A Migrant Crisis Syllabus: What You Need to Know Now

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President Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy has drawn attention to the plight of migrant families crossing the U.S.-Mexico border and galvanized allies across the country. Like many of you, we at Tropics of Meta are trying to figure out what’s new about Trump’s policy, identify the continuities between this administration and the Obama presidency, and most importantly, determine what we can do at the local, regional, and national level.

Inspired by the many syllabi that have emerged in the wake of Trump’s presidency, we’ve organized a selection of (primarily) journalistic articles and essays. The list is organized chronologically and is a work-in-progress. Rather than an exhaustive list, we hope to provide a selection that covers a variety of themes. Please let us know what we should add.


The two articles below provide a general background.

“What You Should Know About Family Separations, Yes, its Trump Policy. No, its not the law,” The Marshall Project, June 19, 2018

This piece explains the “Zero Tolerance” policy, which was announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions on May 7. Previous, border crossers would be prosecuted for immigration violations. Now prosecuted in federal criminal court. Asylum seekers, before, allowed to travel to places where cases would be heard. On families: DHS officials are re-classifying children within families as unaccompanied minors. Children sent to deportation proceeding in immigration court, separate from their parents; by law required within 72 hours to transfer children to custody of Department of Health and Human Services, or HHS (most shelters administered by private contractors).

“What We Know: Family Separation And ‘Zero Tolerance’ At the Border,” NPR

Similar to the article above, this piece explains the Flores settlement, which prevents the government from keeping migrant children in detention for more than 20 days. Trump asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions to ask federal court to modify it so that children (i.e. families) can be in detention without a time limit. Trump also asked branches of his administration to build new facilities, “if necessary.” Family separation: parents not given information about where their children go. Outlines each step in the process for children. Initially held at Customs and Border Protection Facilities (illegal to hold for more than 3 days. These often are large warehouses). Then, to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services (ORR until recently mainly dealt with unaccompanied minors. Children, includes infants). Remain here, according to ORR, for fewer than 57 days, though some longer. Then placed with a sponsor. According to The New Yorker, no formal process or clear protocol for reunification. Obama kept families together, was criticized for keeping children for so long. Asylum cases: families are separated and often not even allowed to claim asylum.

Radiolab‘s Border Trilogy also provides a harrowing look at the long-term history of migration from Central and South American to the American border and beyond. Powerful and insightful, but definitely not for the faint of heart. (Contains descriptions of sexual violence.)

Child Abuse

“Migrant Children Drugged Without Consent at Government Centers, Court Documents Show,” Huffington Post, June 20, 2018

Focuses on Shiloh Residential Treatment Center in Manvel, Texas and lawsuit, but argues the problem is widespread. Kids at this center are drugged (often by force), without their consent or their parents. Most lawyers funded by ORR (Office of Refugee Resettlement), highlighting need for legal presentation.

Aura Bogado, Patrick Michels and Vanessa Swales, Reveal, and Edgar Walters, “Separated migrant children are headed towards shelters that have a history of abuse and neglect,” The Texas Tribune, June 20, 2018

This article does two really important things. First, it shows that, “since 2003, the U.S. Health and Human Services Department has awarded nearly $5 billion in grants through the Office of Refugee Resettlement, mostly to religious and nonprofit organizations in 18 states, to house children who arrive in the country unaccompanied. The program grew quickly in 2014, when around 70,000 children crossed the southern border alone.” Second, it shows that the range and degree of negligence and abuse, which includes sexual abuse. Many of these centers hire employees with histories of sexual misconduct and operate as “jail-like” facilities. Despite the complaints and documentation of abuse, very few centers have lost their grants: just 2 out of 70. This article makes it abundantly clear that children are not safe in these centers.

“Doctors Concerned About ‘Irreparable Harm’ To Separated Migrant Children,” NPR

Colleen Kraft, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, visited shelter in Rio Grande Valley. Hundreds of children being held in shelters are under age of 13. Separating children from parents can cause “toxic stress,” which “disrupts a child’s brain development and harms long-term health.” One employee quit after he was told to separate two siblings, aged 6 and 10, because they were hugging. According to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) there are more than 11,000 children in its shelters. Half of them are run by Southwest Key.

Family Reunification

Jonathan Blitzer, “Mothers in a New Mexico Prison Do Not Know How to Find Children,” New Yorker

This piece uses the case of Esmeralda Pérez from Honduras and her nine-year-old son to examine what happens to children who are separated. Mothers, Blitzer explains, are not told where agents send their children and have a very hard to even locate them. Brief, but important piece that includes quotes from mothers.

Lily Pearl Ballofet, “Why Family Separation Goes Against Everything We Know about Migration,” Tropics of Meta, June 20, 2018

Our very own Dr. Ballofet, an assistant professor of Latin American and Latino Studies at UC-Santa Cruz, probes into the mistaken assumptions that underlie family separation as a “deterrent” for migration.

Asylum and the Court

Ingrid Eagly, Steven Shafer & Jana Whalley, Detaining Families: A Study of Asylum Adjudication in Family Detention,” California Law Review

Abstract: In this article, we analyze government data from all immigration court cases initiated between 2001 and 2016 to provide the first empirical analysis of asylum adjudication in family detention. We find that families have been detained in remote locations, have faced language barriers in accessing the courts, and, despite valiant pro bono efforts to assist them, have routinely gone to court without legal representation. Only half of the family members who remained detained found counsel, fewer than 2% spoke English, and 93% had their hearings in detention adjudicated remotely over video conference, rather than in a traditional face-to-face courtroom setting.

Cindy Carcamo, “At the Border, Mothers Prepare to Make an Agonizing Choice,” LA Times, June 25, 2018

For many, the terrors back in their homelands — in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — supersede the tribulations especially engineered for them by the U.S. government.

Most believe this is their last chance as the Trump administration methodically rolls back nearly every avenue of immigration relief.

‘If we return, I’ll be killed for sure,’ said a Salvadoran immigrant named Carmen, who was fleeing the 18th Street gang in her neighborhood.

Historical Perspective

Mae Ngai, “Immigration’s Border Enforcement Myth,” New York Times, January 28, 2018

The Columbia University expert on immigration offers needed historical perspective on why our obsession with “securing the border” is both illogical and cruel.  Her 1999 article “The Architecture of Race in American Immigration Law” provides even deeper insight into the fundamentally racist origins of modern US rules that govern the flow of people across our borders.

Jelani Cobb, “Juneteenth and the Detention of Children in Texas,” The New Yorker

Brief article, but places the separation of families within historical context. Cobb illustrates that rather than “un-American,” the separation of families has a long history and has impacted African-Americans and Native-Americans.

“So we are gonna pretend these refugees aren’t a result of our actions in Central America,” Daily Kos

Very brief, but effective. Simply put, U.S. intervention and military aid to dictators and right-wing governments have created instability throughout Central America, which has been a major factor in pushing migrants and refugees out of their countries.

Connection to Obama

Dara Lind, “What Obama did with migrant families vs what Trump is doing,” Vox, June 21, 2018

This piece does a good job of explaining the difference and similarities between Trump and Obama as well as some historical context. In short, Obama like Trump sought to hold families in detention indefinitely. The courts stopped him from doing this. Obama’s administration housed children in facilities, but these were mainly unaccompanied minors. What is new is the separation of families. Under Trump, this is standard practices.

Franco Ordoñez and Anita Kumar, “Yes, Obama separated families at the border, too,” McClatchy June 21, 2018

Immigration activists dubbed Obama the “Deporter-in-chief” so it is not surprising that this article argues that Obama laid the groundwork for Trump’s policy. It’s an important read, particularly in regards to legal representation and the Flores settlement agreement.

Direct Action

“Antifa Shares Names and Photos of 1,600 ICE Employees,” Newsweek, June 20, 2018

An Antifa group in Nebraska released information of ICE Employees compiled from Linkedln: 1,595 people total. Posted on Twitter; information spread via Reddit. Goal not clear, wanted to make it available to journalists, researchers, and the public.

“ICE shuts down Portland office as protesters camp outside waiting for children to be reunited with families,” CNN , June 21, 2018

Protesters forced ICE to close field office in Portland, Oregon. Camped at entrance and around facility. Organizers, group name Occupy ICE PDX. Portland Mayor backing protesters, has no plan to intervene; demonstrators not moving after Trump’s executive order.

Places to Donate and Organizations to Support

“How you can fight family separation at the border,” Slate, June 15

This article provides a list of organizations throughout the United States, many from the U.S. Southwest and along the U.S.-Mexico border that are on the ground. An extensive list. Updated daily. Mainly about where one can donate.

“Trump’s Family Separation Crisis: How You Can Help,” ACLU

The venerable civil rights organization has been leading the way on fighting Trump administration policies, such as family separation at the border and the so-called Muslim Ban.

Refugee and Immigration Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES)

This is the organization that has received perhaps the greatest financial support from concerned citizens since the crisis became a national story.  They provide direct support for immigrant children and families trapped in the system.

“Atlanta Lemonade Stand Raises 13K for Separated Immigration Families,” Atlanta Journal Constitution, June 25, 2018

This is just really a nice story. Human decency FTW.

Twitter feed of immigration lawyer R. Andrew Free

Twitter feed of human rights attorney and advocate Azadeh Shahshahani

Faculty and Universities

“LALACS Statement on Trump Immigration Policy,” Latin American, Latino, and Caribbean Studies at Dartmouth

Letter to DHS from Faculty (via Google Forms)

Digital Humanities

Torn Apart/Separados (in English and Spanish)

From their website: Torn Apart aggregates and cross-references publicly available data to visualize the geography of Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy in 2018 and immigration incarceration in the USA in general. We also draw attention to the landscapes, families, and communities riven by the massive web of immigrant detention in the United States. Working nimbly and remotely from four sites in the United States over a six-day period, our small team of researchers set about identifying sources of data on immigrant detention, from ports of entry run by Customs and Border Protection (CBP), to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers, to shelters subcontracted by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) to care for children in their custody, to the financial trails left by a network of public, private, and non-profit organizations complicit with the complex infrastructure of immigrant detention in the United States.