The Perils of Separating Immigrant Families: A Perspective by Lear Matthews

The Perils of Separating Immigrant Families: A Perspective

Lear Matthews

It is clear that immigration has become a simmering social issue churned by politics, economics and sentiments related to ethnocentric ideals


As we celebrate National Caribbean Heritage Month, we must be vigilant about contemporary immigration issues. Restrictive immigration policies have undoubtedly escalated under the current U.S. government administration. Implications for the wider immigrant community, including the negative impact on cross-cultural understanding and collaboration must be taken into consideration by all immigrants. This article gives a perspective on the problem and suggests some possible solutions.        

The Problem

The potential clinical and social perils of the egregious policy of separating families are clear. The forced separation of parents from their children, an act justified with biblical quotes, have evoked national and international outrage. It is important to note that seeking asylum or refugee status is permitted by U.S. Immigration Law. However, this  unconscionable, callous policy, labelled “zero tolerance” is reminiscent of a bleak period in U.S. history as a country separating children from their parents among the poor and particularly people of color.  This phenomenon was prevalent during the 1800s with the Indian Boarding Schools, the Orphan Train movement, founding of the Children’s Aid Society, Asian Internment, and chattel Slavery earlier.

Separating children from their parents puts them at risk for myriad problems. These children often experience emotional trauma, potential safety risks, and their overall well-being is compromised.  This causes anxiety, depression and acting-out behaviors including the potential of becoming gang members to acquire a sense of belonging.  When parents are detained, criminalized or held in custody, they are generally afraid to retrieve their unaccompanied minor children due to fear of deportation and the children often end up in the child welfare system.  The intersection between immigration law and child welfare compounds the problem for both systems, families and the staff. The department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and organizations such as Children’s’ Village have been assigned to manage the case coordination, mental health needs and placement (with distant relatives or designated foster care homes) of youthful migrant detainees.

Nevertheless, excessive delays at designated Ports of Entry exacerbate the separation of families. While family reunification and family permanency are central to the child welfare system, elevated discrepancy between law/policy and practice of the likes never seen before, can be detrimental to the emotional state of migrating families. Language barriers and cultural differences can also have negative repercussions. Perhaps a little known fact is that privately contracted Detention Centers profit immensely from the ‘business’ of immigration.

Barriers can further increase because of the following: lack of knowledge of personnel on how to navigate the system; family court judges’ lack of awareness of why parents may not be available to attend permanency hearings when they are detained; immigration judges who are not able to keep parents and children together. One government official stated, “we don’t need judges, we need more arrests”; personnel including ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) officials constantly deal with their own compassion for or biases against immigrants.  

Humanitarianism is a doctrine based on humanity and the duty to promote human welfare. It is consistent with the values of “dignity and worth of the individual, service and social justice” that all human beings deserve respect and dignity.  It is a universal doctrine we hold to be true  personally , professionally and as nations.  Consequently, we strive to help people who are oppressed due to persecutions, violence, religious differences, political  philosophy, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, or the aftermath of wars and natural disasters.

The United States and hundreds of other countries ratified the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention treaty that builds on Article 14 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of the Human Rights, which recognizes the right of persons to seek asylum from persecution in other countries.  According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) website,

“Refugee status or asylum may be granted to people who have been persecuted or fear they will be persecuted on account of race, religion, nationality, and/or membership in a particular social group or political opinion.”


USCIS states that an individual may apply for asylum in the United States regardless of country of origin or current immigration status. The asylum seeker may include her or his spouse and children who are in the United States on the application at the time filed or at any time until a final decision is made on the case. To include a child on one’s application, the child must be under 21 and unmarried. Current U.S. immigration policy (not law) informed by the belief that “America is overrun by illegal aliens and criminal refugees” is not based on facts, but on nativist rhetoric presumably designed to amp up  a political base. The recent deletion of “…a Nation of Immigrants” from the mission statement of the Department of Homeland Security and  the use of terms such as “infestation” to describe the presence of newly arrive immigrants  cause further division, stress and resentment.

Although most English speaking Caribbean immigrants emigrate from their home country by choice, the transnational experience can be daunting for some. Furthermore, the ramifications of family separation have implications for  immigrants in general. Countries are expected to protect their borders. However, politicians, past and present, have been accused of using the issue of immigration as a ‘football’ to gain political latitude. The current administration exhibits xenophobic tendencies, and often unpredictable if not contradictory in its actions regarding immigration matters.

Possible Solutions

The following possible solutions are proposed: (1) Nativist rhetoric must be debunked (2) The call for abolishing ICE may not be politically savvy. However, advocating for reforming ICE to reflect less politically motivated and more compassionate strategies, particularly  regarding those who do not pose a security threat to the nation would be effective (3) There is an urgent need to focus less on not appearing “weak” on immigration, but to be guided by moralistic and social justice principles (4) Policy decisions should be based on understanding the causes and consequences of the push/pull factors of immigration (5) The legal rights and mental health of separated parents and children should be addressed (6) Coordinated  marches and demonstrations can effect positive changes for the welfare of immigrants  and immigration policies (7) continuation of the advocacy work of organizations such as the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), the Immigration Lawyers Association and Immigrant Hometown Associations.

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