For all the Gabrielas, keep children, parents together, writes Duke pediatrician

Gabriela M. Maradiaga Panayotti, MD
Gabriela M. Maradiaga Panayotti, MD

Gabriela Hernandez is a Honduran immigrant who was profiled on CNN as she made her way to the United States border with a large “caravan” of people trekking across Mexico. The story struck home.

My name is Gabriela, and I am also a Honduran immigrant who came to the U.S. in 1997 seeking educational opportunities and refuge from the violence and crime that permeated daily life in Honduras.

After watching the CNN report, I wondered what could I possibly say to my Honduran sister as she fights for her life and the survival of her children? How can I prepare her for the possibility that after her horrific journey, she might have her children taken away from her?

I feel nauseous every time I hear our fellow brothers and sisters portrayed as hardened criminals, and even worse, that this designation is being used to forcibly remove children from their parents. Remove children from their parents. If you’ve ever felt the pangs of leaving your child at daycare when you go to work, can you even imagine what it’s like to have your child taken away from you without any assurance you will ever see her again?

According to Customs and Border Patrol, more than 650 children have been separated from their families at the border in recent weeks. The American Academy of Pediatrics has joined more than 500 national and state organizations in a letter to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) demanding they immediately end the practice of separating families. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein has introduced the Keep Families Together Act to prevent DHS from taking children away from their families at the border.

This is not mindless hysteria: the research on the effects of prolonged levels of stress, also known as “toxic stress,” on the developing brain tells us that the negative consequences are very real. These children are at higher risk for developmental delays, substance abuse, depression and heart disease. Of course, a history book could have told us that.

I have many Gabrielas who come to my pediatric clinic in Durham. As a group, these women are some of the most reliable and adherent patients I see.

One is my age, can barely read or write, but faithfully suctions out the tracheostomy tube (that connects her daughters’ lungs to the oxygen outside) and manages the pump that sends high-calorie milk through a tube directly into her daughter’s stomach.

One is now a teenager, valedictorian of her high school, who might have become another Gabriela if she had remained in her home country.

I recall one particular Gabriela; we met soon after she gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. Like Gabriela Hernandez, she had also made the dangerous journey from Central America while pregnant, and with two little boys in tow. She had little support in this country, and even less money. One day she missed the bus to the clinic, so she walked — for an hour — with three young children, to make sure her little girl got her checkup. I was floored.

If that’s not grit and perseverance, American or otherwise, I don’t know what is.

These women are not a threat. To separate them from their children is not only an unnecessary precaution, it’s impractical, illogical and immoral.

How will these children remember their first encounter with bearers of the Stars and Stripes? Are we creating an army of future enemies?

Please contact your representatives and urge them to pass legislation to immediately end the separation of children and families at the border.

Dr. Gabriela Maradiaga Panayotti is an assistant professor of pediatrics at Duke Children’s Hospital.

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