Echoes of the Harrowing Past: How has the U.S. Separated Racial Minority Families Time and Time Again?


Dreier, Natalie. “Time Cover: Photo of Little Girl Crying at Border, Trump Illustrates i.” WOKV Radio, 21 June 2018, (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)



To view my full personal interest essay click here


Child separation is a deeply rooted social injustice in the United States. The influx of Central American immigrants and refugees in our current day has raised the conversation of child separation among many, however it is commonly unknown that the U.S. government has divided families numerous times in the past. The U.S. government, dominated by white Americans who assumed on some level that the United States was intended for white people to dominate, has separated racial minority families time after time, including African Americans during slavery, Native Americans during the 1800s, and now Central Americans. In parallel, these racial minority groups endured extreme, emotional, psychological, and in some cases physical damage when separate from their families that often times has long-term negative effects. 


What You Need to Know: The History of the Problem

The problem of racial minority family division is deeply rooted in the U.S. ‘s history, beginning with the separation of slave families during the antebellum United States. The year 1619 marked the beginning of the harrowing experience of slavery, where countless men, women, and children were extracted from the continent of Africa and exploited as cheap labor in cash crop industries (Kennedy). European settlers turned to African slaves as an inexpensive source of labor, and eventually slave culture became a foundational element of the antebellum south (Kennedy). Naturally, with slavery came the phenomenon of slave markets and auctions, which were “sites of brutal treatment and unbearable sorrow, as callous and avaricious slave traders tore apart families, separating husbands from wives, and children from their parents”(White). Judge Ruffin affirms that the goal of those who conducted the court sales was to make the most profit, which was achieved by selling slaves individually (Russell).

Separation of slave families resulted in tremendous psychological and emotional damage. In abolitionist Harriett Beecher Stowe’s 1852 fictional novel phenomenon, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, one of the narratives entailed the story of a black slave named Lucy, whose child is dreadfully sold away from her:  “‘your child’s gone;… I got a chance to sell him to a first-rate family, that’ll raise him better than you can.'” Lucy had “the wild look of anguish and utter despair”(Stowe). Stowe disclosed the harsh reality of slave family separation through vivid depictions and the humanity of her characters, allowing her audience to understand the trauma of diving slaves (Webit).

Carlisle Indian School: Admin. “Carlisle Indian School.” Native American Netroots, 23 Dec. 2009,

After the abolition of slavery in 1865, the problem resurfaced for another racial minority group: Native Americans in the 1800s. In the 1870s, “the U.S. government allowed missionary groups to enter reservations, seize Native children, and put them into boarding schools intended to destroy Native Indian tribal identity”(Guha). A prime example of these harsh American Indian schools was the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. Founded in 1879 by Henry Pratt, the school was a government institution that harshly stripped Native American children away from their families in order to “kill the Indian in him, and save the man”, states Pratt (Little). However, the removals from their nuclear family and tribal life caused Native American children to face alienation from their families and a disconnect to their culture.

To view my full historical research essay click here.


Family Separation Today

The “unpardonable atrocity” of dividing Central American immigrant families has been an important conversation in the 21st century, stemming from the Trump Administration’s response to the influx of Central American refugee families the US-Mexico border, mainly seeking asylum (Lind). The majority of these immigrants come “from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador; chronically destabilized regions plagued by grave levels of human rights violations, insecurity, poverty, drug cartel infiltration, violence and corrupt justice systems”(Wood). Although some request asylum at United States entry ports, others attempt to cross illegally  without government inspection (Kandel). 

Consequently, on May 7 2018, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the implementation of the “zero tolerance policy,”toward illegal border crossing both to discourage illegal migration into the United States and to reduce the burden of processing asylum claims that Administration officials contend are often fraudulent”(Kandel). Through the zero tolerance policy, the Department of Justice prosecuted all alien adult immigrants entering the U.S. even those with young children or wanting to seek asylum, resulting in the barbaric division of immigrant children and their families (Kandel). 

Aclu. “Family Separation by the Numbers.” American Civil Liberties Union, American Civil Liberties Union, 2 Oct. 2018,


The process of child detention and separation is a grueling multistep process, beginning  at the Customs and Border Protection detention facilities where children endure traumatic and inhumane conditions (OPM). The Texas Civil Rights Project emphasizes the traumatic experience of child separation: “multiple parents reported that they were separated from their children and not given any information about where their children would go… in some cases, the children were taken away under the pretense that they would be getting a bath”(Domonoske). Children are then placed in detention facilities under the supervision of The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services at detention centers which according to a National Public Radio piece from June 2018, are notorious for inhumane treatment and deficient living quarters (Domonoske). After a visit to one of the detention sites in South Texas, the Associated Press said the site had “hundreds of children [waiting] in a series of cages created by metal fencing… scattered about are… bags of chips and large foil sheets intended to serve as blankets.’”(Domonoske).

Immigrant children also face vicious treatment from supervising agents. Eleven year old Sixta cries as she recalls the traumatizing experience in the las hieleras (concrete holding cells for immigrants), remembering  that “the room was kept so frigid she caught a cold, and it went untreated for so long that she started bleeding from her nose and throat. When she asked for a doctor, she says, agents slammed the steel door to the cell in anger…  ‘I never want to return there again as long as I live.’” (Burnett).

Throughout the entire process and each stage of detention and relocation, immigrant children await their parents’ return from their court hearing and release from detention, which may take from months to years, if there is no reunification plan (Jacobs). The New York Times published an article detailing the government’s deplorable track record of identifying and reuniting immigrant families, many of whom had no contact information: “To identify these families, the government said it would apply a statistical analysis to about 47,000 children who were referred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement and subsequently discharged, according to the court filing. From there, the government said it would manually review the case records of the children who appeared to have the highest probability of being part of the separated families”(Jacobs). As a result, numerous immigrant minors split apart from their parents during the zero tolerance policy remain separated till this day.

CBS News. “Children separated from parents suffer long-term mental health effects.” Youtube, uploaded by CBS News, 21 June. 2018


The Psychological, Emotional, and Physical Effects of Child Separation on Immigrants

Immigrant children face severe psychological, emotional, and physical damage throughout the entire immigration process, especially when separated from their family (Bochenek). On top of the already perilous journey through Mexico to the U.S., writes Wood, the practice of family separation exacerbates problems and mental health issues such as PTSD, threatened attachment bonds, and toxic stress (Wood). For example, the “no touch rule” in immigrant detention facilities was designed to eliminate inappropriate physical touch between immigrants, even within families (Wood).  However the elimination of touch is extremely detrimental for adolescents: “eliminating physical touch from adolescents and their families can lead to serious distress, uncomfort, and emotional damage; Such circumstances clearly increase the risk of undetected, undertreated, exacerbated and new-onset health conditions”(Wood).

One of the primary conditions suffered by migrant children in detention facilities is post traumatic stress disorder, where children may develop complex patterns of emotional and physical reactions in response to traumatic memories. In other cases, research has shown that the attachment bond is also threatened, according to The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study published two years ago. The attachment bond is a “deep, enduring affectional bond between a child and caregiver [that] begins in infancy and is critical to the child’s inherent sense of safety and protection. Neurologically, attachment relationships drive the brain development foundation for subsequent physical, emotional, social and cognitive maturation”(Wood). However, with a parents’ abrupt removal from a child’s life, the child loses a vital feeling of protection and the strong foundation needed for them to thrive. Lastly, due to increased rates of toxic stress, separated immigrant children with “high adversity exposure have triple the lifetime relative risk of lung cancer, 3.5 times the relative risk of ischaemic heart disease and up to a 20-year reduction in life expectancy (Felitti VJ). Cancers, diabetes, autoimmune disease and numerous other health problems are associated directly with toxic stress”(Wood).

You can read the in depth version of my current problem here.

My response: How We Can Get Involved Through Individual Initiative 

From micro level initiative to large scale action and influence, there are several ways that we can have a societal and political impact in determining the future of our U.S. immigration policies. Although individual advocacy might not have a direct effect on the United States’ laws and policies, by taking this step we are able to raise awareness and take action in creating change that matters in our local systems.

Individual Steps

Print posters provided by the ACLU and place them around neighborhoods to spread local awareness about child separation at the US Mexico Border. Posters are an accessible and viable method to get involved and are scientifically proven to “increase knowledge, change attitudes and alter behaviors.”

xACLU. American Civil Liberties Union,

Call senators and representatives to directly voice our opinions on the violations of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) “[the] DHS is responsible for abuses like family separation, inhumane child detention, and unleashing ICE and CBP to lawlessly antagonize immigrant communities throughout the country” (ACLU). By calling representatives to cut the DHS funds, we can hold this Department accountable for their unpardonable actions and brutality towards immigrant families. 

→ Spread information about U.S. immigration policies and child detention on social media platforms such as instagram and twitter to reach a global audience and encourage more people to get involved. 


A Macro Solution to Child Separation:

Lastly, a macro solution to the U.S. policies of child detention  and separation would be to introduce a new alternative to detention, or ATD which “are any legislation, policy or practice, formal or informal, that ensures people are not detained for reasons relating to their migration status”(“Alternatives to Detention”). ATD programs would support and securely supervise immigrants during their time in the United States awaiting asylum in a cost efficient, humane, and effective manner.

Advantages of an ATD

–> ATD’s respect the human rights of the immigrants, asylum seekers, and refugees. In a community based and supported ATD in “which immigrants are oriented to their rights and provided with robust support for legal, medical, and social service needs… studies show that ATD participants trust the fairness of the system and are very likely to comply with obligations placed upon them” (“Real Alternatives To Detention”).

–> ATD’s are also extremely cost efficient in comparison to placing immigrants in detention: “a 2014 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found that the daily cost of ATD was less than 7% of that of detention”(“The Real Alternative To Detention”).

–> Lastly, ATD’s are the most viable method to supervise immigrants awaiting asylum. ATD methods have shown to have significantly higher compliance rates than immigrants held in detention, specifically because immigrants and refugees are able to access necessities and a robust support system. “In contrast, prolonged or unnecessary detention has been found in some contexts to be counterproductive to government objectives of achieving compliance with immigration outcomes, including returns”(“Alternatives to Detention”).

Continue reading my micro and macro solutions paragraphs on page 6-8 here.


Link to bibliography: 

Link to research paper (historical and current day problem combined): 

Feel free to leave comments down below, I would love to hear your opinions and comments in supportive and constructive ways. Although child separation is a difficult and emotional topic, through discussion we will be able to build a safe community and raise awareness. I am particularly interested in hearing your opinion to my solution of ATD programs, and what type of ATD you believe is the most viable.

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  1. April 26, 2020 by Carl Thiermann

    Mila—I was excited to see your project and to learn more about this disturbing practice. I am proud of you for taking on a subject that is one of the most significant human rights challenges facing our society. Your introduction was excellent and your research is clear, compelling, and a call to action. After seeing the documentary “Human Flow,” last year, I have become more aware of the overwhelming challenges faced by refugees worldwide—-and this particular US practice is most abhorrent to me. I am glad you conclude with a list of steps forward and I am eager to read more about ATD programs. Excellent work.

    • April 27, 2020 by Mila Sirimongkolvit

      Thank you so much Mr. Thiermann for taking the time to read my website. Although it was definitely a heart-wrenching topic, I also believe it is important to tackle the topic of child separation which is why I chose to it as my catalyst conference research topic. I am glad you found ways to take action through my website! Something as small as just beginning the conversation about child separation in our own communities can spread so much awareness 🙂

      Thank you again!

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