Keeping Families and Futures Intact: Action steps for funders

Carolyn Wang Kong

Over the past week, our social media channels and online news outlets have been inundated with images of crying children, some in caged areas, separated from their parents at our country’s southern border. Recent counts from the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement report as many as 11,000 children under the age of 18 taken into custody; 2,300 of those children under the age of 12.

To me, the parent of two young boys, these images are heartbreaking and unbearable to see.

To me, the child of immigrants who risked their lives to flee their unsafe home country, the images are absolutely infuriating.

There’s been a great deal of study on the impacts of toxic stress on us as individuals, and last year, our Foundation supported research from the Kaiser Family Foundation to explore the impacts of toxic stress on the health and well-being of immigrant families and children. Discrimination; “othering;” an ever-present fear that a family member may disappear: these compounding stressors have inflicted a dangerously high level of trauma on immigrant families, and that trauma continues to grow as administrative actions undermine the structures and benefits intended to enable all of us to live our best lives.

At Blue Shield of California Foundation, we have begun to shift our focus to a broader view of what it means to be healthy—and how best to prevent poor health and violence. The constellation of contributing factors that lead to health and well-being—or ill health—has roots far beyond any individual. We’re beginning to understand the role families and communities play in shaping health—and how these factors can influence well-being across generations. The decisions we make today not only impact the present. They shape our future. And in this case, the future is the next generation: our children. We know from our work to break the cycle of domestic violence that children exposed to violence are more likely to grow into adults who experience or inflict violence. Similarly, we know that children with compromised health and poor emotional well-being grow into adults who are considerably more likely to suffer from chronic conditions and poor mental health.

What we see plainly in the images of crying children is their pain, expressed through tears. What we can’t see with the naked eye is the damage being done as a result of removing that child’s source of emotional support, indefinitely. The American Academy of Pediatrics’ public statement on the detention of immigrant children offers detailed insight into the impacts of detention on both children and adults, including posttraumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, and other behavioral problems. In many cases, these symptoms do not disappear upon release, and, in fact, can have long-term physical and behavioral implications. The trauma inflicted upon these children may reverberate throughout their lives long after this crisis passes.

At this week’s Grantmakers in Health conference, a sponsored session entitled “Protecting Immigrant Health through Policy, Advocacy, Research and Direct Service” offered updates on the latest immigration policy activity and action steps for the funder community:

  • Invest in the infrastructure of advocacy networks and coalitions dedicated to protecting immigrants’ rights. In the current immigration enforcement context, wide swaths of the immigrant community are being targeted to lose access to an equally wide array of services and benefits. Newly formed immigrants’ rights networks and coalitions formed by lead organizations, such as the California Immigrant Policy Center (CIPC), need support to strengthen their infrastructure, align priorities, and mobilize quickly, particularly around public comment periods (e.g., for public charge). Though many policies and administrative actions have been introduced, but not yet approved or implemented, the consequences of their chilling effects are already in place, and support will be critical to ensure that families have a clear sense of what services they can access, with what level of risk.
  • Invest in communications support that reframes the narrative on immigrants and resurfaces our aspirational values of inclusion. Proponents of public charge and deportation have sophisticated communication resources, issuing messaging that furthers the narrative of immigrant communities as threats to our economy and well-being. Resources are needed to counter these negative messages with the real stories of immigrant families--stories that remind us of our shared aspirational values and intertwined fates.
  • Convene immigrant serving organizations across sectors to coordinate and work in network. The combined threats to health care access, public benefits, education, and employment, form an insurmountable barricade to well-being. The latest estimates from The National Immigration Law Center (NILC) state that threats to public charge can negatively impact the health and well-being of up to 26 million families across the country. Funders play a unique role in convening and connecting organizations across sectors (faith community, legal services, education, healthcare, social services, etc.) to encourage coordinated efforts to support and advocate for immigrant families, particularly those who may be afraid to seek out services through traditional channels.
  • Coordinate funding to ensure alignment, prevent gaps, and double down where needed. The threats to care, access, and benefits for immigrant communities are broad and will impact all of us, not just those targeted communities. Funders can optimize their grant dollars and resources by funding existing coalitions, such as the Protecting Immigrant Families, Advancing Our Future campaign, which is coordinated nationally by NILC, and Center for Law and Social Policy or statewide “chapters” of the campaign (led in California by CIPC). Funders can also plug in to learning networks to get the latest updates on specific developments impacting the immigrant community and develop collective agendas for action. An example of such a learning network is the newly formed Funder Working Group on Immigrant Well-Being, Belonging and Trauma, convened by Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees.

Additional resources on public charge, children’s mental health and family separation:

CLASP: Protecting Immigrant Families Campaign Resources

National Immigration Law Center: Public Charge: A New Threat to Immigrant Families

California Immigrant Policy Center and The Children’s Partnership: The Effect of Hostile Immigration Policies on Children’s Mental Health

American Academy of Pediatrics: Detention of Immigrant Children

Kaiser Family Foundation Brief: Key Health Implications of Separation of Families at the Border

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