Border Wall, Tijuana side looking towards San Diego, January, 2019. Photo by author.

Last month in Mexico City, a taxi driver told me that he knows all about Wisconsin: his son lives in Sheboygan. But although he knows about our famous winter weather, this man has not been able to visit the state. He has never met his grandchildren. And because his son is undocumented, he cannot cross the border to bring his family home to Mexico. 

Family is a major theme in U.S. political life now. Movement conservatives promote parental rights. They charge that youth transgender identities, drag story hours, and the right of pregnant people to seek medical abortion all threaten family as an institution. 

But what about immigrant families separated by American border policies? 

Borders have always caused family separation. Since the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, every single effort to “secure the border” or “slow migration” has intensified family separation, as well as the violence experienced by migrants during their passage, in tenuous shelters, and in the holding centers where many wait for their fates to be determined by immigration courts. Today, these dangers are particularly intense for members of at-risk groups, including young, LGBTQ, and indigenous migrants.

During Donald J. Trump’s presidential term, the crisis of border enforcement intensified because of the “zero tolerance” policy enforced by then-Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III in response to what the Sessions Department of Homeland Security (DHS) called “criminal illegal entry, more commonly known as crossing the border without papers.” Courting political support from the xenophobic Far Right, “zero tolerance” policy purported to discourage migrants from trying to claim asylum in the United States by imposing draconian and highly personal penalties.

The cruelty of the policy was explicit and intentional. In June 2018, revelations about DHS policies that detained migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border and separated children from their relatives made headlines in the United States. People protested in cities and towns across the country—many with their own children in tow—and their signs proclaimed: “Families Belong Together.” 

During October that followed these widespread protests, Amnesty International issued a report on the “catastrophic immigration policies” that had led to the family separation crisis.  “Right now, hundreds of children are languishing in tent cities on the border,” the report quoted Margaret Huang, Executive Director of Amnesty USA, “Even more children are locked behind bars in family detention centers. This is nothing short of unconscionable. No child should grow up in detention, and no child or family should be punished for seeking safety.”

These revelations mobilized Democrats, and in 2020, former President Obama’s Vice President Joe Biden campaigned against this brutal program of family separation. Recalling the experience of his own ancestors crossing the Atlantic in steerage, Biden envisioned a nation that would welcome migrants, understand the causes of their flight from home, and value their contributions to the country. 

Following his election, President Biden signed an executive order proscribing migrant family separation practices. He promised to “eliminate bad policy” and end construction of Trump’s border wall. The new administration promised respect for migrants and asylum seekers. It promised to preserve the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, hard won by daring youth activists during the Obama administration and constantly under threat during the Trump years. 

And yet, in the absence of new legislation that makes it easier to cross the border legally for work, the Biden administration has defaulted to a hard line on immigration that continues to separate families and promote border security. 

On her first international trip during the spring of 2021, Vice President Harris admonished Central Americans: “Do not come, do not come.” This admonition failed to address why migrants come. Migrants from this region flee poverty, political corruption, violence, climate change, and environmental degradation. They are drawn to the United States for work and to unite with family, often children and spouses, who have preceded them. 

They continue to come, although in declining numbers, and Republicans continue to pound Democrats for not doing enough. So, in January 2023, the Biden administration announced a new immigration plan extending the controversial Title 42, a pandemic-era policy allowing for the exclusion and deportation of asylum seekers on the grounds of public health to migrants from Haiti, Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua. Additionally, the plan further sanctions those crossing the U.S.–Mexico border outside of authorized ports of entry. It features a crackdown on “illegal migration” by surging border enforcement and mandating the use of the CPB One app, controversial because of its facial recognition and GPS tracking capabilities. 

But migrants would not enter the United States illegally if they could work and reunite with family legally. As the border rights organization Al Otro Lado explains, migrants would be far less likely to cross outside of ports of entry if they weren’t routinely expelled from them by Customs and Border Patrol agents.

As the 2024 election approaches, things may get worse for migrants. Title 42 is set to expire along with the public health emergency this spring, and the Biden administration has proposed a near-total ban on the admission of asylum seekers, an action which flies in the face of international human rights law. In recent weeks, there has also been talk of reviving the practice of family detention. According to Detention Watch, this policy is defined by “the unjust policy of jailing immigrant parents with their children—including babies.” Under family detention, these migrants do not have access to social or legal services or to their relatives in the United States.

United States policies have other consequences. As migrants approach the border, they are unable to cross it and are detained by the Mexican government. On March 28, 39 people died in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico as a result of a fire in an immigrant detention center. Many were migrants from Venezuela and Guatemala. As writer Eric London commented, “The true culprit of this horrific fire is the Biden administration, which has obliterated the right to asylum, barred U.S. entry to asylum seekers & kept tens of thousands camped in unsafe conditions like this to deter immigration. AMLO too. Open the borders!”

Family detention doesn’t secure the U.S.–Mexico border: it is a deterrent, and it punishes those attempting to cross. But it also reveals the truth: “securing borders” requires violence against families. The only alternative to this violence is to find a way to open the border, adhere to the regime of international human rights law, and to heed the basic human right of migrants to be free—and free to join those they love.

Rachel Ida Buff is a writer and history professor living and working in Occupied Wisconsin.