What to Do Next on the Family Separation Crisis: Commit to Family Unity


Last month the Trump administration was forced to issue an executive order it claims will solve a family separation crisis at the border — a crisis that the administration first ordered, then denied existed, and then tried to blame on others. It’s far from clear that the executive order will truly solve the problem. The intervention of a federal judge gave us some comfort that the administration’s promise to reunite the 3,000 families it separated will be monitored.

But as we’ve recently learned, just under half of those eligible will be reunited on time, and they’re just a fraction of the thousands of young immigrants still in custody apart from their parents, many of whom are detained and separated from their family as a byproduct of the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy.

This incident underscores an eternal truth: when people of goodwill across political, class, and racial lines step up, positive change is possible in our democracy, as polarized and frayed as it is today. The outcry generated by the heart-rending images of innocent children being ripped from the arms of their parents, broadcast and streamed across every media platform, rendered an inhumane policy untenable. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the media’s almost laser focus on the border has blurred the outlines of a far larger family separation crisis taking place all around us.
Most of us know of the Trump administration’s unilateral decision to terminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which ended the lawful status of 700,000 “DREAMers.” Few people realize that nearly three-quarters of them have a spouse, sibling, or child who is a U.S. citizen. If the administration succeeds in making DACA recipients deportable, more than half a million families are in danger of being ripped apart.

The administration has also announced its intention to revoke the Temporary Protected Status of hundreds of thousands long-term residents from El Salvador, Honduras, and Haiti beginning next year. Those TPS holders have an estimated 273,000 U.S. citizen children, who could be separated from their families, beginning in January.

And we cannot forget President Trump’s mass deportation scheme, which replaces previous enforcement priorities that tried to target serious offenders with an indiscriminate “zero tolerance” approach. Today, more than 5.1 million U.S. citizen children live with a parent who is undocumented. Every one of these American families is at risk of being split up.

As long as we focus only on the border, we may miss the more profound crisis taking place in our own neighborhoods and communities. Only by zooming out to examine the issue more broadly does the full, more profoundly disturbing picture become clear. Then we can see that nearly six million American children are having nightmares every night and waking up every morning traumatized by the very real fear that the next day’s mail will include a letter revoking their DACA status. That their next email will order a parent to turn in their Temporary Protected Status documents and leave the country. That the next knock on the door will be an ICE agent coming to remove their mother.

That the next phone call will be from their father, who instead of coming home from work to dinner is on the way to being deported and calling to say goodbye. We are haunted by these images, every bit as much as by the anguished cries of children being ripped from their mothers’ arms at the border.

The truth is, unless Congress passes bipartisan legislation to protect DREAMers and existing TPS holders, the wrenching cries of children being forcibly taken from their parents could soon be heard in communities across the country.

But we can end this cruelty. We can rein in an out-of-control mass deportation machine by cutting off the funding required to arrest, detain, and deport the parents of American children. And we can use our power at the ballot box to support candidates in both parties who commit to the principle of family unity for all American children, even those that aren’t in the media spotlight.

We are far from powerless.