope for Children Child Rights Center, I wish to remind readers that there is an international treaty signed by ALL United Nations member countries except for the U.S. that can be relied upon to protect children from border separations. The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) forbids the actions that have separated 2,000 children from their parents and put them into detention-like facilities. This includes:

  • Article 3: “In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration”;
  • Article 5: “States Parties shall respect the responsibilities, rights and duties of parents”;
  • Article 9: “States Parties shall ensure that a child shall not be separated from his or her parents against their will”;
  • Article 16: “No child shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his or her privacy, family, home”;
  • Article 22: “States Parties shall take appropriate measures to ensure that a child who is seeking refugee status or who is considered a refugee . . . shall . . . receive appropriate protection and humanitarian assistance in the enjoyment of applicable rights set forth in the present Convention”; and
  • Article 37: ”States Parties shall ensure that: (a) No child shall be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment . . . (b) No child shall be deprived of his or her liberty unlawfully or arbitrarily. The arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child shall be in conformity with the law and shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time; (c) Every child deprived of liberty shall be treated with humanity and respect for the inherent dignity of the human person, and in a manner which takes into account the needs of persons of his or her age . . . and shall have the right to maintain contact with his or her family through correspondence and visits, and (d) Every child deprived of his or her liberty shall have the right to prompt access to legal and other appropriate assistance, as well as the right to challenge the legality of the deprivation of his or her liberty before a court or other competent, independent and impartial authority, and to a prompt decision on any such action.”

It’s not that politicians don’t know about the importance of this internationally-ratified child rights treaty. They do. In fact, on June 12, 2018, a letter was sent to the U.S. ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, by twenty Congressional leaders demanding that this human rights treaty be submitted to the U.S. Senate for ratification. The Campaign for the U.S. Ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child has been seeking support for Senate ratification since 2002. Congressional leaders simply haven’t regarded children’s rights to be a high priority item. Maybe now they will.

We can help enlighten our leaders, including members of Congress, about the importance of the CRC to safeguard children’s rights to safety, to well-being, and to remain with their families. Public awareness of the CRC is also important. Now that you know about it, the next step is to do something with that knowledge. Writing to government representatives is a good start. Creating laws that support the rights of young people, and then implementing and upholding them, is vital. One of the principal tenets in child rights is to teach young people that they have agency as well as a voice, and that their participation matters. The Parkland, Florida students realized they had the power to initiate a national debate on gun violence. As we see in this short Ted Talk on how to start a social movement, we have to have the courage to take risks in order to achieve change. As adults, we are in leadership positions to help children. We can join together to have one voice and speak out in defense of these confined children who could one day become responsible citizens — or angry rebels. If we want to show that we really care about children’s wellbeing, we need to get off the fence and onto our feet. No crystal ball is needed to see what’s going to happen if this travesty of justice isn’t stopped. With this in mind, only one question remains: what will you do?

Dr. Vissing is Founding Director of the Center of Childhood & Youth Studies and Professor of Health Studies at Salem State University. Author of the Sociology of Children and Youth (University of California Press 2019), she is the US Child Rights Policy Chair for the international Hope for Children Child Rights CRC Policy Center.