The zero-tolerance policy that resulted in children being separated from their parents during the summer of 2018 incited rightful outrage from many people around the world. However, families have been and continue to be separated at the border due to a variety of practices that do not honor the right of families to remain together, which has profoundly negative impacts on the well-being of children, adults, and society as a whole.
In the summer of 2018, people from around the world were outraged by the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy that resulted in the separation of thousands of families at the border. The practice was appallingly cruel, and the massive public resistance and attention that resulted was necessary to bring about the formal termination of the practice in June of 2018. However, families have been separated as a result of unjust immigration policies for years due to deportation, violence, poverty, and prolonged detention. Additionally, the Trump administration’s assault on asylum has resulted in people being separated from family and supportive communities.
The level of resistance and attention that the family separation crisis of the summer 2018 received was both inspiring and necessary to bring about policy change. In this article, we outline some of the ways that that this has occurred for years and continues to occur at the U.S./Mexico border. Additionally, we call upon you—and your families and communities this holiday season—to pray and act for the right of all families to be together.
Leaving family behind to migrate
Historically, most migrants who arrived to the U.S./Mexico border were adults traveling alone, primarily men from Mexico. Though more families are now arriving to the border, many of the people we receive at the Comedor continue to travel alone while their family members remain in their community of origin. The reasons for this vary. One is the cost of the journey, which can be thousands of dollars per person. Particularly in circumstances in which adults are migrating to raise money for essential needs such as medical care, education, or housing, it is most financially viable for one or several adults to travel to the U.S., work for a period of time, and send money home. Another frequently cited reason is that the journey is risky due to the challenges posed by traversing harsh physical environments like remote stretches of the Sonoran desert, which is a necessity for many due to U.S. policies of “prevention through deterrence” that funnel migrants into dangerous areas. Additionally, in some instances, violence may be most specifically targeted at one family member such as an adult who cannot pay a criminal gang’s quotas or a teenager who refuses to join a gang. In these circumstances, families may make the decision to only send those whose lives are in immediate danger.
At KBI, we continue to serve hundreds of people every month who have been deported from the U.S. Generally, they have either been deported after having been apprehended during an unauthorized crossing, or after being picked up by immigration authorities after years of living in the U.S. As documented in KBI’s November 2018 report on the impact of deportations on people who had lived for years in the U.S, Communities in Crisis: Interior Removals and Their Human Consequences, people in the latter category had lived in the U.S. for a mean of 20 years. More than half of them entered the U.S. as minors, and nearly 80% had U.S. citizen children with an average age of 14.9 years. 42% had U.S. citizen partners, and essentially all had been employed in the U.S. The loss of this income meant that most families did not have enough money to support their children or households. Additionally, the separation from family members caused psychological harm to children; nearly half of the people interviewed said their children were having difficulty in school or with completing daily activities in the wake of their parent’s deportation. As one mother of three U.S. citizen children and wife of a deported immigrant interviewed in the report said, “My children’s grades dropped. They became rebellious….They couldn’t assimilate the many changes they were facing. I did not use to work, but now I do. I work from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. I don’t see my children.” The financial, emotional, and logistical struggles are profound for family members and entire communities.
As of September 2019, over 52,000 people are being held in detention facilities in the U.S. while they await hearings to determine whether or not they can legally remain in the U.S. This system was once largely reserved only for those who threatened public safety or were deemed a flight risk; now it’s nearly ubiquitous.
In KBI’s regular visits to the Eloy Detention facility, nearly everyone we meet is separated from a family member, which compounds the psychological challenges of being detained. Many people we meet have requested asylum and have family sponsors in the U.S. who are prepared to support them if they are released. However, the asylum-seekers are held in detention without the possibility of bond or are given such high bonds—above $70,000 is not uncommon—that they are instead detained until their case is resolved. Others presented for asylum with family members who were released to sponsors, but because of certain factors—such as adult children who are over the age of 18 or being an extended family member such as a sibling or cousin—are separated from their family and detained. Spouses are separated from one another within the detention system, sometimes without knowledge of where their partner is being held. Other people have extended family who remain in their home countries, and communication is difficult—phone calls often cost several dollars per minutes, and no phone calls can be made to people in detention, severely limiting contact and the support of speaking with loved ones. People who have been apprehended in the United States and sent to detention are also separated from their families—who, if they have legal documentation, can visit on approved visiting days. This can be challenging, however, as detention centers are often hard to access because they are frequently beyond public transit lines. Additionally, the visits can be traumatizing for children who struggle to understand why a parent is imprisoned instead of at home.
Children who migrate to the border with relatives who are not their biological parents are generally taken from their caregivers to Border Patrol custody. From there, they are transferred to government-run facilities before being released to a sponsor once one is identified and vetted. This practice has been in place for years, ostensibly to guard against “human trafficking,” but it has become much more frequent under the Trump administration and children are without caregivers for longer periods of time. The conditions under which children were held in Border Patrol came under rightful scrutiny earlier in 2019, when it was revealed that facilities were overcrowded and minors did not have appropriate access to care, nutrition or hygiene, and were often held beyond the legal limit of 72 hours.
In an overwhelming number of cases, children are taken from their extended family members who are primary caregivers but lack the extensive legal paperwork that the U.S. deems necessary in order to prove formal guardianship. In much of Latin America, the definition of family is more expansive than it is in the United States, and includes siblings, aunts, uncles, and grandparents, but how family is defined shrinks dramatically upon arrival at the border. A more restricted interpretation of family renders many children unaccompanied. This separation is effectively tantamount to being separated from a parent, and the trauma that results threatens the long-term mental and physical health of children in significant ways.
Family Separation Under MPP (aka Remain in Mexico)
Families who are returned to Mexico by the U.S. government to await their asylum court dates through the Remain in Mexico program often live in precarious and dangerous situations; the evidence of abuse is staggering and well-documented. In some instances, some family members are returned to await their court dates in Mexico while others remain in the United States. In the case when the U.S. government deems that children are “unaccompanied” because they travel with extended family rather than biological parents, they are sent to U.S. shelters and communication with their family members in Mexico is extremely limited. Estrella came through Kino Border Initiative earlier this year and shares her experiences of being separated from her minor siblings, of whom she was the guardian. Read her story here: https://www.kinoborderinitiative.org/estrellas-story/
Out of desperation, some parents are beginning to make the decision to send their children to the United States alone, as unaccompanied minors are exempt from Remain in Mexico. (Read more about the heartbreaking conditions that compel this decision here: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/in-squalid-mexico-tent-city-asylum-seekers-are-growing-so-desperate-theyre-sending-their-children-over-the-border-alone/2019/11/22/9e5044ec-0c92-11ea-8054-289aef6e38a3_story.html Not only are conditions in their home communities life-threatening and conditions in Mexican border towns dangerous, parents also see that the chance of winning asylum in the U.S. is exceedingly slim under Remain in Mexico. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is beginning to track the numbers of children who arrive to the border as a result of this decision; as of late November, 135 children are believed to have been forced to seek safety in this way. Jodi Goodwin, a lawyer in Brownsville, TX, said that the family separations that result from MPP are significantly worse than those that occurred under zero-tolerance: “With MPP, the assault is not only on human rights but also on due process within the court systems, which has completely hijacked the ability to fix things. The parents can’t even get into the country to try to reunify with their kids.”
Additionally, MPP separates people from supportive communities and family members in the U.S. who are ready and willing to provide hospitality to asylum-seekers. Instead, the U.S. policy forces them into homelessness and harm’s way while ample resources exist in the U.S. to receive asylum seekers.
Other Conditions for Family Separation
The separation of families that resulted from the zero-tolerance policy ignited widespread and worldwide condemnation, which ultimately led to the practice’s formal demise. In June of 2018, a judge issued an injunction that prohibited the future separation of families and set a deadline by which children must be reunited with their parents. However, this injunction contains a loophole under which parents can still be separated from their children at the border. If parents are deemed to be “unfit or a danger to the child,” their child can be taken from them. This has been applied to extremely minor infractions, such as previous charges of possession of marijuana, or allowing a sick child to continue napping rather than change her wet diaper (in the latter instance, the infant’s wet diaper was proof of the parent’s neglect). It is estimated that several thousand children have been separated from their parents as a result of this carve-out in the injunction.
As we gather with our families and communities this holiday season, we honor the people we meet at the border who are far from their loved ones. Additionally, we remember families continue to face separation from one another due to unjust economic systems, prolonged detention, deportation, and policies that separate extended families, spouses, and children from their parents and caregivers. Immigration policy must honor the integrity of families and allow people to live alongside their loved ones –both for the well-being of both the family and society as a whole.