Many advocates, editorial writers, politicians, and members of the general public say that the government should end the practice of separating children from their parents at the U.S. border, but do they really mean that?
Separating children from their parents should constitute only one of the last tools in the tool box of immigration services. In my opinion, the massive volume of such separations embarrasses the U.S. among the other nations of the world. However, as The New York Times pointed out, a large number of the public officials currently protesting immigration policies, registering their dismay about family separations, and perhaps grandstanding for publicity purposes have, for years, led agencies or branches of government which have separated children from their parents.
A history of family separation
In contrast to the roughly 2,300 to 3,000 children taken from their parents as a result of the spring 2018 crackdown at the border, the Times claims that government in the U.S. has removed upwards of 750,000 children from their parents through other legal processes. In fact, for centuries, government has separated children from their parents.
In contemporary times, government routinely separates children from their parents when it incarcerates the parents. Julie Atella in Wilder Research has studied parental incarceration, which produces negative social, behavioral, and academic outcomes for children. Government sometimes incarcerates children too, thus separating them from their parents. And the government foster care system removes children from their homes, sometimes prohibiting parental contact. A number of our studies at Wilder Research have explored foster care, locally and nationally.
Key questions behind family separation
Should the Department of Homeland Security separate children from the adults who accompany them across the U.S. border if evidence of child abuse exists? What if the adults cannot convincingly prove their legal relationship to the children? Almost all of us would probably respond affirmatively to those two questions. I do not want children to stay under the control of abusers or traffickers. But what if the adults receive a referral for criminal prosecution and must go to a detention center or jail unsuitable for an extended stay by young people? This third question might give us pause, as we ponder the nuances and circumstances of such situations, and especially as we consider whether options other than imprisonment have been fully exhausted.
The three questions above relate to the three major criteria which currently provide the formally stated rationale for separation of parents and children by the Department of Homeland Security. “Zero tolerance” increases the volume of children separated from parents based on the third criterion (unsuitability of adult detention and correction centers for young people). As the Washington Post reported, if the border services detain or institutionalize everyone who crosses the border outside of official entry portals, then ipso facto more parents will enter situations which result in separation from their children.
Some protesters have demanded the immediate cessation of the practice of separating children from their parents who have brought them across the border. But does that really make sense? Only if we don’t care about the small percentage of children being abused or trafficked.
Policies informed by facts
Wise policy development requires good information to provide a sound understanding about the status quo that we want to change as well as about the new status quo that we want to create. We should base decisions about policy on our core values combined with an objective understanding of facts.
I’ve seen this play out before on other, significant issues. Homelessness, for example. Years ago, people sincerely committed to ending homelessness – advocates, public officials, service providers, faith communities, and so on – often acted independently. When they made efforts to collaborate on creating solutions, they fell into frequent arguments over the facts about homelessness: How many people? What needs did they have? What had caused their homelessness, and what action could eliminate that cause? Wilder Research stepped in to bring representatives from different sectors to a common table, to define the problem and agree on a means to measure it. With the implementation of the statewide Minnesota Homeless Study, groups interested in meeting the needs of the homeless and in preventing homelessness could work from a common platform of information. Over time, they could track their progress.
Another current statewide effort at Wilder Research performs that same function by identifying critical gaps in services intended to meet the needs of four groups of Minnesotans: children with mental health conditions; adults with mental health conditions; older people; and people with disabilities. That work, currently in its third year, provides a credible platform of information, so that regions of the state can construct effective solutions best attuned with their population.
Immigration policies should reflect values and facts about our human family
With immigration issues we need the same, careful approach to understanding the dynamics of the current situation, so that we can effectively reform and enhance the ways we act as a nation. The future of the world’s human residents will always involve a flow of people from one part of the globe to the other. That future relies on our care. I personally am a fan of relatively open borders, with reasonable respect for national integrity and cultural diversity. As the prominent Chinese human rights activist, Ai Weiwei, noted, “Allowing borders to determine your thinking is incompatible with the modern era.” (But that subject can await another blog.)
No child deserves the cruelty of separation from their loving, caring parents. We need to craft immigration policies – indeed all social policies – in ways that transcend specific times, places, and cultures and that reflect “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family”. We must build policies that rest on solid, factual understanding of reality, unobscured by the escalated emotions of the moment.
Martin Luther King expressed the dream that his children would “one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” My related dream would be that all children, no matter their geographic origin, stand as citizens of the world, held in esteem by all of us, valued for their character and their actions, not on the basis of nationality or the conduct of adults whom they cannot control.