Four months after the Trump administration announced the end of its family separation policy, four-year-old Brayan, from El Salvador, was torn from his father’s arms by a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer after they crossed the border and requested asylum. When he described that moment, his father Julio broke down in tears. “I failed him,” Julio lamented. “Everything I had done to be a good father was destroyed in an instant.”
Despite public statements to the contrary, there is mounting evidence that the administration is continuing to separate asylum-seeking families like Brayan and Julio’s. President Donald Trump holds fast to the belief that family separation effectively deters families from Mexico and Central America from seeking refuge in the United States, despite evidence to the contrary, and immigration attorneys are reporting that the administration is taking advantage of a loophole in the federal court’s injunction against separations. According to Neha Desai at the National Center for Youth Law, border patrol officers are using the pretext that children’s safety is at risk to separate families: “If the authorities have even the most specious evidence that a parent was a gang member… anything they can come up with to say that the separation is for the health and welfare of the child, then they’ll separate them.”
The Trump administration’s decision to systematically separate children from their parents, is, in its specifics, unprecedented. But family separation was enabled in the first place, and it continues today, because our immigration system, like other public systems, has been built to separate families — particularly families of color.
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The immigration system is one of three systems that routinely separate families in the United States. The criminal justice and child welfare systems are the other two. In the immigration and criminal justice systems, separation is most commonly an unconsidered, if not quite unintended, consequence of policy, as parents are incarcerated and sometimes deported without their children. In child welfare, separation is the deliberate result of policy, as children are removed from their parents’ custody over concerns for their immediate safety. In each system, however, children are harmed by family separation. And in each system, children of color are more likely to be separated from their parents.
The very first federal restriction on immigration resulted in family separations. In 1875, Congress barred Chinese involuntary laborers and suspected prostitutes from entering the United States. In practice, the law made it almost impossible for Chinese women to immigrate, including those who wished to join their husbands, as government officials “demonstrated a consistent unwillingness, or inability, to recognize women who were not prostitutes among all but the wealthy applicants for immigration.” In the years that followed, an increasing number of laws excluded more Asians from the United States. Separations continued as part of this: At Angel Island, the notorious immigration station in San Francisco Bay, many Asian-American families were separated for weeks at a time so that they could not coordinate their answers before they faced interrogation.
By the mid-20th century, Latinx immigrants had become the subject of nativist ire, and many Latinx families were separated as a result. During the Great Depression, local and state governments colluded with social welfare agencies to encourage and sometimes coerce Mexicans—and in many cases Mexican Americans — to “repatriate” to Mexico. Two decades later, concern about rising undocumented immigration in the Southwest led to “Operation Wetback,” a federal deportation drive that was once again focused almost exclusively on Mexicans. The legacy of this targeting of Latinx communities by immigration enforcement is visible today. Though immigrants from Latin America make up an estimated 77 percent of the unauthorized population in the United States, they have constituted well over 90 percent of immigrants removed by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in recent years. 27,080 immigrants with U.S. born children were deported in 2017.
Like immigration enforcement, our system of mass incarceration mechanically separates families. Incarceration creates financial and emotional hardship for families by default, but there are additional ripple effects that can last long after release. According to an analysis of 3 million child welfare cases, parents who have a child placed in foster care because they are incarcerated are more likely to have their parental rights terminated than those who physically or sexually assaulted their kids. Again, this falls disproportionately on children of color: Approximately 11.4 percent of African-American children have a parent in prison, compared to 3.5 percent of Hispanic children and 1.8 percent of white children. This disparate impact has been true for the history of the criminal justice system in the United States, and it has grown with the rise of mass incarceration since the 1970s.
Families of color are also disproportionately separated by the child welfare system, which from the beginning saw its role as removing children from their families for their own protection. Originally, the child welfare system focused on removing poor children from their families, whether or not there were signs of abuse. As William Pryor Letchworth, a famous advocate of children’s causes, declared in 1874, “If you want to break up pauperism, you must transplant [the child].” Charities in New York, Boston, and other East Coast cities sent thousands of poor children on “orphan trains” to towns in the Midwest, where they were assigned foster families.
As the child welfare system developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, children of color were for the most part excluded from services, but other public institutions separated them from their families at high rates. A Children’s Bureau report observed that from 1750 to 1960, “the black child’s chance of ‘receiving care’ [a polite euphemism for being incarcerated] from a correctional facility was still much greater than that of receiving any other type of care.” Meanwhile, the United States undertook a concerted campaign to remove American-Indian children from their families in order to facilitate their “assimilation.” Starting in 1879 and continuing well through the 20th century, children as young as five years old were packed off to boarding schools, where they were prohibited from speaking their native languages and, often, from visiting home.
When the formal child welfare system began to integrate following World War II, it continued to identify symptoms of poverty as grounds for removing children, and separated American-Indian and African-American families at startlingly high rates. Starting in 1959, the Indian Adoption Project, part of the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ (BIA) larger effort to undermine tribal sovereignty and erase American Indian cultures, purposefully placed American Indians in white homes. Surveys in 1969 and 1974 documented that between 25 and 35 percent of all American-Indian children were placed in foster or adoptive homes or institutions. During this period, child welfare scholars also began to document the high rates of removal of African-American children, a legacy that lives on despite attempts to address racial inequities. A 2014 study found that 4.9 percent of white children will experience foster care placement before their 18th birthday, compared to 15.4 percent of Native American children and 11 percent of black children.
This history reveals that Julio and Barayan are not alone, even under less openly racist administrations. Thousands of families are separated every year by public systems, and families of color are much more likely to suffer this fate. In order to ensure that families like Julio and Barayan can remain together, we need to transform these systems. In the criminal justice and immigration systems, this means severely limiting incarceration and deportation, particularly of parents. In the child welfare system, this means increasing the services and supports available to families so that they can thrive together, as well as significantly raising the threshold to remove children from their homes. Children need their families in order to develop and flourish. As a nation, we cannot continue to tear children from their parent’s arms.