U.S.-Latin America: “Zero Tolerance” Makes Zero Progress

By Ernesto Castañeda *

Children and adults stand in a line

Central American migrant children and their parents. / Pride Immigration Law Firm PLLC / Wikimedia

U.S. President Donald Trump’s family separation policies, despite his June 20 executive action ending them, will have long-term negative consequences and will do nothing to stem the flow of migrants into the United States.

  • Hundreds of families remain separated. Families are detained indefinitely for applying for asylum or crossing into the United States.  Political outrage in the United States may be new, but these policies are not.  Millions of families have been separated across U.S. borders for many years.  After growing up without their parents, children who did not originally accompany migrating parents often attempt to reunify with them in the United States, resulting in the increase of unaccompanied minors that we have seen since 2014 and the surge in violence in Central America.
  • The Trump Administration’s policies fail to address the underlying causes of migration – violence, impunity, corruption, and poverty in sending countries and high U.S. demand for low-cost workers – which show no sign of abating. Many Mexicans and Central Americans are fleeing kidnappings, extortions, and death threats as they explain during credible-threat interviews that give them valid claims for asylum.  U.S.-backed militarized responses to drug trafficking have produced much of the violence and corruption in Mexico and Central America, generating asylum-seekers.  Beyond the traditional economic and social reasons, many recent immigrants are escaping violence, as they did during the Mexican Revolution and the political violence in Central America in the 1980s.

Family separation and the detention of unaccompanied minors in shelters are not new practices either.  What was new in recent months was the separation of families that come to the United States seeking asylum.

  • These forced separations cause the children lifelong trauma. The American Psychiatric Association recently stated that “the evidence is clear that this level of trauma also results in serious medical and health consequences for these children and their caregivers.”  Separation inflicts trauma on adults too; parents suffer from being away from their children due to their decision to migrate.

The logic behind “zero tolerance” is to discourage migration by making conditions as miserable as possible for intending migrants – building psychological walls as well as the physical wall that Trump has pledged to build along the border with Mexico.  By ignoring the underlying causes of these movements of people, this approach is not only cruel but unlikely to be successful.  The concern is also misplaced, despite the increasing visibility of refugees and asylum-seekers in the media, as border apprehensions show a steep downward trend.

  •  The U.S. Congress has so far rejected solutions to the issue of family separation, such as creating larger guest worker programs, strengthening asylum courts, passing the DREAM Act, and demilitarizing responses to drug trafficking. Until the underlying causes of migration are addressed, Washington will be squandering its money prosecuting and causing lasting trauma for innocent children and parents.  Contrary to Trump’s claim that immigrants hurt U.S. culture, my research shows that immigrants are skillful at integrating into American life.  New pathways for legal immigration are the only way ahead to reduce undocumented migration.

 July 3, 2018

 * Ernesto Castañeda is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at American University and author of A Place to Call Home: Immigrant Exclusion and Urban Belonging in New York, Paris, and Barcelona (Stanford, 2018).

Righting a Wrong: Family Reunification and Immigration Reform

Photo credit: mdfriendofhillary / Foter.com / CC BY-SA

Photo credit: mdfriendofhillary / Foter.com / CC BY-SA

As debate around the immigration reform bill is expected to heat up on the Senate floor, a contested provision allowing for some non-criminal deportees to return to the United States remains intact. For how long, no one is quite sure. The controversial measure, outlined in Section 2101 of the current bill, would permit deported immigrants with children, parents, or spouses who are currently U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents to petition for a waiver to return to the U.S. and apply for Registered Provisional Immigrant (RPI) status. While reprieves have been granted to undocumented immigrants residing in the U.S. in the past—under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 and President Obama’s DACA memorandum last July—never before has a Congressional or Executive effort to overhaul immigration policy contemplated the return of deportees.

The “right to return” provision survives even as the rate of deportations continues to soar. Since 2009, the Obama administration has removed 1.5 million unauthorized immigrants and is on track to surpass 2 million by the end of fiscal year 2013. According to recent federal data unearthed through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, 205,000 undocumented immigrants with at least one U.S. citizen child were deported between July 2010 and September 2012, representing an average of 90,000 per year. The contentious deportee measure stems from acknowledgement on the part of the bill’s authors of the destructive effects that these enforcement policies have had on American families, particularly U.S. citizen children. A spokesman for Senator Marco Rubio, one of the bill’s most conservative drafters, noted that the Senator had “personally concluded that giving parents a chance to reunite with their children was the right thing to do.” The toll that family separation takes on the mental and physical health of children has only recently attracted serious attention, with studies suggesting links between parental deportation and depression, separation anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and poor cardiovascular health.

Central to the compromise reached by the bill’s sponsors – known as the Gang of Eight – is the question of how to prioritize family reunification without shattering the bill’s prospects. The argument from the right has been that in promoting family-based immigration, the 1986 reform prompted the larger waves of immigration seen since then. In response to these concerns over “chain migration,” however exaggerated they may be, the proposed legislation calls for a gradual move away from the family-based immigration model, eliminating some 90,000 annual visas given to the siblings and married adult children of legal immigrants and granting up to 110,000 visas to immigrants skilled in science and math. Democrats have viewed this shift toward a more comprehensive “merit-based” system as a necessary compromise, but have built into the bill measures such as the “right to return” as well as an expedited path to citizenship for DREAMers (the children of unauthorized immigrants) and a clearing of family-based immigration backlogs – all of which vindicate the importance of the nuclear family. It is time for Senators from the right to follow the lead of Republican drafters and make some concessions of their own, including the Gang of Eight’s compromise to allow for the reunification of families torn apart by a decade of immigration enforcement policies run amok. Immigration reform must have as its foundation a concern for family unity and a respect for what families contribute to our society. It should also take into account the welfare of 4.5 million U.S. citizen children in mixed-status homes who will be better equipped to contribute to our society if they have the opportunity to grow up in the presence of their parents.