As soon as US president Joe Biden took office in January this year, he set about signing dozens of executive orders with the aim of reversing some of the most egregious policies instituted under the Trump administration. One was to reverse an order issued by Trump that had led to the forcible separation of thousands of migrant children from their parents at the Mexican border. In this post, Kristen Cheney details how this reversal order that will see families reunited and others signed by Biden can give us hope that conditions for children may finally improve in the US – but only if we make sure that the new administration is held to its promises.
While taking children from their parents is not exactly a new phenomenon in the US, the forced separation of children from their parents as part of the Trump administration’s ‘Zero Tolerance’ immigration policy was considered particularly inhumane, striking a nerve that led to a widespread public outcry and condemnation by national and international human rights defenders.
Karen Rotabi and I warned in a 2018 Bliss blog that the policy could act as a legal front for trafficking children into unethical backdoor adoptions taking place without their parents’ consent. Just a few months later, The Associated Press released a report stating that this was exactly what was happening, “turning child abduction into de facto adoption”.
Upon signing an executive order to reverse the Trump administration policy, Biden pledged to “undo the moral and national shame of the previous administration that literally, not figuratively, ripped children from the arms of their families, their mothers, and fathers, at the border, and with no plan – none whatsoever – to reunify.” To correct this, Biden has commissioned a reunification task force to trace hundreds of the approximately 5,500 children who have been separated from their parents under the policy since 2017 and who have still not yet been reunited with their families – but this won’t be so easy, given that most of the parents were immediately deported to Central America, and given that at least 628 children are still ‘lost’ somewhere in the US detention and foster care system.
Moreover, the Biden administration has drawn criticism for its continued detention of unaccompanied minors at some of the same sites used by the Trump administration that was decried for ‘locking kids up in cages’. Biden’s administration is attempting to expedite the processing of unaccompanied minors’ and migrant families’ requests for asylum by converting Trump-era detention centers into processing facilities, but with the number of children arriving at the border only increasing, they are still having trouble keeping up. Though the Biden administration tried to distinguish these detention centers from those under Trump’s rule by highlighting the superior conditions of the facilities, critics claimed that “a cage is still a cage”.
Yet even for those who are reunited with their families, the end of the nightmare signals the beginning of a long journey of healing from the trauma of separation. Decades of research has demonstrated the profound and long-term psychological, social, emotional, and developmental effects of such separation of children from their families. The children and parents will have to get to know each other again after years of separation. Young children may even have forgotten their parents or their native language. They may struggle to cope with a sense of abandonment or may blame their parents for failing to protect them. The parents may in turn experience feelings of extreme guilt. All this will shape family dynamics for the rest of their lives. They will need years of support to heal, but at least for those families being reunited, the healing can begin. And hopefully policy will be developed around these reunifications that will also provide needed support.
Other positive developments
Despite the challenges at the southern border, there are a number of other policy measures emerging from the Biden administration that signal a turning point for children’s well-being:
First, immediately upon taking office, Biden reinstated the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program, prompting Congress to “enact legislation providing permanent status and a path to citizenship for people who came to this country as children and have lived, worked, and contributed to our country for many years.”
Second, Biden’s economic relief plan includes a direct cash benefit of up to $3,000 per child, meant to reduce America’s high child poverty rate, which is one of the highest amongst wealthy countries. Experts surmise that the credit, if permanently implemented, could cut US child poverty in half, especially in Black and Latinx communities.
Third, Biden also signed an executive order once again rescinding the Republican “global gag rule” on public health funding that has repeatedly led to devastating effects on women’s and children’s health by negatively affecting access to pre- and post-natal care for millions of women and children around the world.
Finally, under Biden, America has rejoined the Paris Agreement and has promised to prioritise a science-based approach to tackling climate change, giving present and future generations some hope that they will be able to bear the brunt—and perhaps soften the blow—of the predicted impacts of climate crisis.
While Joe Biden may not have been the most progressive Democratic candidate, his administration—despite taking office at a time where the bar has been set historically low—may yet turn out to be one of the most child-friendly administrations of all time. But it is up to us to keep holding the Biden administration to ever-higher standards in order to ensure that an agenda that prioritises children’s rights and well-being is set and actively pursued.
 Briggs, L. (2020) Taking Children: A History of American Terror. Oakland: University of California Press.
 Monico, C., Rotabi, K. S. and Lee, J. (2019) ‘Forced Child–Family Separations in the Southwestern U.S. Border Under the “Zero-Tolerance” Policy: Preventing Human Rights Violations and Child Abduction into Adoption (Part 1)’, Journal of Human Rights and Social Work, 4(3), pp. 164-179.
 Monico, C. and Mendez-Sandoval, J. (2019) ‘Group and Child–Family Migration from Central America to the United States: Forced Child–Family Separation, Reunification, and Pseudo Adoption in the Era of Globalization’, Genealogy, 3(4), pp. 1-24.
 Monico, C., Rotabi, K., Vissing, Y. and Lee, J. (2019) ‘Forced Child-Family Separations in the Southwestern US Border Under the “Zero-Tolerance” Policy: the Adverse Impact on Well-Being of Migrant Children (Part 2)’, Journal of Human Rights and Social Work, 4(3), pp. 180-191.
Opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the ISS or members of the Bliss team.
About the authors:
Kristen Cheney is Associate Professor of Children and Youth Studies at ISS. She is author of Crying for Our Elders: African Orphanhood in the Age of HIV and AIDS and co-editor of the volume, Disadvantaged Childhoods and Humanitarian Intervention: Processes of Affective Commodification, which was published in 2019.
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