Immigrants and activists protest near the White House in January. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)

Jack Markell, a trustee of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, was governor of Delaware from 2009 to 2017.

Reading recent stories about U.S. citizens being forcibly separated from their undocumented parents reminds me of a visit I made to South Africa in 1985.

During that trip, I spent several days with the Black Sash in Johannesburg and Cape Town. This group of white women had formed 30 years earlier to protest legislation designed to remove voting rights of “coloured” South Africans. Over time, the Black Sash evolved from protest to advocacy, and by the time of my visit, it had grown to thousands of women who volunteered their time to help black and mixed-race South Africans deal with the horrendous laws and regulations of apartheid.

Among the most painful of the system’s effects was the destruction of families. Meeting with the Black Sash volunteers, I saw teenagers who had been removed from their families and black families forced to move from Johannesburg to a far-off rural “homeland” where they had no relatives.

Now, in our own country, the Trump administration is preparing to threaten the well-being of 16 million U.S. citizens who live with their immigrant parents.

That’s right. Sixteen million U.S.-born children under 18 would be on the receiving end of a series of new proposals from President Trump’s team that could make it more difficult for parents to stay in the United States legally — and, even if they remained here, would reduce the likelihood that those parents would avail themselves of the services designed to keep their children healthy.

The proposals are embodied in changes to the “public charge” regulations, which limit the cost to the government of caring for immigrants. This concept has been in the law for decades. The difference with these proposals is that they would allow officials to include nutrition, health and other programs among the benefits that can be used to define an immigrant as being too dependent on public aid. That means immigrants availing themselves of those benefits — even for their children who are U.S. citizens — could be barred from obtaining a new visa or becoming a lawful permanent resident.

So, not surprisingly, an increasing number of immigrants are no longer enrolling their citizen children in government-sponsored health-care programs or feeding them with groceries purchased with food stamps. (Almost half of all immigrant-headed households with children buy food with the assistance of the government.)

Our country has historically made sure that a safety net will prevent our most vulnerable children from going hungry or without health care. These proposed changes reflect a betrayal of our core values.

Administration officials claim that they are proposing these changes in order to protect taxpayers. This argument is — at best — penny-wise and pound-foolish. Hungry and unhealthy children are more likely to be chronically dependent on government services and less likely to find good jobs and pay taxes.

Even without the rules being put into effect, we’re seeing massive negative consequences for many of these children. The advocacy group CLASP recently released research that reveals how the combination of fear caused by possible separation from parents and increased economic uncertainty has increased toxic stress among children from families who have members with different immigration statuses.

While these rules have not yet taken effect, once they are introduced, they could become the law of the land within a few months. In the meantime, once the regulations are posted for public comment, it’s critical for those who care about fiscal prudence as well as those who believe that it’s important to help keep our citizen children with their families to act. They must protest on behalf of these vulnerable children and on behalf of our core American values.