Families Torn Apart At the Border: How Did We Get Here & How Can We Help?


Children in cages, families torn apart, and images of migrants being held in squalor are flooding major news outlets after a recent resurgence in media visits to detention facilities along the U.S. Southern Border.

Reports of unsafe, unsanitary and overcrowded conditions constitute grave concern from human rights activists and lawyers.  Human Rights Watch has called the situation deplorable and is calling for Congress to take immediate action. People all across the United States are horrified that this can be happening in their own country - but how did we get here? And what can we do to help?

To reflect on how we have gotten to this point, it is important to recognize that this treatment of migrants is part of the fabric of U.S. history, and even more shocking to many, recent U.S. history.

In the 1990’s, a similar refugee crisis was taking place in Haiti. Hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers hoping to escape a violent military coup were placed in overcrowded “camps” on Guantanamo Bay where a case of HIV spread amongst the detained. 

While this is only one example of many, it is a testament to the U.S. Government treating migrants and asylum seekers from the south like criminals before due-process is provided.


Fast-forward to the Obama-era. It was during his tenure that the largest detention center was built in McAllen, Texas. This ill-equipped facility has become infamous for it’s chain link fences, resembling cages.  However, while the Obama administration did work to keep families together, the historical 1997 Flores Settlement does not allow for children to be held in detention for more than twenty days.  According to PolitiFact, in order to deter family separation, entire families were released from custody and scheduled for civil deportation proceedings, except for those being prosecuted for criminal activity. This has all changed under Trump’s presidency. 

The Government’s history of detention, the construction of these grim facilities, and legal precedents such as the Flores Settlement, have paved the way for the Trump Administration to create chaos and widespread family separation in the form of the Zero Tolerance policy.  This policy  allows for the prosecution of all adults who cross the border illegally. Asylum seekers have been lumped into the same category, which is a grave violation of the UN Declaration of Human Rights which grants a person the right to seek asylum from persecution in any country.

The Justice Department cannot prosecute children alongside their parents, leading to the separation of thousands of children into a care system run by the Department of Health and Human Services.

While many lawsuits are out there right now to ensure family reunification, there are still so many people deserving of basic human rights and proper care, being stuffed into unsafe facilities without showers, soap, tooth brushes, etc. Sarah Fabian, a Justice Department attorney, argued in court that the federal government should not be obliged to provide these basic sanitary products or even beds to children. We disagree - and would like to counter these deplorable words by providing actions you can take to help ensure that children are not only provided with products necessary to respect their humanity, but to ensure that they are not taken away from their parents in the first place.


The ACLU Families Belong Together Campaign

There are many excellent resources for getting involved with the ACLU. At the link above you can find petitions to sign, volunteer opportunities, educational resources, campaign posters, and donation links to support the very important legal work the ACLU is doing.

Freedom for Immigrants

They have specific campaigns and volunteer opportunities to get involved in.

Vera Institute of Justice’s Immigration Connection Program 

This criminal justice oriented organization is seeking to connect parents who have been separated from their children with attorneys in contact with those children. If you are legal service provider who knows of a parent looking for a child, contact ICON at 800-845-8372 or familiasunidas@vera.org.

Vetted Organizations Requesting Financial Donations

Pueblo Sin Fronteras - A Transborder organization of human rights defenders 

Border Angels - A Volunteer organization advocating for humane immigration reform on the US - Mexican Border

Immigration Families Belong Together - An organization partnering with immigration attorneys to provide legal representation and bonds for migrants.

Erika Firestone is a relentlessly curious traveler, learner, reader, writer, in constant search of the next grand (or tiny) adventure. Hang with her on the web at ErikaFirestone.com, and follow her @tinymaps.