Rep. Lauren Underwood, a freshman Democrat from Illinois, was in the spotlight for her incisive questioning of Nielsen about the psychological and physical trauma children experience when they are separated from their families.
When Underwood asked Nielsen if she knew that being apart from their parents can cause a child to experience "toxic stress," Nielsen responded that she only knew about the psychological harm that the journey north from Central America could inflict. Nielsen said she was not familiar with the term "toxic stress," and, throughout the hearing, blamed the parents for not going through official ports of entry — where people are being increasingly turned away.
"From what I’ve heard today, I’m not sure if DHS was so negligent that they didn’t know how traumatic family separation was for children, or if they knew and did it anyway," Underwood concluded in the hearing. "But in my opinion, both are unacceptable. Tearing kids and their parents apart like this is immoral, ma'am, it's un-American, and it's just plain wrong."
The effects of separating families are well-documented. A slew of major medical groups have denounced the practice, citing serious emotional and physical impact on children, both immediate and long-term. Underwood pointed out that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) had written to DHS six times to explain how family separation hurts children, and has made a number of public statements. According to the AAP, children could suffer from "irreparable" psychological harm as a result of being ripped from their parents and the experience could "disrupt the building of children's brain architecture."
"Children detained at our border experience inhumanely low temperatures and are malnourished and caged," Underwood tweeted after the hearing. "Many have experienced abuse. All are now at risk for learning delays, mental health issues, and assorted illness. This health and humanitarian crisis is caused by our own government."
She continued, "Sec. Nielsen had few answers for me and showed herself to be uninformed on the impact of her Department's policies. That won’t fly anymore. To those in our administration who would harm children and families, I say: You answer to Our House now."
Underwood, who at 32 is the youngest Black woman ever to be elected to Congress, brings with her expertise as a former nurse and senior health advisor to the Obama administration. One of the highest-ranking freshman Democrats, who is expected to rise in leadership in the coming years, she was widely praised for hammering Nielsen on the physical and emotional wellbeing of migrant children. People described her questioning as "perfect," "incredibly effective, and incredibly damning," and "brilliant and unfazed by Nielsen's BS."
"This is what happens when a former nurse is elected to Congress," wrote Jess Morales Rocketto, political director at the National Domestic Workers Alliance. "Thank you, @LaurenUnderwood, for asking what needs to be asked. We owe it to the thousands of children who have suffered at the hands of our government."