This month’s feature story celebrates and honors the people in migration who are mothers. The configurations of families in migration are diverse—in many cases, mothers parent their children from the same geographical space, but due to economic realities, deportations, violence, and structures of injustice, it is not possible for all mothers to do so. In some cases, children are raised, loved, and cared for by extended family and community members. And some mothers have lost children—to violence, death, and wrongful imprisonment—and organize and advocate so that other mothers do not have to suffer such pain and loss.
This article covers some of the familial configurations we see at the Comedor and along the border. We lament the injustices that force mothers and their children into difficult circumstances, whether they are together or geographically apart. We also honor the strength, resilience, and faith that all those who mother in the midst of difficult circumstances demonstrate, and celebrate the familial love that endures and grows in spite of everything.
Mothers in migration with their children
For the last 18 months at the Kino Border Initiative, many of the people that we have received at the Comedor are mothers traveling with their children. They are often fleeing life-threatening violence in their home communities and have presented at the U.S./Mexico border to seek asylum, where they were forced to wait for at least several months due to the policy of metering. During this wait time, families were exposed to instability and the risk of continued violence; children were often without homes, classes, and extended family; and the lack of routine—coupled with the realities of exposure to both heat and cold as well as extensive daily walking—was disruptive and physically challenging. However, many families endured the uncertainty, dangers, and discomforts because of their unwavering belief that their children deserve safety, an education, and more possibilities than they would have had in their home communities. In particular, mothers often bear a particular share of the responsibilities for child care—both in terms of the ways that those who arrive to KBI think of themselves as uniquely responsible for their children’s well-being, societal pressure on mothers, and the realities of single motherhood. In the past two months since COVID-19, the wait has become indefinite with the partial border closure; no one is currently being permitted to seek asylum at the border. Esperanza, whose story is featured in the Migrant Stories section of this newsletter, is an example of someone who is traveling with her children and is currently caught in limbo.
During the first three months of 2020, we also received hundreds of people—the vast majority of whom were mothers traveling with children who had presented for asylum in the United States—who were returned to Nogales under the Migration Protection Protocols. They were issued dates to present at the El Paso port of entry, meaning they must incur the cost and risks of travel to Juárez. Because of the pandemic, all court proceedings through June 1 have been postponed, so the families undertake this travel solely to receive a slip of paper that indicates what their new court date is. Many report that they have been rescheduled for months out. They, too, are currently living in an indefinite limbo. Additionally, they face economic stresses due to the global economic recession—and for those who are traveling as single mothers, the few jobs that may be available in border cities are logistically impossible as they have no childcare options.
Some of the families who arrived to the border to seek asylum have been reunited with sponsors in the United States; in most cases, this is because they are from Mexico or because they arrived before the implementation of the Migration Protection Protocols. These families live throughout the United States and are supported by their sponsors as they await the outcome of their asylum case, a process that can take months or years. The economic downturn associated with COVID-19 has been difficult for many of these families, as has the educational disruption for their children. As is true for so many families, the children’s parents are expected to take a significant role in the kids’ schooling at this time—a burden that falls disproportionately on mothers, who must balance overseeing their children’s education, childcare, and navigating their own workloads.
Mothers who are separated from their kids by distance
Some mothers raise their children via geographical distance and with international borders separating them. It is sometimes necessary for mothers to leave the children in their home communities for one or several of the following reasons: because threats are only directed at a particular family member; the dangers of the migratory journey can be profound; the cost of migrating is exorbitant; or because migration is undertaken for economic reasons to save money for children’s education, housing, medicine, etc., and it is therefore not necessary for the entire family to leave. In these instances, the children are often cared for by members of the extended family and maintain contact with their mothers via phone and the Internet. Structural injustices such as poverty and violence make this a necessary decision for many mothers.
Another demographic of mothers who must parent from a geographical distance are those who have been deported from the U.S. to their country of origin while their children remain in the U.S. because they have legal status. As time goes on, families make decisions based on a calculus of factors to decide how to live as a family. Some people live apart but remain connected via phone, mail, and the Internet; in other instances, families are able to visit one another in their countries of origin because the children have documents to travel; in others, the children move back to the country where their mother is living; and in yet others, the mom makes the decision to migrate back without authorization to the U.S. to be with her children. In all instances, the psychological impact of this separation is detrimental, both for mothers and children as they wrestle with guilt, trauma, economic distress, and a limited range of options to change the situation.
Finally, mothers who are fighting their immigration cases from inside of a detention center must also parent from a distance. Like the aforementioned demographic of mothers who have been deported and the traumas that these families endure, mothers and children who are separated from one another due to detention also confront intense psychological and logistical challenges. Communication is often restricted, with limited if any Internet reception; costly phone calls; and restrictive visitation schedules. Additionally, many children cannot take advantage of these visits due to the distance of the detention center from their homes; the cost of the trip; the inability to get the documents needed for visitation; or because of the trauma of seeing their mother in a detention setting and having to leave abruptly. In addition to all of these challenges of communication and parenting, the mothers must also confront the fear of deportation and long-term separation from their children if they lose their cases.
Mothers and children in detention
There are currently three family detention centers in the U.S.—one located in Pennsylvania, with 90 beds, and two in Texas, with a combined total of nearly 3,000 beds—that hold mothers seeking asylum with their children in confined facilities. The family detention system was expanded in 2014 to deter women and children fleeing violence in Central America from seeking asylum in the U.S.; it costs U.S. taxpayers $160/day to detain each person in the family detention centers. This is an egregious assault on the well-being of children and their parents. Not only are they often fleeing trauma, the practice of detaining children and forcing mothers to parent in the midst of these conditions is psychologically and physically harmful, and is in violation of international human rights law and all established child welfare practices. Far more humane and cost-effective alternatives exists, such as releasing the children and their mothers to family sponsors while working with services that provide legal, educational, and psychological support to vulnerable populations.
Mothers whose children have migrated
Until the mid-2010s, the largest demographic of people in migration to the U.S. was comprised of relatively young, single men who were migrating largely because of economic concerns. This demographic continues to account for a significant percentage of people we serve at the Comedor. Typically, their plan is to work for a period of time in the U.S. while sending money home to support family who remains behind with medical, educational, nutritional, and housing needs. Of course, there are also women who migrate to the United States with a similar dream and need; however, their numbers have historically been less significant than the men who do so.
Many of these adult children leave behind mothers, fathers, and beloved members of extended families, who, as time passes, age and confront health issues. Often, the family member living in the United States will make the decision to return to their country of origin to be present with family for health crises, deaths, and funerals. Once the health crisis or mourning period passes, many of the adult children are then forced to make the difficult decision about returning to the United States—where they often have livelihoods, houses, and belongings. They must then risk the dangerous migration journey once again, while simultaneously carrying the grief of leaving behind struggling family members.
Extended family as caregivers
In some instances, members of a child’s extended family or broader community act as their primary caregiver. There are a wide variety of reasons that this occurs, but some of the most common are related to the consequences of deportations; the aftermath of a mother’s death or illness (often a result of cartel or spousal violence, a culture of impunity that enable such acts of violence to continue, and a lack of access to health care in cases of severe illness); and the inequalities that compel people to migrate in search of survival while leaving children in the care of other family members.
When the government separates non-traditional families at the border simply because they do not resemble the narrow definition of family the U.S. has determined, that is an injustice. Though this policy has the intention to deter human trafficking, which when it occurs is indeed a valid reason to separate children from people who are traveling with them, it more often separates children from the people who are known and trusted caretakers. This generally occurs when children are traveling with siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles, or other beloved caregivers who are not biologically related to the children. Much has rightfully been written about the abominations of the family separation policies during the summer of 2018, but separations have continued—largely due to policies such as the one separating children from adults who are not their biological mom or dad—until very recently. The emotional, physical, and psychological impacts of being separated from a trusted and loving caregiver, whether or not they are a child’s biological parent, is essentially equal to the trauma of being separated from a parent.
Mothers whose minor children cross the border alone
For years, unaccompanied minors have come to the border as they seek safety and a better life for themselves and their families. Because of their age and vulnerability, the U.S. has historically handled unaccompanied minors’ cases in a less punitive manner than it has for adults by detaining them in facilities designated for minors and then reuniting them as quickly as possible with family members. Additionally, unaccompanied minors were not subject to the Migration Protection Protocols.
Given how dangerous it can be to wait in Mexico, the long periods of time in limbo, and the extraordinarily low asylum grant rate under MPP, some parents who were subject to MPP were forced to make the wrenching decision to send their children into the United States as unaccompanied minors. These decisions were necessary for the children’s well-being and survival, even though this also meant that there was a possibility of families never seeing each other again. The psychological costs of this decision—for children and parents alike—were excruciating.
Since the start of the pandemic, unaccompanied minors who arrived to the border are being expelled from the United States and denied access to long-held protections for children. Many of the children who arrived to the border without a parent, including those younger than 12, are now being deported to their home countries, generally without notifying their parents of the decision, the child’s whereabouts, or the actions being taken. The combination of being returned to the dangerous countries the children and families fled and the utter lack of communication by the U.S. government to appropriate family members or authorities is appalling.
Most migrant children in the U.S. have family members in the U.S. who wish to and are able to care for the kids. However, there are occasions in which there are delays in the process of reuniting minors with family, often because the caregivers are afraid to come forward because of their documentation status. In these instances, shelters and foster families fill a critical need of providing care and safety for children who are in this position; the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and Lutheran Social Services are the primary organizations that manage foster care for unaccompanied minors.
Mothers in protest of injustice
Structural inequalities such as poverty, violence, and corruption fuel migration just as countries that receive migrants often make the journey dangerous and inhospitable. Mothers whose children have been subjected to these injustices and suffered as a result of them have formed and led movements of resistance. Many of these movements were inspired by the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, who advocated and fought for their children who had been disappeared in the country’s dictatorship in the 1970s and ‘80s. They organized, gathered, and held vigil on a weekly basis in front of the presidential palace, wearing white head scarves with the initials and dates of birth of their children in order to hold the government accountable for the human rights violations.
There have been notable contemporary versions of protesting mothers in the Americas. In 2018 and 2019, a group of mothers in Nicaragua went on hunger strikes in opposition to the government’s treatment of protestors. The protestors were speaking out against Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s attempts to cut welfare benefits and resulted in the deaths of dozens of people, injuries to over 900, and the imprisonment of many more. The mothers of some of those who had been imprisoned went on a hunger strike demanding the release of their children; in response, the government cut off water and electricity at the church where the mothers gathered. In late December 2019, many of the protestors were freed from jail.
A border-related example emerges out of Ciudad Juárez, where at least hundreds, if not thousands, of young women have been killed in gruesome femicides since the mid-1990s. There are scores of unanswered questions about these murders, but many theories suggest the murders are tied to the existence of the maquilas, the American-owned assembly plants in the city. In pursuit of justice and answers, many of the disappeared women’s mothers organize searches to find their daughters’ bodies and advocate for political changes—including addressing patterns of machismo—to prevent future disappearances. As one mother and the founder of the group “Justice for Our Daughters,” said, “Even though remembering [my daughter’s death] can be very painful, I refuse to let other mothers go through something like this.”
In Sonora and other parts of northwestern Mexico, a group of mothers are leading a movement in opposition to the drug war violence that has fueled so much instability and migration. There are estimated to be several dozen mothers’ groups in three states who scour often remote, dangerous areas to look for the bodies of their disappeared children and to protest the lack of a governmental response. In the fall of 2019, the Madres Buscadores group of Hermosillo found 52 bodies in a mass grave near the tourist town of Rocky Point. The work is emotionally taxing, and the ways the bodies are found—cut into pieces, tied up, beaten—adds to the extraordinary intensity. But as the leader of the Madres Buscadores group said, “It’s worth the suffering. It’s worth the pain. It’s worth the many hours walking…so that the families will get peace and so that we have peace as well, knowing that we’re doing good work and that God will reward us with finding our children.”
We at the Kino Border Initiative advocate, educate, and pray for a world in which all families and individuals have the ability to enjoy life together, in dignity and joy, and without some or all members having to migrate in order to survive. We also seek a world in which those who wish to migrate have the option to do so in a humane, just, and respectful manner. However, we also recognize that this is not the world we currently live in at the border or beyond, and that many people must make difficult decisions at this time in order to save their lives, protect themselves, or provide some of the necessities for economic and educational survival. We honor—with depth and gratitude—the difficult decisions mothers in migration must make, the strength necessary to be a source of stability for their children, the ways mothers parent with tenacity and grace from a physical distance, and all the love and care that extended family and communities demonstrate toward children and one another.