The Scars of Cruelty: Biological Effects of Parent-Child Separation

“Cruelty is surely the very worst of human sins. To fight cruelty, in any shape or form – whether it be towards other human beings or non-human beings – brings us into direct conflict with that unfortunate streak of inhumanity that lurks in all of us.” – Jane Goodall (2010: 306)

An infant cries as U.S. Border Patrol agents process a group of immigrants in Granjeno, Texas, June 2014. (Photo: Jerry Lara, Staff / San Antonio Express-News).

 

Earlier this month Attorney General Jeff Sessions gave a public speech in Scottsdale, Arizona where he announced that the departments of Justice and Homeland Security would separate all children from adults who crossed the U.S. border, regardless of whether they did so illegally or were claiming asylum. Sessions framed this somewhat ambiguously by referring to the “smuggling” of children. Yet it was also clear that he meant for this to be a deterrent to parents, as they would have their own children taken from them:

“If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law. If you don’t want your child to be separated, then don’t bring them across the border illegally.”

Several advocacy groups immediately denounced the policy as cruel and inhumane, including Amnesty International, the ACLU, and the Women’s Refugee Commission. The group Kids in Need of Defense stated that in addition to being cruel, the policy would make it more difficult to process cases for families who are seeking asylum from violence, since it is harder to get information from parents and children who are kept in separate places.

 

The Situation in Central America

The need to process asylum cases efficiently is especially relevant today. Last year saw 294,000 people from Central America (primarily El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala) claim asylum or refugee status in other countries as they fled from rising levels of violence. According to UNHCR , that number was sixteen times higher than it was in 2011. In addition, roughly 714,500 people in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador remained internally displaced in June 2017. That is, they were forced from their homes but had not crossed an international border. Data from the Igarapé Institute in Brazil show that homicide rates in Central America are among the highest in the world , with levels of violence that rival war-torn countries.

Furthermore, the number of Central Americans seeking asylum had also increased in Belize, Mexico, Panama, and Costa Rica, showing that while some cases may be economic migrants looking for work in the U.S., many are simply desperate people fleeing organized gang violence, human trafficking, extortion, and corrupt police/ judicial systems. And some may choose to leave based on a combination of factors. Regardless of the cause, it cannot be an easy decision to make, particularly for parents.

UNHCR’s Francesca Fontanini said that short-term solutions, (which would include things like deportations and parent-child separation) were not likely to ameliorate the situation. In fact, they could even make things worse. According to Robert Muggah, one factor exacerbating the situation in Central America is the sheer scale of deportations from the U.S., in particular people with criminal records:

“Between 2013 and 2015, the US government authorised the deportation of more than 300,000 Hondurans, Guatemalans and Salvadorans with criminal records, many of them children of refugees from the 1970s and 1980s. Another 550,000 Mexicans were also deported over the same period.

The return of so many people, many of them convicted felons, coincided with a sharp uptick in criminal violence in Central America and Mexico. The policy of deporting Latin Americans was actually expanded during the Obama administration. For years the returnees have strained local criminal justice and penal systems to breaking point – overcrowded prisons are even referred to as “crime colleges” or “finishing schools for crime.”

Fontanini added that “we need the states who are receiving these people to invest in longer-term solutions.” What that would entail, she did not say. But it is clear that instability perpetuates itself, and that this does not stay neatly contained within national borders. It is also clear that innocent Central Americans are being crushed between organized crime in their home countries and a sense of indifference or hostility from neighboring nations. President Trump even went so far as to say about “unaccompanied alien minors” (i.e., children), “they look so innocent. They’re not innocent.” The implication was that organized criminals, including members of the notorious gang MS-13, were infiltrating across the border with some pretending to be asylum seekers.

The statistics show that this does occur, though rates appear to be low. According to The New York Times, 240,000 unaccompanied minors entered the US between 2012 and 2017. Only fifty-six of those were linked to MS-13. There is a moral imperative to avoid painting innocent people as the very perpetrators of violence from whom they are fleeing (the same could be said about refugees from Syria and other war-torn countries, who are often conflated with terrorists). Furthermore, Trump’s claim was contradicted by his Chief of Staff, John Kelly, who indicated that the primary reason for preventing immigration from Central America was more about assimilation than crime.

“Let me step back and tell you that the vast majority of the people that move illegally into the United States are not bad people. They’re not criminals. They’re not MS-13. … But they’re also not people that would easily assimilate into the United States, into our modern society. They’re overwhelmingly rural people. In the countries they come from, fourth-, fifth-, sixth-grade educations are kind of the norm. They don’t speak English; obviously that’s a big thing. … They don’t integrate well; they don’t have skills. They’re not bad people. They’re coming here for a reason. And I sympathize with the reason. But the laws are the laws. … The big point is they elected to come illegally into the United States, and this is a technique that no one hopes will be used extensively or for very long.”

 

“Cruelty is the Point”  

When John Kelly was asked about whether he thought it was cruel and heartless to take a mother away from her children, he replied , “I wouldn’t put it quite that way. The children will be taken care of — put into foster care or whatever.” Kelly is an alumnus of UMass Boston, where I have taught since 2003. I think he is an intelligent person, but this seems to be feigned ignorance. All he would have to do is take a moment to imagine a young child being separated from their parents — perhaps imagining himself as a boy in Brighton, or thinking of his own children being taken away when they were young. I’m sure he would quickly conclude that this would be a difficult experience. Again contradicting each other, President Trump acknowledged this when he tweeted that the policy of separation was “horrible,” though he neglected to mention that he was reportedly dismayed that some subordinates “were resisting his direction that parents be separated from their children.”

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