header icons

Catholic Bishops Call Forced Separation of Migrant Families Immoral

by L. V. Diaz

Forced separation of children and parents at the United States’ southern border, as a tool of a new, harsher immigration policy, shocks the conscience with its brutal indifference to the enduring injury it causes children and its callous neglect for human dignity.  As the count of children separated from their families has grown into the thousands, the United Nations human rights office, medical professionals, child welfare experts, and religious leaders including the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Southern Baptist Convention have expressed mounting dismay and urgent opposition. Although the June 20 decision to discontinue separating migrant families is welcome, the problem of some 2,300 migrant children who have already been separated from their parents remains. Federal officials say the children who have already been detained will remain in federal custody for an indefinite period. Also problematic are the administrations’s vague plans to find locations where immigrant families can be detained together, since prolonged detention of children is prohibited by the Flores settlement and against the best interest of the children.*

We at Casa Juan Diego also decry this vicious practice of separating families as immoral, anti-life and antithetical to authentic American values.  We agree with Cardinal Daniel DiNardo who, on behalf of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said on June 13, 2018, “Separating babies from their mothers is not the answer and is immoral.”1

Demands that immigrants “get in line” and enter the country properly are disingenuous.  Multiple roadblocks are being created to obstruct various routes to legal immigration.  Also, new requirements are being established that make it more likely that family members will risk deportation if they attempt to claim detained children.

As Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley said in a June 13, 2013 statement, “The United States is now openly before the world using children as pawns to enforce a hostile immigration policy. This strategy is morally unacceptable.” We agree with Cardinal O’Malley when he says, “I cannot be silent when our country’s immigration policy destroys families, traumatizes parents, and terrorizes children”2

Thousands of children seized and detained

Information on the number and location of immigrant children detained without parents is hard to obtain. As of June 12, 2018, the Office of Refugee Resettlement was overseeing the care of over 11,000 migrant children, including minors who arrived in the US alone and those who have been separated from their parents at the border.  Between April 19 and March 31,2018, some 1,995 children have been separated from their families and currently it is estimated that the number has risen to 2,300 children.  As early as April 2018, reports documented more than 100 cases of children under 4 who were separated from their parents.3   It can only be assumed more very children have been detained in May and June. Children as young as 18 months have been removed from their families.4   One mother from Honduras reports her nursing baby was forcibly removed from her arms, and then she was handcuffed for resisting.5

by Brandon Curry, St. John’s College High School

So many children are being separated from their families, that the capacity to care for the children is strained.   Shelters are 95% full. Some have been given special permission to accept additional children and are operating at over their original capacity.  At least one facility in Tornillo, Texas is using a tent to house 450 children.6The tent is air-conditioned, but there are no toilets and porta-potties are being used instead.  Plans are underway to open a facility for unaccompanied minors at 419 Emancipation Avenue in Houston operated by Southwest Key.  According to the Houston Chroniclethe facility is expected to house “tender age” immigrant children under 12 and also pregnant immigrant teenagers.7

Once the children are taken into federal custody, it can be very difficult to reunite them with their families.  Children are often sent to shelters many states away, with no concern for where their parents are detained. There is no uniform, consistent system for tracking and reuniting families. Parents have even been deported without their children and then left to struggle to find them and obtain their return.8   There are no plans to expedite the return of the 2,300 children taken from their parents under the “zero-tolerance” policy, despite the fact that a cessation of further family separations has been announced.

Using Children as Pawns

The administration introduced the forced separation of families as a “tough deterrent” to immigration, even in cases when immigrants may have a legal asylum claim under international treaties to which the United States is a signatory.9Previously, those claiming asylum could remain together as families.  Because children may not be imprisoned, families were released on bond until their hearings.

Under the administration’s new policies, migrants who did not enter the Unites States at an official crossing point have had to first serve a jail sentence for this misdemeanor, and when released, were sent to immigration detention while they pursue their asylum claim. But the children cannot be jailed, so they were separated from the parents at the border.  Defendants are brought before the judge in groups: 50, 60, 70 at a time.  When horrified parents realized they must choose between pursuing their asylum claims or being separated from their children indefinitely, most felt they have no choice but to accept voluntary deportation as a means of reuniting their families.10That is one purpose of the family separation policy: to coerce immigrants into abandoning the asylum claims they are legally entitled to pursue.

The zero-tolerance policy is still in place. Due to the public outcry about separating families, the administration now plans to detain families together. It remains to be seen whether this plan will survive the legal obstacles (such as the Flores settlement) and the logistical challenges of setting up systems and facilities suitable for detaining families.

As if this were not bad enough, new policies are now being launched to make the situation more difficult. Asylum seekers presenting at official crossing points are being prevented from making their claims. Instead, they must wait indefinitely on the southern side of the border until US customs officials say they can make their application.11

Additional procedures are also being planned to increase scrutiny of sponsors coming to pick up detained children.  Up until now, if other family members could be found in the United States, children could be released to their custody, while the detained parent remained in custody.  Now the Department of Health and Human Services has announced it will begin fingerprinting guardians and doing background checks on the guardian and other household members.12If there is anyone in the household of the potential sponsor who is not documented, their fear of deportation may prevent the sponsor from coming forward, thus leaving the child to even longer detention.

Permanent Damage to Children

The practice of separating children from parents as part of the United States’ immigration policy has been denounced by a wide array of medical professionals including the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Psychiatric Association, American College of Physicians and more than 200 organizations of child welfare and juvenile justice experts.  All agree that a long and well recognized body of scientific data demonstrates that the forced separation of children from their parents has long-lasting negative consequences to their physical health and mental well-being which extend beyond childhood and impact their adult lives.13

The United Nations human rights office considers this forced separation of families to be a violation of the rights of the child.  The United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Zeid al-Hussein, called the practice “unconscionable” and agreed with the American Association of Pediatrics president who said the policy of separating children from parents is nothing less than “government-sanctioned child abuse.”14 

Opposing the forcible separation of children from their parents is increasingly understood as a pro-life issue.  Being pro-life means more than opposing abortion.  It means protecting life consistently from beginning to end.  It means protecting children throughout their lives.  And protecting immigrant children means safeguarding the integrity of their family and preserving their essential relationship to their parents.

All of these concerns persist as long as 2,300 children continue to be separated from their parents in detention.

Immoral, Racist and Against Catholic Values

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has been vehement in its rejection of these immigration policies, as have numerous individual Bishops.  The Bishops have based their position on their belief in the right to life. Speaking for the USCCB, Cardinal DiNardo denounced the new restrictions on asylum, saying, “asylum is an instrument to preserve the right to life”.  While acknowledging the right of a government to protect its borders, Cardinal DiNardo argued, “We can and must do better as a government and a society to find other ways” to secure the border without separating young children from their parents and “exposing them to irreparable harm and trauma.”15

Bishop Joe Vásquez of Austin, Chairman of the USCCB Committee on Migration said in a statement, “Forcibly separating children from their mothers and fathers is ineffective to the goals of deterrence and safety and contrary to our Catholic values … Children are not instruments of deterrence but a blessing from God. Rupturing the bond between parent and child causes scientifically proven trauma that often leads to irreparable emotional scarring.”16

In their annual spring assembly June 13 and 14, 2018, the bishops discussed the policy of family separation at length.  Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn argued that the policy was “based on racism.” Indeed, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the willingness of the administration to adopt the policy of separating children from their parents at the border is linked to the fact that the affected families are poor people of color.  Calling for a delegation of bishops to go to children in detention to provide pastoral support and to protest family separation, Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin of Newark warned of the “hardening of the American heart.”17

Raise a Prophetic Voice

While reasonable minds may differ on the best means to secure the border, we can all agree that forcibly separating children from parents is not the way.  Neither is prolonged detention of children, even with their parents. Children should never be used as bargaining chips.  We cannot allow ourselves to become indifferent to the inhumanity, the cruelty, of a government policy that knowingly inflicts permanent harm on traumatized children.  Sometimes, after seeing so much suffering in the immigrant and refugee community, it is tempting to become desensitized.  It is a kind of self-protection to become numb.  But we must not give in to this temptation.  We must let our hearts be broken over and over. We must pray unceasingly for justice and for the conversion of the hard-hearted.  And we must continue to raise a prophetic voice to call for the end of family separation and establishment the fair and humane immigration policy that comports with the best of American values.



  1. http://www.usccb.org/news/2018/18-098.cfm
  2. https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2018/06/13/cardinal-malley-decries-trump-immigration-policies-says-family-separation-terrorizes-children/a0GpZ6Zomjbdx0nzDG3w4N/story.html
  3. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/20/us/immigrant-children-separation-ice.html
  4. https://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/Immigrant-families-separated-at-border-struggle-12938759.php.
  5. https://www.dallasnews.com/news/immigration/2018/06/13/mom-says-baby-taken-breastfed-texas-immigration-detention-center
  6. https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/immigration/trump-admin-will-house-migrant-kids-tents-tornillo-texas-n883281
  7. https://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/Immigrant-families-separated-at-border-struggle-12938759.php
  8. https://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/Immigrant-families-separated-at-border-struggle-12938759.php
  9. https://www.npr.org/2018/05/11/610116389/transcript-white-house-chief-of-staff-john-kellys-interview-with-npr
  10. https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/they-just-took-them-frantic-parents-separated-from-their-kids-fill-courts-on-the-border/2018/06/09/e3f5170c-6aa9-11e8-bea7-c8eb28bc52b1_story.html?utm_term=.a252dc9c3c91
  11. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/12/us/asylum-seekers-mexico-border.html
  12. https://www.gao.gov/assets/700/691526.pdf
  13. https://www.theyoungcenter.org/stories/2018/1/16/experts-oppose-plans-to-take-children-from-parents-at-border
  14. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/18/world/europe/trump-migrant-children-un.html
  15. http://www.usccb.org/news/2018/18-098.cfm
  16. hhtp://www.usccb.org/news/2018/18-090.cfm
  17. https://www.americamagazine.org/politics-society/2018/06/13/bishops-and-southern-baptists-agree-trumps-immigration-policies-are


Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXXIII, No. 3, July-September 2018.