Prior to taking office, President Biden promised to reunite hundreds of migrant families who had been separated at the U.S.-Mexico border under the Trump administration’s “Zero Tolerance” immigration policy. He has now created a task force dedicated to reuniting them. Considering that “parents of 545 [migrant] children” have yet to be located, the road to recovery for many immigrant families is incredibly complex.
For those who are reunited after long periods of separation, there has been uncertainty and even disregard for the long-term traumatic effects these policies will have on immigrant families. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a non-profit dedicated to protecting individual rights and freedoms in the United States, reminded the world that “the consequences of family separation will far out-last this administration.”
U.S. Immigration Policy Under Trump
The Trump administration’s policies mainly impacted asylum seekers from South and Central America. It is legal for immigrants to seek asylum at a port of entry such as San Ysidro, which is North of Tijuana, Mexico. However, there is a lack of resources to process the influx of asylum seekers. Many immigrants instead opt to “cross illegally into the US and present themselves to Border Patrol” where they are faced with deportation, detention, and separation.
In September 2019, the Trump administration announced the termination of the “catch and release” policy, in which asylum-seekers were permitted to remain in the United States as they waited for their court dates. The term “catch and release” has been criticized for being dehumanizing towards asylum-seekers and misleading as it implies that migrants are allowed into the U.S. without monitoring or consequence. The Trump administration continued to perpetuate misconceptions that asylum-seekers failed to appear for court hearings after being “released” and would take up illegal residence in the U.S.
It is inaccurate to say that asylum-seekers purposefully avoid court hearings in order to enter the country illegally. One report shows that families were most likely to miss their court dates as a result of misinformation, language barriers, and lack of legal representation. For example, families “[would] not [receive] any notice of hearing from the government” or “[would receive] incomplete or confusing information about the Immigration Court hearing.” These bureaucratic barriers indicate a failed immigration system that punishes migrant families for its own short-comings.
In response to previous immigration policies, the Trump administration announced the much-criticized Migrant Protection Program (MPP), also known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy. Under the MPP, migrants were sent to Mexico to await approval for their asylum requests. This program was incredibly problematic, as it endangered the lives of many asylum-seekers and their families, often returning them to dangerous situations they had sought to seek refuge from.
Overall, while Trump’s policies did not explicitly state that families attempting to enter the United States were to be separated, his “zero-tolerance” stance on immigration directly resulted in the separations of countless families. This is because his policies favoured criminal prosecution of adults entering the U.S. without paperwork, resulting in the separation of over 2,700 children from their families. One estimate found that the total number of separated children may be higher than 5,500.
Separations occurred when parents were detained at the border. Once their children were taken away from them, they were kept in detention facilities without basic necessities such as adequate food and water. If a judge ruled for a parent to be deported or put in jail, their children were categorized as “unaccompanied children,” a designation usually reserved for youth arriving in the U.S. without a parent or guardian. They would be then placed under the custody of Child Protective Services, a bureaucratic department separate from Customs and Border Patrol (CBP).
Disturbingly, it has been reported that border agents were frequently dishonest to parents about how long they would be separated from their children. It has now been made aware that countless families were separated for months and even years, a direct consequence of the former administration’s policy towards illegal immigrants.
Personal testimonies from parents and children reveal the inhumanity they faced in the pursuit of security and opportunity. Their names and identities have been changed or hidden to protect them.
In 2017, 12-year-old Maria and her mother Yeni requested asylum at the U.S. border after receiving death threats from the local gangs in their home country of El Salvador. After being told by officials that if she dropped her asylum case she would not be separated from her daughter, Yeni signed a document and was deported. However, Maria remained in the United States.
In another case, a father and his seven-year-old son arrived at a port of entry in Arizona and were separated by CBP. The father was held in a federal detention centre for weeks without knowledge of his son’s well-being. He was deported to Guatemala in January 2018, and after seven months without communication or information, his son was also deported. Despite their eventual reunification, the father speaks of his son’s apparent psychological trauma, including perpetual fear and anxiety, inability to focus in school, and emotional problems. The father also describes his own trauma throughout this experience including the horror of not knowing what happened to his son during their eight months of separation.
Stories like these vary in specificities but they reveal a lack of respect and lack of transparency on behalf of the U.S. government and CBP. Additionally, they reveal the fundamental failings of the American immigration system such as the impacts of language barriers and the absence of legal representation for asylum seekers and immigrants.
Psychological Impacts of Family Separation
Researchers confirm that children separated from their parents for extended periods of time experience considerable trauma. According to Dr. Mary Fabio, director of the Refugee Health Program at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, the stress of separation can impact the “brain architecture” in children’s brains, affecting both their mental and physical health.
As a consequence of separation, children may experience anxiety, depression, resulting in behavioural problems and self-harm. It is difficult to explain the situation to children who feel anger, resentment, and a sense of abandonment towards their parents. This complicates family dynamics, as children may feel distrustful of their parents once they are reunited.
In some cases when babies have been taken from their mothers, children may be incredibly disconnected from their parents. A report found that at least 60 children younger than 5 years old were separated from their families. An appalling video from 2018 shows a baby boy who does not recognize his mother after months of separation.
Biden’s Approach to Immigration Policy
Many were hopeful when President Biden took office in January 2021, encouraging him to reverse harmful immigration laws and reunite families. The Biden-Harris campaign promised to “modernize America’s immigration system” and “take urgent action to undo Trump’s damage and reclaim America’s values.” A senior administration official announced that family separation was a “moral failure and national shame” and that reunification was a top priority for the Biden administration.
Although it is positive that the current administration is taking family reunification very seriously, advocacy groups, such as the ACLU, have criticized President Biden for carrying forward harmful Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) policies. Biden’s recent memorandum prioritizes the deportation of those who “pose a threat for national security.” The ACLU finds that this policy perpetuates the “presumptions of threat” and “biased profiling” which disproportionately impact Black and Brown immigrants.
Under added pressure to rectify his legacy as former Vice President, it is concerning that Biden’s newest memorandum has already received backlash from advocacy groups. The Obama administration was notorious for “record deportations and an expansion of family detention,” an undeniable disgrace in America’s historical treatment of immigrants. Notably, Biden has acknowledged the shortfalls of Obama’s policies, as in February 2020, Biden called the administration’s decision to deport hundreds of thousands of immigrants without criminal records a “big mistake.” This recognition of wrongdoing indicates that he understands the weight of his actions as president, and is actively seeking to improve immigration policy in the U.S. As such, the fact that he has sustained problematic practices that contribute to the racial profiling of immigrants already within the first few months of his presidency is incredibly contradictory.
The Legacy of Family Separation
The legacy of family separations will not be erased with a new president in power. It is a disservice to many families to believe that reuniting parents and children will reverse the psychological harm which has been inflicted by the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. President Biden will have to go above and beyond in order to aid families harmed by separation and detention, including psychological support for parents and children. Additionally, all eyes are on President Biden as many wonder if he will be able to amend the wrongs committed against immigrants during the Obama administration. In the meantime, his current stance on ICE does not seem to be cutting it.