Targeting Families to Regulate Migration

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Scholars argue the United States continues to target families as part of its immigration enforcement.

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The United States separated more than 5,600 children from their parents as part of the Trump Administration’s “zero tolerance” policy. Despite the Biden Administration’s formation of an Interagency Task Force on the Reunification of Families, 1,200 families remain separated one year after the task force’s formation.

In a recent article, Kate Coddington of the University of Albany and Jill M. Williams of the University of Arizona explain that the impacts of border enforcement on families are not an unintended consequence. Instead, Coddington and Williams argue, governments’ border enforcement policies of detention, separation, and public information campaigns are strategic and intentional to deter future migration attempts.

Coddington and Williams term this type of immigration enforcement “relational enforcement” since it “rel[ies] upon and mobilize[s] social relations as a means of affecting migratory patterns and trends.”

The cruel and inhumane instances of family detention and separation were not new phenomena, Coddington and Williams explain. The Trump administration, however, brought a “different kind of use of ‘family’” within its policies.

Coddington and Williams do not describe the effect the Trump Administration’s immigration policies had on families as unintentional. Instead, the scholars explain, the Trump administration used family separation as an intentional and “tough deterrent,” a phrase former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly used to describe family separation. As Coddington and Williams argue, the family “was not simply acted on through enforcement, it was targeted as a social relation powerful enough that its manipulation could affect particular outcomes.” The threat of separating children from their parents, and the enduring trauma, became a mechanism through which the United States sought to discourage transnational migration.

Despite President Biden’s condemnation of family separation, Coddington and Williams note relational enforcement continues into the Biden Administration through the usage of public information campaigns.

For example, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki discussed the Department of State’s use of public information campaigns throughout Central America and Brazil as a strategy to discourage unaccompanied minors arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border. Psaki also explained the Department of State’s work with Facebook and Instagram in putting out millions of migration messages, which Coddington and Williams argue, were intended to reduce migratory flows. The messaging behind these public information campaigns is similar to Vice President Kamala Harris’s message to Guatemalans warning them to avoid the “dangerous trek to the United States-Mexico border” by repeating “Do not come. Do not come.”

Since the early 1990s, the United States has used public information campaigns to discourage migration, all while maintaining a humanitarian image. More recent campaigns as Coddington and Williams describe, however, show the targeting of families to discourage immigration. In 2014, the United States worked on the Dangers Awareness Campaign, a campaign that sought to reduce the arrivals of unaccompanied minors by speaking directly to the families, specifically the mothers, and not the children. Customs and Border Protection described the campaign as a call to action for “parents and relatives in the U.S. and Central America” with an objective to warn them about the dangers unaccompanied minors encounter when migrating.

As Coddington and Williams argue, public information campaigns reveal that governments target not only migrants themselves, but expand the messaging to “those around children to ‘protect’ them by stopping them from migration.”

Coddington and Williams’ usage of the term “relational enforcement” refers to how border enforcement “rely upon and mobilize familial and social relationships to affect migration-related decisions and regulate transnational mobility.” Moreover, as the scholars explain, border enforcement policies use the ability of family members to influence migration-related decisions.

Targeting families through public information campaigns can be useful for policy interventions, for example, to promote vaccination efforts for children. In this case, however, targeting families to discourage their migration efforts under the guise of protecting them from violence ignores the reasons why families flee and why they face violence throughout their migration.

First, this messaging ignores the violence that many immigrants, including unaccompanied children, flee. A report by Doctors Without Borders found that more than half of the 480 Central Americans interviewed had been exposed to a violent situation two years before leaving their home country. In addition, nearly half of the immigrants and asylum seekers interviewed cited their exposure to violence as one of the key reasons for fleeing. The violence that immigrants face includes gang-related violence, but also violence targeting Indigenous communities who are unprotected from their governments in illegal land grabs by settlers.

Second, this messaging ignores the violence that results from the United States’ intentional enforcement efforts. For example, the United States has forced immigrants and asylum seekers to await their immigration claims in Mexico, leaving families vulnerable to “kidnapping, sexual assault, extortion, and other forms of abuse.” In addition, the United States Customs and Border Protection has used “prevention-through-deterrence” tactics by forcing migrants to have to travel through “hostile terrain” in desert and isolated areas. This tactic alone has resulted in thousands of deaths.

While Coddington and William’s research does not focus on how public information campaigns oversimplify the reasons for migration, their research shows how the United States continues to target families to discourage immigration, at times under the guise of protecting immigrants themselves. As the scholars argue, through public information campaigns, families are not just affected by border enforcement efforts, families are themselves the target of these efforts, due to their “ability to influence migration-related decisions.”