Most Americans Disagree with the Policy of Parent-Child Separation (But Not All)

This is a brief follow-up from the last post I wrote about the cruelty of separating children from their parentsAccording to a poll by The Economist and YouGov, a substantial number of Americans approve of the Trump administration’s recent policy to separate children from their parents who cross the border without documentation. The good news is that a plurality of people responded that they strongly disapproved of the policy, but about a third of those polled approved of it at least somewhat, while roughly one-fifth strongly approved. The results of Question # 31 were as follows:

Do you approve or disapprove of separating families from each other, including minor children, when the adults are arrested for crossing the border into the United States without proper documentation?

•Strongly approve … 18%
•Somewhat approve … 14%
•Somewhat disapprove … 15%
•Strongly disapprove … 38%
•Not sure … 15%


This is disappointing.

I think it’s clear that the policy of separation is cruel, inhumane, and had lasting deleterious effects on child health. Two UCLA professors, Jaana Juvonen (a developmental psychologist), and Jennifer Silvers (a developmental neuroscienist) even argued that forced separation qualifies as torture. Celebrity chef Padma Lakshmi, reflecting on her own childhood separated from her mother and the long-term effects it had on her, called it an “unconscionable policy that devastates the most basic and fundamental relationship human beings know.” It’s also cruel to parents as well as children. The Washington Post reported that one father from Honduras, Marco Antonio Muñoz, committed suicide in custody after Border Patrol agents separated him from his 3-year old son. 

So, what do we make of the fact that 18% of respondents said they approved of the policy? Are people ignorant of the suffering this causes? Indifferent to it? Is this just partisanship, supporting whatever policies come from our “side” and rejecting those from the other? For supporters, is it an “ends justify the means,” where people are accepting of any method to curtail undocumented immigration from the southern border? An even more disturbing possibility is that some people enjoy the idea of others’ suffering. I don’t know.

A clue can be seen in the follow-up question (#32), when people were given a different list of choices about what to do with undocumented families who cross the border. The way that a question is framed can have profound effects on responses.


Which policy do you prefer for how to handle families that are stopped for crossing the border into the United States without proper documentation?

•Release the families and have them report back for an immigration hearing at a
later date . . . 20%
•Hold families together in family detention centers until an immigration hearing at
a later date . . . 43%
•Arrest the adults, send them to jail to await a criminal trial and send any minor
children to shelters run by the Department of Health and Human Services . . . 11%
•Arrest both the adults and minor children, send the adults to jail and the minor
children to juvenile detention centers to await a criminal trial . . . 8%
•Not sure . . . 18%


Of all of these options, the harshest is the last one — sending adults to jail and children to juvenile detention centers. This was the least chosen option, by 8% of respondents. It should be zero percent, but the point is that this looks like a different pattern of responses compared to the previous question. Separation does not have blanket support.

On this site I’ve tried to emphasize our plasticity and adaptability in terms of our biology and behavior. I think this is one of our species’ greatest assets. Behaviorally, we are all capable of moving in a range of directions — sometimes virtuous, sometimes vicious — depending on the circumstances.  And I still have hope that the virtuous side will overcome. Yet, there is a cruel streak that runs in this country. Perhaps opinions can still be swayed among the general public, and among elected officials with power, but we are going down a dark path right now.

One thought on “Most Americans Disagree with the Policy of Parent-Child Separation (But Not All)

  1. “about a third of those polled approved of it at least somewhat, while roughly one-fifth strongly approved.”

    I wouldn’t necessarily read too much into it. Polls show a lot of odd results. There will always be a significant percentage of respondents who will state agreement with almost anything, whether or not they genuinely agree. Many of them might be confused, trolling, or simply in a bad mood. One thing seems clear that any result that is 20% or lower should be treated with skepticism.

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