In My Words: ​Do not forget the lives impacted and lost by forcing migrant families apart

In this column distributed by the Elon University Writers Syndicate, Assistant Professor of Human Service Studies Carmen Monico writes about the challenges migrants face in their journey from Central America to the United States, and urges readers to not develop amnesia about how families are being impacted.

This column was distributed by the Elon University Writers Syndicate and was published by the Greensboro News & Record and the Burlington Times-News. Views expressed in this column are the author’s own and not necessarily those of Elon University. 

By Carmen Monico

A father died in detention about two months ago, committing suicide a few days after being forcefully separated from his wife and 3-year-old son. The family had migrated from Honduras, were apprehended and then placed in a detention facility “authorized” by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

A few days ago, a toddler allegedly died shortly after being released from a similar detention center. The child’s death was reported by the American Immigration Lawyers Association, which claims the child died soon after being released from the Dilley South Texas Family Residential Center. The association’s director told The Washington Post that its lawyers have “seen ongoing inadequacies in the standard of care provided to mothers and children in Dilley, and have filed complaints with the government raising concerns.”

These claims join those by others that children and their families have been beaten, starved, abused physically and sexually, and have gone without proper health care while in detention.
I write this column and share about these deaths so that readers might not ignore the stories they have heard about forced family separation. I am writing so that we who care about children and families will not suffer amnesia — about how these lives have been impacted, and about those who have died.

Thousands attempting to cross the various migration routes from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, have faced horrible conditions and abuse on a daily basis for many years. Many have lost limbs and lives crossing on La Bestia (The Beast), a dangerous train route used by migrants that crosses most of Mexico. Many have “disappeared” in the deserts and drowned crossing the Rio Grande river along the U.S.-Mexico border. Lately, some have “disappeared” from the immigration system after entering U.S. territory.

The humanitarian crisis created in spring 2018 by the immigration policies of the Trump administration is new, but this crisis is certainly not the first. Working with an Elon colleague, I studied an earlier and similar crisis during the summer of 2014 caused by U.S. drug policy that drove many to leave their home countries in fear. It has been heartbreaking to learn the facts surrounding these crises, but it is necessary for all to understand them more fully.

A new policy by the U.S. Attorney General criminalizing illegal entry to the U.S. and then a reversal this year of that policy by the executive branch have both created the problem and tried to fix it, creating mixed results. Court challenges to the forced separation policy that tore children from their parents succeeded, but the efforts to reunite these families have been incomplete, with only about 1,442 of 2,551 children reconnected with their parents by a July 27 deadline.

Many factors are behind the massive influx of migrant children and their families from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Economic opportunities and family members already in the U.S. pull them northward.

However, these migrants also being pushed from their home countries by civil unrest or domestic violence, drug cartels, transnational and local/street gang activity. People are fleeing forced gang recruitment or the prospects of rape and imminent death. Accompanied and unaccompanied minors and their parents have been fleeing those conditions to save their lives, not just to seek opportunities not available to them in their homes.

Much of what has driven them from their homes is the result of U.S. policies in Central America, yet amnesia about that fact has already set in.

As this so-called “catch-and-release” policy for detained migrants has created greater burdens across our society and government, it has also challenged us to think more clearly about humanity and decency. It has awakened in us a moral obligation.

We have heard children crying after being forcibly separated from their parents. We have heard the cries of parents to the U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen when she visited a detention center in the U.S. border.

But the public has only seen voice or video clippings and a few photos of what is really happening in those “hieleras” (ice containers), as those detained have come to call them. This lack of transparency has caused concern among legislators, advocates and ordinary citizens, as they question the real numbers of people detained and released, and their locations now.

I have studied the cruel history of family separation and child abduction within the U.S. and around the world. As an international scholar, I believe that this country must ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The United States must center its policies and practices on the best interest of the child and the right to grow up within a family group and not to be forcibly removed from parental care, as detailed in the Convention.

But for starters, we must not separate families. We must not detain children and jail them in cages. We must not cause suffering to people who can be driven to such desperation to get sick or die under our care, or soon after.

I will continue to write about what is happening so that amnesia won’t set in again.