Guest Columnist Ali Wicks-Lim: Family separation was wrong then, it’s wrong now

  • President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. AP

Published: 4/7/2021 3:24:17 PM

The Biden administration is attempting to rebrand family separation and we can’t let that happen.

Recently plans were announced to reopen child detention centers in Carrizo Springs, Texas and Homestead, Florida. The facility in Homestead was at one time the largest for-profit child prison in the country and shut down in August of 2019 after activists and elected officials exposed what was happening there. I was one of many activists involved in this effort.

Children at Homestead were kept from their families and harmed while our government paid millions ($750 per child, per day) to a private company for their “care.” Facilities labeled “rapid influx” are not held to the Flores Agreements, which set standards for how long a child can be detained and in what conditions. Thus the poor staffing, overcrowding, tent prisons and children being kept for way longer than allowed under normal circumstances.

While campaigning, President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris promised to stop family separation. Harris stood at Homestead and declared it a human rights violation. “This will not happen on my watch,” she said. Biden’s response when asked about family separation was, “This is not who we are.” He specifically acknowledged, “We have to stop family separation.”

Now their administration is reopening these facilities to detain children and continuing Trump-era policies which separate families. This reversal on campaign promises should concern all of us.

It is essential to understand three things about the unaccompanied minors who end up in these detention centers:

1.) Many are unaccompanied because their parents cannot cross safely. Title 42, which is considered illegal by the ACLU and other worldwide immigration groups but was enacted by Trump to expel migrants and effectively shut migration down, allows federal officials to deport migrants within hours of first contact. This prevents parents from exercising their legal right to seek asylum and forces them to choose to keep their children where they know their lives are at risk, or send them over the border alone.

2.) Many minors are accompanied by extended family, but the U.S. policy is that only a “parent or legal guardian” counts, so children in the care of loved ones are being separated, declared unaccompanied and put in detention centers.

3.) Between 80-90% of the children have family in the United States ready to care for them.

Part of the rebranding of family separation has been the claim that these facilities are needed because more unaccompanied children are being allowed to cross the border, a positive spin until we acknowledge that no parent wants to send their child over the border alone. Biden recently spoke about how he would never allow a 9-year-old boy to starve on the other side of the border. He said nothing about that boy’s mother.

Family separation was wrong under Trump and it’s wrong now, but not everyone is seeing it as clearly this time, probably due to a lack of transparency from the Biden administration, combined with the public’s near-desperate desire to believe that the good guys won and the crisis is over. We all crave relief from the atrocity of the past four years, but let’s not find that relief at the expense of children.

Some feel we should give Biden a break because he can’t possibly fix everything in his first months in office, but opening these facilities is not a failure to move forward fast enough, it is a giant step backwards.

Some suggest we “give Biden time” without acknowledging that we are trading childhoods for that luxury. We know kids are traumatized by even short-term separation. We know staff for these facilities are not well vetted.

At a recent press conference Biden was asked about transparency and refused to allow the press access to the detention centers until he gets his “plan” in place. When asked for a timeline on his plan he replied, “I don’t know.”

We have no guarantees about how long kids will be held in these facilities. To those emphasizing the administration’s use of the words “short term,” I offer a reminder that this administration called these same facilities a human rights violation that should not exist.

We can both recognize the positive steps taken by this administration and push them to do better in places where they are falling short of their promises or our expectations. In fact, the integrity of the Democratic Party requires this commitment.

We must insist on transparency. We must call upon the Biden administration to end Title 42. We must push for policy to expand the definition of family. We celebrated their moratorium on for-profit prisons, now we must call upon them to include migrant facilities in the moratorium. Tying profit to detention disincentivizes reunification.

This is a complex issue, but it is the job of our elected officials who hold power and access to resources to find a solution that is in keeping with ethical and moral standards the public will tolerate. It is the job of us (the public) to tell them that family separation and child detention cannot be the answer.

We were appropriately horrified when Trump separated families. We need to be just as horrified to see these practices continue under Biden/Harris. The kids at Homestead or Carrizo Springs won’t care who put them there, and neither should we.

Please go to: to find out how you can help.

Ali Wicks-Lim is a western Massachusetts resident and activist who helped organize to shut down Homestead Juvenile Detention Center in 2019.

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