The small shelter along the Texas border to Mexico held 60 beds and a little playground where children could play. Rooms were equipped with toys, books and crayons. To Colleen Kraft, this shelter looked, in many ways, like a friendly environment for children.

But the first child who caught the prominent pediatrician's attention was anything but happy. Inside a room dedicated to toddlers was a little girl no older than 2, screaming and pounding her fists on a mat.

One woman tried to give her toys and books to calm her down, but as much as she wanted to console the little girl, she couldn't touch, hold or pick her up to let her know everything would be all right. That was the rule, Kraft said she was told: They're not allowed to touch the children.

"The really devastating thing was that we all knew what was going on with this child. We all knew what the problem was," Kraft said. "She didn't have her mother, and none of us can fix that."

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The girl had been taken from her mother the night before and brought to this shelter. The little girl is among the multitude of immigrant children who have been separated from their family as part of the Trump Administration's "zero tolerance" policy, where any adult who crosses the border illegally will face criminal prosecution. That means that parents were taken to federal jails, while their children were sent to shelters.

Nearly 2000 immigrant children were separated from their parents during six weeks in April and May, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

Kraft, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said colleagues who were alarmed by what was going on invited her to see for herself, so she visited a shelter run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement. She said those who work there are doing what they could to make sure the children's needs are met. The children were fed; they had beds, toys, a playground and people who change their nappies. But there are limits to what workers could do. "The really basic, foundational needs of having trust in adults as a young child was not being met. That contradicts everything we know that the kids need to build their health."

Such a situation could have long-term, devastating effects on young children, who are likely to develop what's called toxic stress in their brain once separated from caregivers or parents they trusted. It disrupts a child's brain development and increases the levels of flight-or-fight hormones in their bodies, Kraft said. This kind of emotional trauma could eventually lead to health problems, such as heart disease and substance abuse disorders.

Lucas Butler, 15, middle, and family friend, Beth Bishop, 53, left, raise their fists during a moment of silence while attending a rally against the separation of immigrant families. Photo / AP
Lucas Butler, 15, middle, and family friend, Beth Bishop, 53, left, raise their fists during a moment of silence while attending a rally against the separation of immigrant families. Photo / AP

"While not all of the children we are ripping from their parents will suffer the full consequences of toxic stress, many may," child psychologist Megan Gunnar of the University of Minnesota told BuzzFeed News. "The age of the child matters. Those under 5 should get us all running around with our hair on fire to get this practice stopped."

Kraft said: "The kids need to come first. America is better than this."

Nearly 4600 mental health professionals and 90 organisations have joined a petition urging US President Donald Trump, Attorney-General Jeff Sessions and several elected officials to stop the policy of separating children from their parents.

The petition says: "These children are thrust into detention centres often without an advocate or [a lawyer] and possibly even without the presence of any adult who can speak their language. We want you to imagine for a moment what this might be like for a child: to flee the place you have called your home because it is not safe to say and then embark on a dangerous journey to an unknown destination, only to be ripped apart from your sole sense of security with no understanding of what just happened to you or if you will ever see your family again. And that the only thing you have done to deserve this, is to do what children do: stay close to the adults in their lives for security."

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It further says: "To pretend that separated children do not grow up with the shrapnel of this traumatic experience embedded in their minds is to disregard everything we know about child development, the brain, and trauma."

There are 11,432 migrant children in the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services, up from 9000 at the beginning of May.

Though the policy has been enacted and touted by his own Administration, Trump has avoided publicly owning it and, instead, blamed Democrats for "forcing the breakup of families at the Border with their horrible and cruel legislative agenda."

President Donald Trump speaks to reporters at the White House. Photo / AP
President Donald Trump speaks to reporters at the White House. Photo / AP

Health and Human Services blames Congress, saying its inability to pass legislation on border security "created perverse and dangerous incentives for illegal border crossings and child smuggling."

For Kraft, lost was the long-term impact on children. "As partisan and as divisive as the whole topic of immigration is, we need to start with what's right. Can we start with just keeping parents and children together while we figure out some of the other details?"

The crackdown

• Nearly 2000 minors have been separated from their families at the US border over a six-week period during a crackdown.

• The separations were not broken down by age, and they included separations for illegal entry, immigration violations or possible criminal conduct by the adult.

• Under a "zero tolerance" policy announced by Attorney-General Jeff Sessions on April 6, Homeland Security officials are now referring all cases of illegal entry for criminal prosecution.

• US protocol prohibits detaining children with their parents because the children are not charged with a crime and the parents are.

• The policy has been widely criticised by church groups, politicians and children's advocates who say it is inhumane.

• The new figures are for people who tried to enter between official border crossings. Asylum-seekers who go to official crossings are not separated from families, except in specific circumstances.

GOP risks backlash

The push towards immigration votes in the House of Representatives is intensifying the divide among Republicans on one of the party's key issues and fuelling concerns that a voter backlash could cost the GOP control of the House in November.

Passage of the bill could alienate conservatives and depress turnout at a time when enthusiasm among Democrats is high. Yet scuttling the bill could turn off independents.

"The GOP's in a tough spot," said Republican pollster Frank Luntz. "The hardcore Trump voter has a different point of view than the ever-important independent voter, and there doesn't seem to be a middle ground."

The draft legislation, resulting from intense negotiations between moderates and conservatives, includes a path to citizenship for an estimated 1.8 million young immigrants in the country illegally. The plan includes US$25 billion for a wall along the US-Mexico border.

President Donald Trump will meet House Republicans on Wednesday NZT to discuss the issue.

The politics of the debate have grown more heated since the Administration adopted a "zero tolerance" approach.

Trump has tried to blame Democrats for his own policy, tweeting that they "can fix their forced family breakup at the Border by working with Republicans on new legislation, for a change!" Facing a national uproar, House GOP leaders included a provision in the immigration proposal that would require families to be kept together for as long as they are in the custody of Homeland Security. The proposed fix won approval from moderate House Republicans locked in difficult re-election battles, but not from Republican Senate candidates running competitive races in GOP-leaning states.

— Addtonal reporting: AP