Why Family Separation Goes Against Everything We Know about Migration

girl detained

As a scholar of migration, I want to speak to this administration’s current family separation policy as not merely discriminatory and unconstitutional, but also in stark disregard for everything we know about why and how humans choose to migrate.

The policy represents a blatant disregard for the testimony of experts in the field of migration studies. Scholars of migration and displacement have shown that there is no definitive evidence linking the presence of refugees in a host country with increased risk to the citizens of that host country. Experts in the field of diaspora studies have proven the hardship that comes along with the forced separation of families and communities in the wake of discriminatory immigration legislation and policy directives. Furthermore, historians of immigration have demonstrated that legal maneuvers that have in the past sought to close borders often resulted in forcing migrants into covert pathways of entry into the host country. Scholarship shows that legal migration is safer – for both migrants and host countries.

Perhaps most importantly, as scholars of global migration, we also understand that immigrants do not move in a vacuum. Each migrant is part of an intricate, interconnected web of family, community, and resources. This interconnectedness and interdependency means that the negative toll exacted by this family separation policy on immigrant, refugee, green card, and visa-holder populations is far heavier than a tally of the number of “~2,000 children and their families” alone would suggest. If we try to measure this in numbers – especially numbers based on US government detention statistics – we are, in a sense, already failing to understand the basic premise of how migration works, and how migrants are part of vast economic, emotional, and community networks. We are failing at grasping the actual extent of the damage being done here.

As I have mentioned all-too recently in my comments on the January 2017 Executive Order against immigration and refugees:

These types of statistics all presume the unquestionable ability of lawmakers or analysts (from the Right OR Left) to quantify “impact” when it comes to immigration legislation or policy. Perhaps this presumption signals our confidence in the surveillance state. Or perhaps, in a time of overwhelming confusion, numbers seem like a concrete thing to grasp ahold of. But here is the crux of the issue: In this case (like that of the 2017 Executive Orders), we cannot simply tally the number of children detained, or parents ripped from the grasp of their loved ones – some driven as far as suicide in the wake of this horror – and expect that to render a reliable picture of the number of people “affected” by the policy of family separation.

Succinct tallies of “impacted” migrants are inherently misleading to the public – whether that number is 200, 2,000, or 20,000. Simply put, experts in the field of Migration Studies have shown over and over again that immigrants do not move in a vacuum. Each migrant is part of an intricate, interconnected web of family, community, and resources. Migrants do not move in a closed system, they circulate in transnational networks. If the path of one migrant is disrupted, this has a ripple effect on the livelihood and path of other people related to them by their network. Family members, colleagues, friends, financial dependents – all of these groups figure into the networks of moving bodies.

Furthermore, the countries from which asylum seekers come are predominantly the Central American nations of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. These countries have suffered the historic violence of war, genocide, and dispossession funded, supported, covered up, and perpetrated by the US Government with increased vigor since the mid-twentieth century and the rise of multinational capitalist corporations. Just ask any one of my students from an introductory level course on Modern Latin American history. Today’s policy is a continuation of this long tradition of violence enacted toward our neighbors elsewhere in the Americas.

Today’s policy also fails to recognize the fact that family separation has already been part of most migrant parents’ experience long before they reach the US-Mexico border. Parents fleeing their home country commonly make gutting decisions about leaving children behind in order to have the best chance of safely reaching the US in order to better support those children from afar. Thus, threatening family separation will never serve to, as Sessions claims, ‘close a loophole.’ Family separation – while inhumane, racist, brutal, and sickening – will not deter migration. People choose to migrate, in many cases, as part of multi-generational family projects – not snap decisions dictated by ‘disincentives’ like the smoke and mirrors policies of Trump, Sessions, etc.

These smoke and mirrors policies are just that. Even when/if these policies get rolled back, reversed by Executive Order, or vociferously challenged by fellow party members as inhumane — the core issue remains. The nexus of political apparatus and corporate media continue to inch closer to convincing the general public of a fallacy: that is, political regimes enact or advocate policy in response to concrete knowledge of how human migration works. They do not. If, in the days and hours to come Trump issues an Executive Order against family separation, it will be nothing more than a sleight of hand. This will be but another opportunistic move in the administration’s broader attempt to convince the general public that it understands how immigration works, and makes policy accordingly. We are at a critical juncture, and must not look away. At this moment more than any we must raise the issue that Family Separation, Border Walls, and Immigration Bans do not align with what migration scholars know about how and why humans move.

Human movement, global migration, is a messy story at the end of the day. It is one that embodies the impossibility of numbers. Math falls short of calculating the human experience – especially since humans are moving, networking entities by their very nature. Trump and his political apparatus deftly capitalize on fear tactics that hinge on claiming ‘immeasurable’ potential harm caused by migrants and migration. What we need to start realizing is something that many generations of migrants already know: the impact of restrictive immigration crackdowns is also immeasurably detrimental —to people, communities, institutions, and national economies. It has always been thus, and thus it will continue to be—at a scale that we cannot easily quantify. Yes, this is daunting. But yes, we have to keep moving forward, speaking up, doing our work, and taking faith in those around us doing the same.

As migration experts, and as a community of scholars, we must remain committed to the ethical responsibility to defend the rights of the individuals threatened by these policies. What exactly does that look like at this particular juncture? It may look different for everyone. It may look like doubling down and committing to our advocacy and activism. It may look like contributing monetarily to groups and organizations doing the important work of supporting those most immediately in danger from these policies.

It may also look like gritting our teeth in the midst of this social media echo chamber and driving our research forward – research that calls out the absurdity of characterizing migrants as crises, of mass migration as a recent phenomenon, of international human movement as something that exists only as a set of “flows” of people from the poorer Global South to the richer Global North. It may look like allowing ourselves to become enraged, and cry, and reach out to our colleagues and partners and peers and communities for support, and for reminders of the fact that, much like migrants, we do not exist in a vacuum.

Hasta la victoria siempre, comp@s. Adelante.

Lily Pearl Balloffet is a historian and scholar of global migration. She works as an Assistant Professor of Latin American & Latino Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She writes on immigrant networks in the Global South, international relations, and migration policy and theory. She is also the co-editor of Mashriq & Mahjar: Journal of Middle East & North African Migration Studies.