AAA Calls On Biden Administration to Cease the Separation of Im/migrant Families

Within the first three months of 2021, 33,000 unaccompanied children arrived at the United States-Mexico border. The US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) responded by opening large-scale facilities, ranging from 1000 to 4500 beds, to house them. Yet most of these children did not travel alone; they were rendered “unaccompanied” by Title 42, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) policy enacted by the Trump administration that instructs US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) to refuse entry to adults from a country where a communicable disease is present. Unlike adults, children from noncontiguous countries cannot be deported immediately. Instead, minors are being detained in converted convention centers, stadiums, and military bases until they are reunited with family in the U.S., enter federal foster care, or are deported.

The American Anthropological Association urges the Biden administration to cease separating im/migrant families through the use of Title 42 and to ease the myriad restrictions constraining individuals’ right to seek asylum., including the detention of children.

Title 42 is not an aberration; rather, it builds upon earlier policies of both the Obama and Trump administrations that have restricted asylum, including the “Remain in Mexico” program and the illegal asylum metering system at the US-Mexico border. It is merely one among myriad ways in which immigration policy is separating children from their families– be it raids, stalled family reunification, visa quotas, or deportation.

Anthropological research in general, and Indigenous scholarship in particular, understands trauma not merely as an individual response to an event, but also as a rupture of the social fabric. Experts concur that even brief detention and separation from parents can cause psychological trauma and induce long-term mental health risks for children and youth. Research underscores that care practices (or lack thereof) in large-scale institutions can cause severe harm: children who have been detained describe constant surveillance, limited communication with family, lack of fresh air and green space, prohibition against physical touch, and disturbingly, overmedication. They are also victims of sexual assault,  physical abuse, verbal abuse, and medical neglect. At the same time, children struggle to cope with the uncertainty of family reunification, procedural opacity, ongoing legal proceedings, and the possibility of deportation.

The AAA calls upon the Administration to rectify the situation at the United States’ southern border by implementing a three-part approach that is monitored by independent experts and follows best practices in each:

  1. Uphold and defend the basic human rights of asylum-seeking families at the border without ever separating adults from children, especially when they are under U.S. custody. This includes adhering to international refugee conventions and protocols and related international law protecting the rights of children and migrants and regarding racial, gender, and other forms of discrimination. This also includes ending internationally-condemned CBP practices such as abusive screening using “hieleras” or iceboxes, destruction of migrant water supplies, and illegal turning away or refoulement of asylum-seekers.
  2. End administrative policies that produce unaccompanied child migration. Specifically, we call for a repeal of Title 42 which continues to separate children from their families, stopping the illegal asylum metering at U.S.-Mexico border checkpoints, and halting any remaining use of “Safe Country Agreements” to El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Canada.
  3. Quickly reunify all detained children with family members and close all detention facilities (private and nonprofit) for unaccompanied children, including facilities run by Customs and Border Patrol, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement. The Biden administration must follow best practices in the placement and care of young migrants, including the placement of children in the least restrictive setting appropriate to their needs, prioritizing family and small group care. Children should live in family-based settings where the federal government provides legal representation and culturally- and linguistically-appropriate services, including mental health and educational support.

The Biden administration must acknowledge the historical, political, economic, and ecological factors forcing a new generation of young people to leave Central America, and the United States’ role in this history of displacement. Instead of policies that further militarize migration management across the Americas, the Administration must address the multifaceted causes of migration in ways that center the voices, experiences, and challenges of displaced and vulnerable communities in Central America, Mexico, and the US.

This statement was prepared in collaboration with the Anthropologist Action Network for Immigrants and Refugees and is endorsed by the Society for North American Anthropology, the Council on Anthropology and Education, and the Anthropology of Children and Youth Interest Group. Here is the complete AANIR statement.