When the Border Crosses a Family

Migrant Father – Photo by Michael Hyatt

Borders are not just arbitrary lines that delineate one nation from another. Under the best circumstances they can provide points of connection. But when border  policies are bad, they are more like cracks in a shell that is shattering.

In the US, we have seen the immigration of millions of undocumented workers displaced by austerity measures and neoliberal economics imposed by our country on the people of Mexico and those of Central America. These immigrants are workers upon whose labor our own economy is dependent. Border militarization and criminalization is a wholly inappropriate response, running like fissures through our jobs, schools and communities. But when the border crosses a family, that is perhaps the most tragic rupture of all.

We talk a lot in the US about “family values”. The bonds of parent and child, sister and brother, of spouses—these are considered the strongest kinds of bonds, to be nurtured, not broken. But when it comes to immigration policies and enforcement, these bonds are rarely respected. In fact, the separation of families has become epidemic. This separation occurs in several ways: when mothers and fathers are forced to leave behind families to seek employment in a strange land just in order to feed those families; when children leave their homes to try and reunite with family in the US; when new families are formed in the US and children who are born as citizens are torn from their undocumented parents by deportations.

The worst separation of all happens when the undocumented die crossing the border. Uprooted by the destruction of rural economies brought on by the North American and Central American Free Trade Agreements (NAFTA and CAFTA), border militarization forces them to cross through the harshest terrains. Since the advent of NAFTA, more than 6,000 remains have been found–every body that of a family member. Studies show that while apprehensions of border crossers has greatly diminished, the number of deaths in the desert has risen by 27%, the second highest in a decade, despite a 50% drop in apprehensions since 2008.  A study by the National Foundation for American Policy shows that undocumented persons attempting to cross the border are eight times more likely to die than they were ten years ago.  The study attributes these deaths to the lack of temporary work visas and “the significant buildup of Border Patrol…[that] has pushed those who want to work in America into increasingly remote and dangerous areas.” (The Alliance for Global Justice supports a general amnesty for undocumented workers and a clear path to citizenship as preferable to temporary visas and bracero programs.) Also rising are the numbers of apprehensions of unaccompanied children, most of these on journeys to reunite with family in the US.

Many of those who die are never found, all traces erased by conditions that can quickly convert the bodies of the dead into little more than dust and sand. There is no sadness like that of never knowing, never being able to confirm the fate of the missing.

What of the majority who survive this dangerous trek? A recent study shows that between July 1, 2010 and September 31, 2012, almost 23% of all deportations were of parents with children who are US citizens—204,810 deportations in all. More than 16.6 million people in the US live in mixed status families, including one third of all US children.

Migrant Child’s Shoe – by Michael Hyatt

According to a Colorlines.org investigation in November, 2011, at least 5,200 children of the undocumented are in foster care and facing difficult barriers to ever being reunited with their families. Luis Zayas of the University of Texas School of Social Work tells us, “We are talking about separating families from children. That’s not something our government should be doing.” Zaya also spoke of the option of children following their deported parents to Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and other countries: “Many of their parents fled poverty, fled government oppression and when they return, they return to these origins. That puts these kids at risk.”

On June 17, 2011, ICE Director John Morton issued two memos (the “Morton Memos”) giving prosecutorial discretion regarding undocumented residents with close family ties. Almost one year later to the date, on June 15, 2012, Pres. Obama signed a memo creating the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, effecting undocumented immigrants under the age of 30, who had come to the US while under the age of 16. How much have these helped?

According to Kat Rodriguez, Director of the Derechos Humanos Coalition in Tucson, Arizona, these memos were not “…law or anything that had any real teeth….At the end of the day, the CBP (Customs and Border Patrol) and ICE agents have ‘discretion’ and can do what they want. Immigration attorneys I know told me that they would mention the memo and ICE agents would sort of snort and say, ‘yeah, well, we have ultimate discretion.’ I have heard that some folks had some success with this, but for the most part, it was just a big lie that let the Obama Administration look good on the issue of immigration but not making any real changes to the system. As far as I understand, nothing has changed for families—families are still getting separated and deported, despite being DACA eligible.”

Both the immigration reform proposals coming from the White House and from the Gang of Eight Senators include billions of dollars for enforcement and “border security”.  The Gang of Eight proposal requires “border security triggers” that must be met before any other provisions go into effect. Proposed reforms are very limited in their scope as to who will be eligible for temporary work permits. The reality is that these proposals will do little to stem deportations that ravage so many families. (To read an informative and critical analysis of the proposed reforms by the Derechos Humanos Coalition, click here.)


In the following lesson, we have tried to strike a balance between providing useful and telling numbers, statistics and analysis and offering material that gives us a small glimpse into some of the families divided by border policies. We have included more video offerings than usual as a way of letting those most affected speak as directly as possible to the student of the guide.

One subject that is not adequately explored in this lesson is the impact of immigration policies on families where the parents are members of the gay and lesbian community.  So let us call your attention to the Call to Action section, which includes a relevant component.  For more information about this important aspect of this issue, go to:  http://www.domaproject.org/ .

We will start with an excerpt from Margaret Regan’s “The Death of Josseline”, the story of a 14 year old girl who died trying to cross the desert with her younger brother so they could reunite with their mother in Los Angeles. (Josseline’s body was found by Dan Millis, of the Sierra Club’s Bordelands Team. Dan provided most of the material for the study guide’s lesson “Splitting the Land in Two: the Ecological Effects of Border Militarization”.) Next will be a short video recording of a family’s reaction as they are left on the side of the street while their car is impounded and the children’s mother is hauled away by the Border Patrol, apprehended after what otherwise would have been just a routine traffic stop. This is the kind of thing that happens when local police are drafted into enforcement of immigration law:  a minor traffic stop turns into a nightmare provoked by racial profiling (if the Mother had been White and a native English speaker, she would not have been asked to prove her citizenship or legal status), and police are diverted from looking for real criminals into arresting working mothers and dividing families.

Following these there are a series of articles and videos that further provide educational material along with pieces that put real faces on these difficult issues. As we have stated before, we know that not all students of the guide will be able to digest all of the information provided here. But whatever of these reports and testimonies one is able to view, we are sure that one message above all will be driven home: we have to stop border militarization and come up with just immigration and trade policies that reinforce rather than destroy family bonds.




The Death of Josseline

Excerpt from the book of the same name by Margaret Regan

A little girl with a big name—Josseline Jamileth Hernández Quinteros—she was 5 feet tall and 100 pounds. At 14, young as she was, she had an important responsibility: It was her job to bring her little brother, age 10, safely to their mother in Los Angeles. The Hernández kids had never been away from home before, and already, they’d been traveling for weeks. Now they were almost there, just days away from their mother’s embrace. Read More….








August 20, 2010:  SB1070 in Effect, Separating Families on the Streets of Tucson, Arizona



CLICK HERE to watch video:  August 20, 2010: SB1070 in Effect and Separating Families on the Streets of Tucson

This video was taken on August 20, 2010 by Raquel Mogollón, President of Tucson’s Pan Left Video Collective. It was taken just four months after the Arizona legislature had passed its harsh anti-immigrant law SB1070. Raquel was participating in “Migra Patrol”, a project to witness and document the effects of SB1070, which calls on all levels of law enforcement, including local and state police, to act as enforcers of immigration law. The heart of SB1070 is its promotion of racial profiling of anyone who might be suspected of being in the US without documents—in other words, anyone who is brown skinned and speaking Spanish. In this video, the mother of three children has just been taken away by the Border Patrol, and her car impounded. She had been pulled over because one of her tail lights was not working. Suddenly, her three children, a sister and an unidentified friend were left stranded on the side of the road, with mother and children thrust into a cycle of indefinite and prolonged separation and uncertainty. The video is grainy and the sound quality not good, since it was taken on-the-spot, with a cell phone. Nevertheless, it gives a small glimpse into the very moment where “the border crosses a family”.


Nearly 205,000 Deportations of Parents of U.S. Citizens in Just Over Two Years

by Seth Freed Wessler

This article introduces the Shattered Families report, giving important highlights in an abbreviated form:

Between July 1, 2010, and Sept. 31, 2012, nearly 23 percent of all deportations—or, 204,810 deportations—were issued for parents with citizen children, according to federal data unearthed through a Freedom of Information Act request. Read more….


Shattered Families:  Immigration Detention and the Child Welfare System Promotional Video



CLICK HERE to watch Shattered Families promotional video


This video, in less than five minutes, provides a quick, yet poignant and informative introduction to the Shattered Families report’s findings. It also tells the story of two undocumented sisters who are arrested and deported and thus separated for over a year from their children.


How Today’s Immigration Enforcement Policies Impact Children, Families, and Communities:  A View from the Ground

by Joanna Dreby

What happens to children when their parents are deported? How do these deportations, now more numerous than ever, affect families and the communities in which they live? This report looks at how immigration enforcement shapes family life in the United States, both among immigrant and mixed-status families, and in their wider communities. Read more….


Border Crossing by Numbers

by Rebecca Huval

This article is a short introduction to the new documentary by Marco Williams, The Undocumented. This succinct piece nevertheless captures some of the major themes and provides brief overview of some very telling statistics. Read more….


Deported Mothers of Tijuana


This ten minute video highlights testimonies by a group of mothers separated from their children because of deportations. The mix of the mother’s experiences with incisive analysis and information makes the piece a well-balanced introduction to issues affecting the families of the undocumented.


Los Despertados:  Stories from the Other Side

by Murphy Woodhouse and ST McNeill



This is the first installment in a series of short videos done by Woodhouse and McNeill about the people affected by, and fighting to change, border policies.  More videos are available at deportados.arizona.edu .


Two Videos:  Tucson March to US Immigration, and, Arizona Caravan for Family Unity



CLICK HERE to watch Tucson March to US Immigration

CLICK HERE to watch Customs Enforcement Caravan for Family Unity










  • Statistics show that there has been a drop in the number of apprehensions of undocumented persons crossing the border, however, there has been a rise in the number of deaths in the desert. Why are there more deaths in the desert, then, and what does this have to do with border militarization? How is this an example of “when the border crosses a family?”


  • There has also been a rise in the number of unaccompanied undocumented children intercepted. Why are they there? Are most of these children trying to reconnect with family and friends?


  • What does it look like to be “Pro-Family” in regards to border and immigration policies?


  • In the two videos presented together, Tucson March to U.S. Immigration and Arizona Caravan for Family Unity, we see examples of actions taken to try to force authorities to intervene on behalf of families threatened with division because of border policies. Do you think these actions are worthwhile? Do they provide any ideas for similar actions in your community? What steps would need to be taken to organize and mobilize such efforts where you live?












  • I Am an American-the Story of Elvira and Saul Arellano (Elvira Arellano is a Mexican citizen and the mother of , Saul, who was born in the US. While living in Chicago she was arrested and ordered to appear before immigration authorities on August 15, 2006. Instead, she sought refuge at Adalberto United Methodist Church, which had declared itself a sanctuary. At the end of this clip, information is given that Arellano was deported and Saul remained in Chicago. Mother and son are now reunited in Mexico. Saul returned to the United States at the age of 12 in July 2011, visiting Chicago and also gong to Washington DC to march in front of the White House demanding that Pres. Obama sign an order to “end the deportations”. Both Elvira and Saul Arellano continue to advocate for the rights of undocumented immigrants to the US, and for their families.)