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Taking away their children won’t stop Central American border crossers


Blanca Vásquez fled El Salvador last year with her 12-year-old son, Luís, after gang members murdered her husband and threatened the family. They gave themselves up to the Border Patrol in El Paso, Texas and applied for asylum. 

As reported by the Houston Chronicle, Vásquez was separated from her son Luís, who was sent to a shelter in New York. Months later, an immigration judge denied the mother’s request for asylum. She likely will be deported back to El Salvador, without her child, whose future is uncertain.

Now it’s up to Department of Homeland Security chief Kirstjen Nielsen to decide whether examples like Blanca Vásquez and Luís will be a policy applied systematically to detained immigrant parents and children.

{mosads}Shortly before Christmas, the Washington Post reported on a DHS plan to separate detained Central American immigrant children, even toddlers, from their parents, as part of a crackdown on undocumented border crossings.


The plan would keep detained immigrant adults in federal detention, while sending their children to Health and Human Services shelters, potentially hundreds of miles away. The plan also proposes targeting for deportation parents or other relatives who try to regain custody of the children.

Many words come to mind to describe this plan: unconscionable, heartless, and inhuman. It would also be ineffectual and counterproductive.

Taking away their children will not stop undocumented immigration from Central America. On the contrary, it will send migrants even more deeply into the clutches of criminal smuggling networks.

In my research among rural communities in Guatemala since the 1980s, I found that as U.S. border enforcement becomes more punitive, it turns migration into a lucrative vehicle for organized crime. Central American migrants must now pay these smuggling networks upwards of $10,000 to cross through Mexico and reach the U.S. That money is borrowed, at 10 percent interest, often by mortgaging land, creating a cycle of debt-fueled migration that traps Central Americans, as interviews by University of Arizona researchers Murphy Woodhouse and Richard Johnson showed.

The plan to separate immigrant children from their parents was floated last spring by then Department of Homeland Security chief and current White House chief of staff John Kelly. It has resurfaced, according to press reports, because of a November increase in the number of families with children and unaccompanied minors apprehended along the southern border. Most of these children come from Guatemala, El Salvador or Honduras. 

Under current policy, families are kept together in special holding cells or released on humanitarian parole with an immigration court date.

The DHS rationale for separating families is that ratcheting up the punishment against these Central Americans will deter immigration. That assumption is false.

Here on the border, we are deeply familiar with the fallacy of punishment as deterrence. That policy goes back at least as far as the 1990s, when the Clinton-era Border Patrol strategy was to seal off urban entry points, thereby using the harsh Arizona desert as a kind of weapon against migration. It didn’t deter people. Instead, it turned the desert into what the border humanitarian group No More Deaths calls a “vast graveyard of the missing.”

A recent investigation by the USA Today Network found that more than 7,000 people have lost their lives crossing the southern border in the past 20 years.

Punishment as deterrence doesn’t work. A multi-year study of border crossers, by University of Arizona researchers Jeremy Slack, Daniel Martínez, and Scott Whiteford, found that enforcement tactics designed to punish migrants — such as deporting people in the middle of the night to the streets of an unfamiliar border city far from where they entered the U.S., including women alone — had little effect on stopping migration. It just made people suffer more.

Currently, many Central American asylum seekers turn themselves into the Border Patrol rather than attempt to cross the desert. But how many would do that if they thought immigration officials would take away their children?

Those families will not be deterred from migrating, since the conditions propelling them are unchanged. Rather, they will become even more dependent on criminal smuggling networks, and even more at risk. 

For the U.S., this means that punishment as immigration deterrence is doomed to fail. For migrants and their children, it means shattered lives.  

Taking away the children of Central American border crossers and asylum seekers will not stop undocumented immigration. We must ask, however, what it would do to our collective soul.

This piece has been updated at the request of the author.

Elizabeth Oglesby is an associate professor of latin american studies at the University of Arizona, Tucson, and a public voices fellow with The OpEd Project. She is co-editor of “The Guatemala Reader: History, Culture, Politics” (2011) and “Guatemala: The Question of Genocide” (2018).

Tags border crossing Border Patrol Elizabeth Oglesby Immigration John Kelly Kirstjen Nielsen Smuggling Unaccompanied minor undocumented immigrants

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