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For Immigrants at the Border, It's About the Children

The U.S. government has chosen to fracture and separate the very unit that it argues it cares about most

The very values that America upholds are the ones that they use to break up immigrant families and asylum seekers, both physically and emotionally. (Photo: @ajplus/Twitter)

The very values that America upholds are the ones that they use to break up immigrant families and asylum seekers, both physically and emotionally. (Photo: @ajplus/Twitter)

Contradiction is the name of the game in current U.S. immigration policy. As states pass increasingly restrictive abortion laws, ostensibly to protect children, the fifth migrant child -- and the sixth overall -- has died in the custody of Customs and Border Patrol since December. The irony is not lost on any of us. How can the U.S. argue that its policies are meant to protect children? These actions are not about young people and they are not about families. But for immigrant parents and families, their sacrifice to leave children behind and migrate, or bring children with them to the border to request asylum is precisely all about children and trying to keep their families together.

Dismantling the other’s family is a war strategy meant to deter migration, however, what they fail to comprehend is that people will always strive to take care of their families.

The U.S. government has chosen to fracture and separate the very unit that it argues it cares about most. When politicians and pundits claim that they need to protect "American values" built on family and church, they attack and dismantle families, the most sacred element for many immigrants. Dismantling the other’s family is a war strategy meant to deter migration, however, what they fail to comprehend is that people will always strive to take care of their families. And families ultimately want to stay together; no mother wants to leave her babies behind, and no father wants to watch his three-year-old son ripped from his arms as the boys screams "Papa!"  Again, American policies, whether about immigration or a woman’s right to a safe abortion, are really not about the children.

During the last 10 years, I have conducted ethnographic research with immigrant populations from Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Brazil. I focused on immigrant mothers who had left children behind to come to the United States. Many others have acknowledged and gone to great lengths to explain the ultimate sacrifice performed by these women. In more than 100 interviews with mothers I learned that their first response as to why they migrate was always to benefit their children. Doubtlessly, the realities are more complex than the simple answer "for my children." However, what these women taught me was to what extraordinary lengths they would they go to provide for their offspring.

After a decade of researching and writing about transnational families – families divided by borders who continue to remain in close communication – I have learned that governments know nothing about the extent that parents will go to keep their families together. April 2018 changed everything. It's true that family detentions already existed, and deportations were on the rise well before President Trump was elected. But when the zero-tolerance policy and family separation began, it revealed to me is that this administration does not understand what matters for immigrants coming to the border. They do know that for immigrants, it is about the children. Thus, the very values that America upholds are the ones that they use to break up immigrant families and asylum seekers, both physically and emotionally.

Families separated across borders, and especially mothers who are away from their children, explain that their biggest fear is that their children will think they have abandoned them. The thought that their own children would understand separation as abandonment is painfully heart wrenching. When families are forcibly separated at the border and children don’t know where the parents went, the panic of abandonment is too overwhelming. One mother shared that when she saw her seven-year old boy taken from her, she fainted. Now, reunited, the mother explained that the mere thought that her son would think she did not care about him or their family, was overwhelmingly devastating. It's all about the children.

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Gabrielle Oliveira

Gabrielle Oliveira

Gabrielle Oliveira is an assistant professor at Boston College's Lynch School of Education and Human Development, and author of "Motherhood Across Borders: Immigrants and Their Children in Mexico and New York" (NYU Press, 2018)

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