Anacleto’s fear was not unfounded. Last week, the Associated Press reported that in a small number of cases since 1980, state child-welfare officials have allowed immigrant children of deported parents to be adopted in the United States without their parents’ consent. The report details the case of a Salvadoran asylum seeker named Araceli Ramos, who was separated from her 2-year-old daughter, Alexa, during the Obama administration and did not get her back from various foster families in the U.S. for two years. Officials determined that Ramos was a threat to her daughter’s safety based on what Ramos said was a false police report—accusing her of encouraging a 17-year-old girl to have sex with an adult—that her children’s father had filed during a bitter custody battle.
Ramos cleared her name in El Salvador, but the damage was already done. U.S. officials considered Ramos a criminal and a threat to her daughter. They deported her to El Salvador and placed Alexa in a series of foster homes; eventually she landed with a Bethany family in Michigan. Alexa’s foster family fell in love with her and believed that she had been abused in her mother’s care, so they decided to seek adoption. Their effort got far enough that a Michigan judge granted them temporary custody. Ramos became desperate and took to Facebook. In an impassioned video, she cried, “Look inside your hearts. I had her in my belly for nine months. I’m the mother, and I’m waiting for her.” The video went viral in Latin America. Federal officials eventually intervened, and Alexa is now back in El Salvador with her mother.
This summer, more than 300 parents were deported to Central America without their kids, and there are 66 children still in government custody whom officials have designated “not eligible for reunification.” The possibility of involuntary adoption is more of a fear among some immigrant parents than an actuality for now—no cases emerging from the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy have been documented. A spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security called talk of involuntary adoption “premature.” Some immigrant parents have chosen to leave their children in the United States, she said, to live with a sponsor—not to be adopted.
Alive beneath the angst over adoption is the historical record of permanent family separation. World War II–era government authorities facilitated the adoption of so many American Indian children by white families that by the mid-1960s, up to 30 percent of all such kids had been separated from their parents. “From chattel slavery to American Indian schools to convict leasing, child-snatching has been a tradition in America since before there was an America,” my colleague Adam Serwer wrote this summer on the day President Donald Trump halted the practice. “What horrifies Americans is not the novelty of Trump’s policy, but its familiarity.” But Trump’s about-face may prove to be only temporary: Last week, The Washington Post reported that officials are considering relaunching family separations at the border.