Op-Ed: Do Lives of Migrant Children Matter?

I have been disturbed by many stories and images over the past several years  of migrant children being traumatized at our southern border. One story in particular about a boy named Carlos  has haunted me since I first learned of it . Perhaps it is because he was the same age as one of my own children. Perhaps it is because he exemplifies so much of the cruelty, neglect and dehumanizing conditions that many thousands of nameless and faceless children have had endure at our government’s hands. 

I am haunted by 16 year old Carlos Hernandez Vasquez. He died of the flu. He was not surrounded by doctors and nurses whose responsibility- whose sacred duty it would have been to try and save his life. No. Carlos died alone. He died in a customs and border patrol facility cell slumped next to a toilet. The autopsy this past summer showed that he died from complications of the flu including pneumonia and sepsis after spending six days in CBP facilities. He was all by himself when he died. 

His death highlights the need for proper medical oversight and care of immigrant children and families entering the United States. Though in the past one might have assumed that adequate medical care that met humanitarian standards would be provided, that is no longer the case. As such, these standards of care have been written into legislation that now sits buried on the majority leader’s desk.

Carlos’ death highlights the need for strict adherence to the Flores Agreement which among other vital protections for children, limits the time in which a child can be held in a CBP facility to 48 hours. The Flores Agreement has been in place for more than 20 years and contains basic guarantees to the humanitarian needs of children and limits time in CBP and detention facilities known to cause long term damage to the emotional and physical health of children. Yet this administration has been flagrantly ignoring the agreement for quite some time and last week announced that it would be ending the standards outlined in Flores  altogether. If the termination of Flores takes  place,  children will be permitted to be held indefinitely in for-profit, unlicensed facilities with no guaranteed standards of care or oversight and with no access to legal aid. 

Carlos’ death highlights the need for flu vaccination of migrants entering US custody. The influenza vaccine can prevent the flu and its serious complications. Likely due to a combination of factors, migrants held in detention facilities are highly susceptible to the flu. Many are in a weakened state upon arrival to the US having endured a physically harrowing journey and in many cases having escaped emotionally traumatizing situations. This taken with the close quarters and often unsanitary conditions in which we have learned migrants are being held puts migrants and particularly children at high risk of contracting the flu. Three of the seven migrant children that have died this year in US custody succumbed to the flu. This is a much higher rate than flu deaths seen in children in the general U.S. population. Yet last week the administration announced that CBP facilities do not plan on administering flu vaccine to detainees. This decision has disturbed and dismayed health care providers and pediatricians like myself who know that flu vaccine administration is simple and cost effective and would save lives.

That brings me to my final point. All these measures discussed, had they been in place, could have saved Carlos’ life and those of other children in US border patrol facilities. Legislation to provide medical oversight and proper care to detainees; Adherence to child protections in the Flores Agreement;  Administration of the flu vaccine. These measures would save and protect the lives of children yet the administration opposes them all.  So I ask you this: Was Carlos’ life any less valuable because he was a migrant? I ask you this whether you are a Democrat, a Republican, an independent- is the story of Carlos’ death, alone in a cell, slumped next to a toilet less tragic because he was a migrant? Should we care less about a 16-year-old boy’s preventable death because he was a migrant? Should we not care about putting safeguards  in place that will protect children in the future because these children are migrants? 

Americans need to think long and hard about these questions and they must not let their answers be guided by their political party but by their humanity. Americans must understand that their answers to these questions define the soul of our country and will be judged by history for generations to come.

Dr. Eve Krief is Legislative Advocacy Committee Chair, NY Chapter 2 American Academy of Pediatrics, Founder Long Island Inclusive Communities Against Hate,  National Core Team Immigrant Justice Now

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