The Other Family Separation Issue

by: Patrick Calderon

When I was in McAllen, Texas, last summer to interview migrants and humanitarian workers for an immigration-related research project, news broke in major media outlets that US authorities were separating immigrant children from their parents at the southern border with Mexico. I was heartened by how Republicans and Democrats alike raised their voices in outrage at the roughly 2,000 family separations. This, Americans of all political stripes seemed to say, was just not in keeping with their values. While it is certainly good that President Trump–faced with significant pressure from all sides–ditched the practice, it’s important to remember that separating children from their parents at the border is not the only way that US immigration authorities separate families. It doesn’t just happen when people enter the country. It also happens when people leave–when immigration authorities deport people far away from their loved ones, many of whom may be US citizens.

Deportations are on the rise: the 256,085 deportations that US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) conducted in Fiscal Year 2018 represented a 13% increase from the previous fiscal year. Given how deportation separates families, this increase is concerning. But even without getting rid of deportation entirely, there are certain things that the US can do to mitigate its effects. The United States. can, for example, prioritize certain groups for deportation over others and take certain factors into account when making the decision to deport, which is precisely what it used to do. During President Obama’s second term, the Department of Homeland Security tried to focus on deporting felons, people involved with gangs, dangerous misdemeanants, and other true security threats from the country under a policy of “prosecutorial discretion.” Further, immigration authorities were instructed to take “family and community ties” as well as other relevant humanitarian factors into account when deciding whether to evict someone from the United States.

Now, under President Trump, the groups to be prioritized for deportation are so broad that they are, in the estimation of the American Immigration Council, effectively meaningless. Furthermore, the provisions that allow authorities to take family ties into consideration when determining whom to deport have been rescinded. In theory, someone can now be deported just for being charged with a traffic violation, and the fact that they have family in the US and have built lives in the country wouldn’t really matter.

This may sound abstract, but these policies turn the lives of real people upside down. Last summer I also had the opportunity to interview deported migrants in Mexico as part of my research. I got to sit down with a kindly man in his fifties–let’s call him Alberto–who sported a mustache and a broad smile. The man explained that he had lived in the US for decades and applied multiple times for a green card, but after missing an immigration hearing that his lawyer had failed to inform him about, he was arrested by ICE while driving his grandchildren to school. He was deported back to Mexico, far from his wife and US-citizen children. As he was telling his story, he broke down and started sobbing, his voice full of pain at being separated from the people he loved the most.

That man’s suffering could have been avoided, if only immigration authorities were empowered to take all of the factors of his story–his family’s continued presence in the US, the many decades he’d spent in the country, his attempt to abide by the law–into account. The first step, then, should be a return to the Obama-era enforcement priorities of focusing on deporting people who are true threats to public safety and allowing family ties and other humanitarian considerations to play into deportation decisions. But this would not go far enough: plenty of parents of US-citizen children were deported under President Obama, numbering around half a million between 2009 and 2013.

What is really needed is a shift from an enforcement-based immigration system to a values-based one: instead of focusing on getting rid of “illegals” and ejecting people for minor offenses, the immigration system should reflect the conviction–shared, as seen last summer, by people of all political persuasions–that families belong together. This means that there should be no more deportations of otherwise law-abiding people whose children and close family are still in the United States. People like Alberto should never be deported away from their loved ones. Americans should raise their voices in outrage against this kind of family separation, too.


Patrick Calderon specializes in immigration issues as a graduate of the Master of Global Affairs program at the University of Notre Dame’s Keough School of Global Affairs. He recently completed a yearlong research project investigating ethical responses to immigration enforcement challenges. Born in California, Patrick immigrated with his family to Canada at the age of 5 because of his parents’ precarious legal status in the United States.

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