Beyond the Separation of Families
A view from Mexico on the crisis of the migration system
An original version of this piece was written in Spanish for the Mexican magazine Letras Libres, focusing on Mexico’s response to the issue of family separation in the context of the July 1 presidential election.
The separation of fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters at the U.S.-Mexican border, part of the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy announced in early May, has been met with an outcry of rejection within the U.S., Mexico, Central America, and all over the world. Yet this new “crisis” has a history, arising in the context of a decade-long toughening of migration policies in the Global North as many countries face increasing numbers of refugees and asylum seekers. These moments when the “crisis” becomes visible mobilize society and demand immediate responses — above all when there are children involved — but they also run the risk of drying up when the exhaustion of mobilization surpasses the fire of indignation, or when the small victories — like the fact that Trump suspended/repealed these measures — are deemed sufficient.
In this case, the suspension of the zero-tolerance policy means a return to the status quo, in which millions of families already remain for months in deplorable conditions in detention centers, subject to deportation, without adequate legal representation and, in many cases, still separated from their children. There remain, furthermore, the nearly 2,000 children that had already been separated from their parents and who the government agencies have not been able to locate, and other thousands who have been living for years separated from their deported mothers and fathers. In recent weeks, we have born witness to children sleeping in what can only be described as cages, crying out for their parents between sobs. And we have come to know that the pain of parents in the insufferable limbo of not knowing where their children are, nor when they will ever see them again, has resulted in serious mental health conditions, and has even led to suicide. What has become visible today are the extreme cases of the everyday practices of detention and family separation that have existed for years and will continue to exist under this system, but when they are not so visible they once again become acceptable.
Facing the so-called migrant or refugee “crisis” in Europe, a group of academics called the New Keywords Collective called for the interrogation of the word “crisis” and its political implications: What are we calling a crisis? For whom is it a crisis? Who wins and who loses when we call it a crisis? Without leaving aside how delicate a moment we are living in the face of the toughening of policies in the U.S. and their social, psychological and political consequences for those who are directly affected and for society in as a whole, the main argument I bring forth from the New Keywords Collective is that the current understanding of the refugee “crisis,” focused solely on the emergency and its immediate resolution, can easily lose sight of the need for deep and ongoing work to confront its causes and consequences. In the case of the United States today, the root issue is that family separations have been occurring for decades. Not only do children suffer when they are in the custody of strangers or isolated from parental care in detention centers, but so too do parents suffer. Since the beginning of the deportation strategies of G.W. Bush and Barack Obama, they have had to make the impossible decision to leave their children in the U.S. so that they could continue their education and have a better life; they have had to leave their children in their countries of origin hoping that the earnings they send back will give them a better life. It is a life of separation. These critical decisions, when reality leaves no choice, rupture family and community structures, with deep, long-lasting impacts in the origin country and in the country of destination.
The international community has condemned the Trump government’s recent actions. The High Commissioner of the United Nations qualified these policies as unacceptable, and the Mexican government joined these condemnations, describing the United States’ actions as inhumane and cruel. The candidates for presidency in the recent election in Mexico echoed this condemnation and promised to defend the rights of Mexican immigrants, to be firm in the face of the Trump government, and to call on multilateral strategies to combat these actions (at the same time that the Trump administration announced its exit from the Counsel of Human Rights of the United Nations). What the “crisis” has not managed to bring about is a public debate about Mexico’s responsibility to the refugees and asylum seekers that cross the country to arrive in the United States. The deeper crisis that we see reflected in the situation of the separated families today is that of a migratory system that limits the right to mobility and violates human rights across borders. Mexico’s Foreign Secretary Luis Videgaray issued a statement insisting that the number of Mexicans affected by the current situation is minimal, as if the fact that the majority of detainees are Central Americans absolves Mexico of responsibility. This would be a key moment to acknowledge the shortcomings of Mexico’s own asylum policies. In his chronicle “Los que iban a morir se acumulan en México ,” Oscar Martínez demonstrates the urgency of expanding and improving the processes available to asylum seekers in Mexico: “This year (2017), for the first time in this century, it is calculated that Mexico reached a figure of five digits in petitions for refuge: 20,000 people, almost all from northern Central America, will seek refuge this year so as not to die.” But the petition processes in Mexico are slow and complicated (around 60 percent of applications have not been processed by COMAR ) and many asylum seekers who live in migrant shelters in precarious conditions while they wait for their cases to be resolved ultimately give up. And this almost always means they look toward the North again and assume the risks of this journey—extortion and kidnapping in Mexico, death in the desert, or a deportation process that will divide their family.
A year ago, Democracia Deliberada, a Mexican group of academics, activists and professionals pushing for a leftist agenda, suggested that an alternative policy and powerful symbolic action in response to Trump’s anti-immigrant stance would be for Mexico to articulate a refugee policy consistent with its history and principles. Why not receive refugees who are rejected from the United States, offer asylum to those in transit, and strengthen Mexico’s institutional structure to provide the necessary support, as has also been proposed by a number of advocacy groups, including IMUMI, Sin Fronteras y el Grupo de Trabajo sobre Política Migratoria? Why not, instead of repetitiously condemning the actions of the United States, evaluate the effects of Mexican deportation policies at the southern border, and the lack of support to those crossing its territory—without any consideration for their age, gender, or the circumstances under which they fled? Why not focus on the need to attend to the causes of their exodus, as much in Central America as in Mexico? And why not emphasize the importance of supporting those who return to their country of origin whether forced or voluntarily, acknowledging that in the majority of cases this means the separation of families, whether temporary or permanent?
The solidarity expressed by millions around the world requires a sustainable and continuous commitment, beyond the moment of crisis that moved us to protest; to recognize the work of the organizations that have worked for years to support individuals affected by these practices, fighting to change laws and policies; to donate to these efforts; or to share information on social networks. It is crucial that we mobilize the empathy defining this moment, initiated by the suffering of children at the border, to align ourselves as much with their mothers and fathers, with all migrants and not only with refugees, and to focus on long-term, structural change. Because when the children are no longer placed in those cages, when they are back in the detention centers instead of in the industrial-looking warehouses, when the monitors are turned off and we stop seeing all the messages on our social media feeds, the migration policies that support these practices and their consequences will continue. If we call this moment a crisis, let’s do so with the full intention to rethink and transform the current migratory system, not just in the U.S. but across the region.
Translated from the original Spanish version by Ali Shames-Dawson.