I know what happens when a child is taken from a loving caregiver and handed to strangers who don’t even speak her language. The terrified screams, the choking tears — the crying herself to sleep, because the enormity of what had just happened was too much to take.
This is exactly what happened when my husband and I went to China to adopt our then-1-year-old daughter. For my husband and me, it was the start of an exciting new chapter of our lives, one in which we went from being a couple to being a family.
For my daughter it was trauma, plain and simple, and not anything she could begin to understand.
It took three days before we knew whether my daughter could walk, because she refused to leave my husband’s arms for a single waking moment. It took more than a year before the pictures we took of her stopped showing a lost, grieving child as often as not.
My daughter was well-cared for before we adopted her. She was safe, well-fed, and genuinely loved by her foster nannies. When those nannies left her, my husband and I were with her 24/7 to guide her and love her through a challenging transition and help her become the resilient, secure, curious, laughter-filled child she is today.
The children being separated from their parents at our border have none of these advantages. Instead of safety, they’ve known hardship, deprivation and fear. They saw violence and endured trauma long before arriving at our border seeking refuge. But until now, they did have their families, who were so fiercely determined to protect them that they risked a perilous journey to come here.
I imagine the many times and ways those children clung to their mamas and papas during that journey, clung to them for comfort, for safety, for survival, as fiercely or more fiercely than my daughter clung to my husband and me.
I try to imagine the moment their parents were ripped away from them. I’m not sure I can. I am sure that moment will echo and re-echo throughout their lives, adding challenges and obstacles to every aspect of their lives. Even if they are reunited with their parents tomorrow, that trauma would remain. With each day of separation it only grows worse.
My daughter gained a forever family and the protection of U.S. citizenship the moment she cleared our border and U.S. customs. I have a picture of her, in my husband’s arms as she was for much of our 14-hour flight home, looking wearily at me from beside a sign that says “Welcome to the USA.”
Young Central Americans are losing a family at our border instead. They’re being handed to officials who may not speak their language and almost certainly don’t have training working with traumatized children. When those officials shuttle them to a place such as the Southwest Key facility here in Tucson, they’re not handed to the dedicated one-on-one caregivers they need, but to a rotating team of staffers responsible for a great many children and with limited time for each of them.
These children are no worse and no less deserving than my daughter was. They’re simply children, and they need to be with their parents. Every moment matters. Lawmakers at every level — and those of us who elected them — need to act immediately to reunite every last separated family and halt future separations.
Thousands of young lives and young futures depend on it.
Janni Simner is a writer, Tucsonan and the granddaughter of immigrants.