Right now, the Biden administration is asking the public to weigh in on ways the U.S. government can minimize the separation of migrant families. The request was prompted by the ongoing work of a task force set up to address family separations that made headlines under the Trump administration’s Zero-Tolerance border policy. But that program was just one in the myriad of cruel deterrence and enforcement programs that continue to separate parents from their children and cause lasting harm to migrant families.
Families suffered separations well before the prior administration and continue to suffer from separations resulting from deterrence programs championed by the Biden administration. Today, these policies play out across the border and in the interior, pulling families apart and destroying communities:
- The Biden administration routinely separates families through detention and deportation as part of its interior immigration enforcement practices, without meaningful policies designed to protect family unity.
- Asylum-seeking families at the border face the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP, also known as Remain in Mexico) program, which has increased risk for family separations, kidnappings, assault, and killings for people forced to wait in Mexico during their U.S. immigration proceedings.
- Haitian mothers and fathers and their children, including young babies, face mass expulsions back to a destabilized country.
- In recent weeks, the Biden administration has walked away from settlement negotiations and moved to dismiss claims brought by families seeking compensation for the unimaginable harms they endured when they were separated as a result of the Trump administration’s Zero-Tolerance border policy.
Read more details about these policies and how they cause harm and trauma to people:
Entry & Reentry Prosecution
The laws used to criminally prosecute people for entering and reentering the United States without permission were passed in the late 1920s during the height of the eugenics movement to further racist and white supremacist ideology. These laws were used as the basis for family separations under the prior administration’s Zero-Tolerance policy, and continue to lead to family separations and to systematically delay and prevent asylum seekers from making claims for protection.
In September 2021, an asylum-seeking father who was prosecuted for unauthorized reentry was murdered in Tijuana, after he served four months in prison in the United States. DHS officials convinced him to abandon his asylum claim, telling him he was“never going to get asylum anyways.” Edgar left behind his partner and a baby daughter who was born three weeks prior to his death.
Gang Allegations & Other Exclusions
DHS frequently uses unsubstantiated and erroneous allegations of terrorist activity, criminal activity, or gang affiliation to separate asylum seekers from their children. NIJC has represented several parents facing such allegations. Many were mothers who were themselves victims of severe gang violence. With strenuous advocacy, NIJC was eventually able to disprove the allegations our clients faced, although not before families were separated and traumatized.
Elena is a Salvadoran mother of two children who were taken from her after they entered the United States in April 2019. Customs and Border Protection relied on a decade-old El Salvador police report which confused her as a gang suspect. Elena was finally released and reunified with her children after NIJC provided the Justice Department with an official clearance document from the Salvadoran government. They had been separated for more than two months.
Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) & Title 42
Families and children have been a prime target of anti-asylum programs such as MPP, which has returned tens of thousands to dangerous towns in Mexico. The Biden administration has acknowledged the extensive record of atrocities associated with MPP, but nevertheless has reinstated the deadly program, all but ensuring the continuation of systemic harms and family separations.
Title 42, which turns families away from the United States based on specious public health reasoning, forces families to separate or remain trapped beyond the border. Public health experts have overwhelmingly rejected the policy. Thousands of children, including children as young as ten years old, have arrived unaccompanied in the United States due to these summary expulsions.
Lina, a 10-year-old girl from Central America, entered the United States as an unaccompanied child and has been in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement since April 2021. Lina was originally enrolled in MPP with her mother and sibling but was separated from them at the border and designated by U.S. officials as an unaccompanied minor. Her mother and sibling remain in Mexico, in constant fear of violence. Were Lina reunited with her family, they could jointly seek reopening of their cases. For now, Lina exhibits cognitive difficulties that are exacerbated by the continued separation from her mother and sibling.
In the interior of the United States, family separation continues to be a routine part of civil immigration enforcement, without meaningful policies to preserve family unity or parental rights. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) routinely separates children from their parents for months, years, or forever. When detention or deportation tears a parent from their child or children, the impact is devastating and the consequences lifelong.
Cristina is a survivor of multiple forms of trafficking. After fleeing forced marriage and sexual abuse in her home country, Cristina was forced to work for an organized criminal organization in the United States, resulting in a criminal conviction that was the result of coercion due to her trafficking victimization. Cristina served her full criminal sentence, but instead of being released to her family was transferred to ICE custody in a county jail where she remained detained for approximately 10months. ICE’s decision to detain Cristina during her removal proceedings separated her from her husband, who was hospitalized repeatedly during her detention for significant mental health concerns, and her step-children, who desperately needed her support.
NIJC shared these stories and others in the comment we submitted this week to the Biden administration task force. To add your voice, submit your own comment on the Federal Register (click the green "submit a formal comment" button) letting the administration know that you oppose any policy that systemically separates families.
To learn more about these policies – and how you can help us put pressure on President Biden to do the right thing – join us for NIJC's next virtual Policy Corner: Family Separation In The Biden Era, on Tuesday, February 1 from 12:00 - 1:00 p.m. CT.
The administration still has time to change course and stop separating families, rather than continue inflicting long-lasting harm.
Jordyn Rozensky is the communications strategist at the National Immigrant Justice Center.