The Trump administration has radicalized ICE
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.