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The Right to Family in the Era of the “Zero Tolerance” Immigration Policy

June 1, 2018

On May 7, 2018, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a new iteration of the Trump administration’s draconian stance on immigration: the “zero tolerance” policy. In short, the “zero tolerance” policy directs prosecutors to charge as many people crossing the border as possible. This policy requires the Department of Homeland Security to refer every individual apprehended near the border to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution, though immigrants from Central America have been of particular interest. If an apprehended adult is traveling with children, they will be forcibly separated from them; by way of this practice, it is a de facto family separation policy.

While families seeking asylum in the United States have been separated since last fall—a reported 700 children were separated from a parent from October 2017 to April 2018—the “zero tolerance” policy has already dramatically increased the number of immigrant families separated. On May 23, 2018, just two weeks after the “zero tolerance” policy was introduced, a Customs and Border Protection official testified that 658 children had been separated from a parent. Some of these children have been lost track of by the United States federal government and in 2016, a Senate report showed that after failing to conduct proper background checks of caregivers, the Department of Health and Human Services placed more than a dozen of immigrant children in the custody of human traffickers.

The “zero tolerance” policy is intimately related to the racist and exclusionary legacy of United States immigration policies and the violence they pose to immigrants and their families. The systematic and extreme cruelty of the “zero tolerance” policy follows this history; it continues the xenophobic and racist dehumanization and resentment of immigrants of color, in turn “justifying” the violation of their fundamental human right to family.

Widespread outrage in response to the separation of immigrant families has resulted in activism; advocates have organized for a National Day of Action for Children for June 1. As an advocacy organization, the Woodhull Freedom Foundation rejects the “zero tolerance” policy and its use of undocumented citizenship status as a pretext for separating families. Through the Family Matters Project, Woodhull seeks to secure full rights, respect, and recognition for all families, no matter how they are formed or structured, and no matter their immigration status.

We believe that we must talk about the continued formation and maintenance of white supremacist policies in the era of the Trump administration. We must talk about the borders—both ideological and physical—that surround and aim to “protect” this unjust system. We must talk about the ways that immigration policies violate immigrant families. We must talk about the fundamental human right to family, and to whom this right is ascribed. And ultimately we must act; we must fight for the right to family to be a right for all.


TAKE ACTION: Tell the Secretary of Homeland Security to stop separating children from their parents in immigration detention.

People of Color Youth

(John Moore/Getty Images)

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