Voices of Alaska: Children’s safety is not an acceptable price for border security

The Department of Homeland Security removed more than 2,000 children from their families in a matter of weeks. As mothers and grandmothers who have dedicated years of our careers to the welfare of children, we are horrified.

Heartbreaking photographs and audio recordings offer a glimpse of the tragedy. But we know that the bigger tragedy is impossible to photograph: the trauma inflicted by breaking up families that will follow these children for the rest of their lives.

Trauma wreaks havoc on a child’s brain, which is malleable and highly responsive to their environment. When surrounded by love and support, children learn to open up, explore, connect with others, and experience joy. Trauma physiologically rewires young brains to be on constant alert for danger instead. The consequences can last a lifetime. An overwhelming body of evidence links childhood trauma to negative outcomes later in life: poor physical and mental health, drug and alcohol abuse, violent and criminal behavior, and domestic violence. In this way, trauma gets passed on to the next generation.

We know this story all too well in Alaska. From the 1930s through the 1970s, the U.S. government took thousands of Alaska Native children from their families, loaded them onto boats, planes, and dogsleds, and sent them to state boarding schools, with the intention of erasing their cultural identity and their connections to home. These Alaskans, including Toni and Byron, now look south and recognize the fear in these children’s voices. Wounds that never fully healed are re-opening.

Alaska is now doing hard, necessary work. We are publicly recognizing how these backward policies damaged generations of families, and we are standing up for our children. From revitalizing native languages, to providing equal education for rural and urban students, to ensuring all kids have access to medical care, we are slowly turning the page. We are hopeful about the next chapter for Alaska’s children.

Knowing our history, we cannot ignore what has happened on our southern border. As the President signs an Executive Order, we continue to urge the administration to do everything in their power to rapidly reunite families and put a stop to the separation of children.

The vital work of securing our borders can, and must, be accomplished without systematically tearing apart families. It is pointless to defend our borders if we give up on the values they are supposed to protect. Our nation is not perfect, but we pride ourselves on a few things: justice, and the right to pursue a better future for one’s children.

If we become a country that embraces the mass-removal of children from families as an acceptable strategy for border security, surely we have lost more than we have gained. We, as a nation, are better than that. As leaders in Washington consider long term immigration solutions, we urge them to learn from our history, and not repeat it.

Attorney and child welfare advocate Donna Walker is married to Alaska Governor Bill Walker. A retired elementary school teacher of 20 years, Toni Mallott is married to Alaska Lieutenant Governor Byron Mallott.

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