For the past few months, images of distressed migrant children have populated American newsfeeds and television screens. Many of the children are the victims of “family separation,” their parents deported from the U.S. without them; while detained without their parents, some of them have been forbidden from being hugged. The Trump administration has defended family separation, then backtracked on the policy, then started to reunite families at the order of a federal judge.
This ever-shifting “zero-tolerance” policy of the Trump Administration—which has mandated that all adult migrants crossing the border without papers be criminally prosecuted—has sharpened focus on the border and the detention centers migrants have been held in. For the first time in the short history of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), says Lilia Soto, a professor of American studies at the University of Wyoming, national audiences got an up-close look at the practices agencies are using to carry out immigration policy. This blitz of high-profile coverage included stories on ICE raids separating families, as well as immigration officials removing children from their parents and incarcerating them. The public also heard audio recordings of children sobbing after being separated from their parents.* “It’s not something that’s happening clandestinely,” Soto says.
A lot of what’s happening is unprecedented. However, those who study the border, like Soto, know that parents and their children have been separated by American immigration policies for decades, if not longer. As Soto points out, this has often happened out of view from most Americans and photographers’ cameras, starting from the first migrations from Latin America to the United States.
One of the earliest documented cases of family separation as policy came in the form of mass deportations during the Great Depression. At local, state, and federal levels, officials launched “repatriation campaigns” that removed nearly 2 million Mexican-Americans—both permanent and undocumented residents—from the United States. They were scapegoated for economic woes, the historian Francisco Balderrama writes in his book Decade of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s. While Immigration and Naturalization Services (which now exists as three agencies, including ICE) deported many families as a unit, Balderrama writes that some parents would get detained in immigration raids that left their children untouched and still in the country.
Not long after that, though, there was a policy about-face. During World War II, when the agriculture industry, like many other industries, found itself with a shortage of labor, the federal government recruited Mexican men to work in the U.S. as part of the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement, nicknamed the “bracero” program. Many of the men who were recruited had families back in Mexico—and Soto says that separation was intentional, given that the government that didn’t want foreign workers to stay very long. “They weren’t going to settle in the United States if they had families back in Mexico,” Soto explains.
This kind of separation, both temporary and long-term, became a feature of Latin American migration, and Central American migration in particular. (The majority of the families separated recently are from Central America.) Mass migrations began in the late 1970s and ‘80s, as Central American civil wars (partially funded by the U.S. government) triggered wide-scale violence and poverty. And as their countries continued to recover from the wars’ destruction, Central Americans continued to come to the U.S.—in 2015, they made up 8 percent of the 43.2 million immigrants residing in the U.S. (Mexican migrants accounted for roughly 27 percent.)
Leisy Abrego, a Chicana and Chicano studies professor at UCLA, studies Salvadoran migrants, of whom there are around 2 million in the U.S. In her book, Sacrificing Families: Navigating Laws, Labor, and Love Across Borders, Abrego notes that “in the Salvadoran immigrant community … everyone has a sibling, cousin, uncle, or neighbor who lives or has lived away from their children or from their mother and father.” She interviewed children in El Salvador who had been separated from their parents, who had come to work in the U.S. for safety reasons or because they saw no other option to provide money for their children. Although these children weren’t separated from their parents by U.S. officials, Abrego says that the pain they describe in the interviews has traumatized them in similar ways to children separated at the border.
In her interviews with children left in El Salvador, she talked to teenagers who had been apart from their parents for nearly a decade—around 12 percent of children in El Salvador grow up without one or both parents. The separations were a source of deep pain. One 16-year-old girl told Abrego, in tears, “My life has been pure suffering without [my mother]. One never really understands why a mother would abandon you.” The teenager recounted how she used to pass a McDonald’s in El Salvador and peer inside to see if she could spot her mother—she had been told that the chain restaurant was American, and she thought her mother might be sitting inside.
While the Trump administration has framed migrants as an unstoppable infestation, Abrego says that the Salvadorans she has interviewed came to the United States reluctantly. Migration is a “last option” for families, she says—whether it’s parents, children, or both who are undertaking the journey. “There has been so much migration from [Central America] that they understand that coming to the U.S. will be difficult, they won’t have the kind of freedom they have in their country, and they will face racism,” Abrego says.
The past (and present) of family separation, in other words, is filled with impossible choices: Do you stay in the country you have known your whole life even if it’s politically and economically unstable? Do you uproot your family to move to a country that eyes you with fear or suspicion, or do you leave your children behind? Do you risk your life in the journey, or risk it in staying? “The debates that people have in this country assume that for [migrants], this is their dream to come here. And it isn’t, for so many people,” Abrego says. “But that’s not how we talk about those things.”
She and the other scholars I spoke to wished that more attention would be paid to why people are migrating—violence from U.S.-bred gangs like Barrio 18 and MS-13, economic conditions partially created by American “free-trade” agreements, and the fallout from Cold War-era civil wars partly funded by the Carter and Reagan administrations, on top of existing regional tumult. Jane Juffer, a professor at Cornell who studies migration, in an interview listed some questions that she thought people should be asking about, for example, a young Salvadoran girl who’d recently been separated from her parents: “Why is she here? … What’s going on in El Salvador? Why are people compelled to flee? What does the U.S. have to do with that?”
Juffer, in talking about the numerous unaccompanied Central American children who were crossing the border in 2014, shed light on why some stories of family separation provoke different reactions than others. Four years ago, she said, public reception looked a lot different: Whereas the stories about today’s migrating families have been met with widespread outrage and nationwide protests, the children in 2014 inspired relative quiet, or even anti-immigrant protests against their arrival. News headlines at the time evoked the ominous: “Children from Central America flood U.S. border—again,” “Waves of immigrant minors present crisis for Obama, Congress,” “How thousands of children are creating a crisis in America.” This kind of rhetoric isn’t a coincidence, Juffer says—the 2014 group of unaccompanied minors tended to be older children, instead of today’s toddlers and younger kids. “There’s an arbitrary [age] at which the unaccompanied minors [are associated with] criminal stereotypes,” she says. “They’re juvenile delinquents, and no one wants them then.” The kids at the border today, she thinks, haven’t hit that cutoff, and so have been met with more compassion.
Furthermore, in 2014, the public never saw the minors being torn from their parents at the border—their parents had parted from them long before their children reached the U.S. This changes the optics, Juffer says. Although some outlets, such as Latino USA, have spent years dedicating coverage to the conditions of detention centers, unaccompanied migrants, and deportations, it took photos and audio of young children to rally widespread media attention.
But looking at immigration policy as a humanitarian issue just under the Trump administration, scholars told me, ignores a long history of deportations and family separation. So what’s happening isn’t new—it's just that this time, it’s visibly, undeniably happening to young children in large numbers. That is where many Americans have drawn the line.
*This article has been updated to reflect that several immigration agencies are involved in the process of separating families.