The Attack on Families Goes Beyond Detention and Deportation

By Paul J. Fleming and William D. Lopez

This is the first post in a semi-regular series of guest blog posts by Public Health Awakened members.

Left and right images by Culture Strike’s ‘Until We Are All Free’ project. Middle image by Jesse Jaramillo, for The California Endowment

Public outrage caused the Trump administration to back down from its most recent family separation policy. But, the first 500 days of the Trump administration have revealed a clear pattern: forcibly removing children from their parents is an acceptable consequence for poor, Black, Brown, and Muslim families.

The health and social consequences of these actions will last for generations — and so we in public health must take a stand against them. To do that, we must first uncover the emerging pattern.

While these represent 4 prime examples of family separation policies, there are numerous others that follow this pattern, from reducing family reunification visas to the Muslim travel ban.

This latest border policy has received the most attention — including nationwide protests — for removing children from their parents, placing them in overcrowded facilities or with U.S. foster families, and inhibiting contact between parents and children.

While the American Public Health Association and other leading health professional organizations have noted this policy is inhumane and harmful to health, perhaps it is not surprising. The policy is consistent with how this administration is executing immigration enforcement and the criminal justice system.

As a country, we should be minimizing forced family separation, not expanding it.

These family separation policies started by the Justice Department and Department of Homeland Security overwhelmingly affect families and communities of color: in fiscal year 2017, 96% of immigrants detained and deported were Latinx. According to the most recent data available, only 33% of people imprisoned for a drug conviction were White. In fact, compared to White folks, Black people are 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession compared to White individuals, despite the fact that White people and Black people use marijuana equally.

As a point of contrast, 79% of opioid overdose deaths in the U.S. are White, and the Trump policy has expanded treatment resources for opioid users. Most people who abuse opioids have broken federal laws related to the illegal purchase, use, or sale of controlled substances, but the Trump administration has not directed it’s federal law enforcement resources at separating White parents from their children by arresting and prosecuting illegal opioid use. To the contrary, President Trump has shown concern for the families impacted by opioid use. In his remarks on the opioid crisis, he lamented that children would be left orphaned by parental drug use, and stated that “We have no choice but to help these people that are hooked and are suffering so they can recover and rebuild their lives with their families.” Public health evidence shows that all people with substance use issues should be able to avoid incarceration and receive the help they need.

This selective enforcement places poor families and communities of color in the cross-hairs of militarized police and immigration forces and has devastating effects on the families within these communities. The increased number of families separated resulting from these policies is a public health crisis and will have a long-lasting effect on health among poor families and communities of color, further exacerbating racial health inequities in the U.S. The research here is already rich:

  • Kids, parents and loved ones, and whole communities suffer direct health impacts of forcible separation through incarceration. Being forcibly removed from a parent or child has been shown to be a traumatic event that will affect the health of the children and parents for decades to come. A nationally representative study of over 14,000 young adults showed that those who reported that their father had been removed from their family and incarcerated were more likely to report being diagnosed with high cholesterol, asthma, migraine, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and anxiety than young adults whose father was not incarcerated (these analyses accounted and controlled for the effect of poverty, child maltreatment, family structure, parent’s education, substance use in the family, and race on these outcomes). Among the hardest hit are women: one in four women in the United States has a family member or loved one in prison and one in two Black women has a loved one or family member in prison. And, of course, those who are incarcerated and removed from their families also suffer negative health effects. The negative effects also spill over into entire communities: people who live in neighborhoods where the level of incarceration and family separation is high — even if they or their family member has not been incarcerated — are more likely suffer from depression and generalized anxiety disorder.
  • Kids and parents and loved ones suffer direct health impacts of forced separation through deportation. Research on the negative impacts of family separation due to deportation are numerous. Ample evidence shows that children whose parents are deported or detained are more likely to experience food insecurity, increased anxiety and withdrawal, trauma, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Like the negative community-wide effects of incarceration, the effect is not limited to just the families and children who are separated, these policies have impacts on entire communities. Our own recent research with immigrant families shows that immigrant communities are experiencing increased anxiety, avoiding grocery shopping and delaying needed health care due to the continued deportation of their neighbors and threat of family separation.

Forced family separation continues to be a reasonable punishment for poor, Black, and Brown families and communities. Despite the fact that Trump backed down from his latest policy of family separation at the border, this pattern of policies emphasizes that the administration favors family separation rather than identifying family-friendly immigration enforcement practices and criminal justice practices that minimize family separation and minimize any harmful effects. To avoid devastating impacts on communities of color for decades to come, we in the public health community must join activists in speaking loudly and acting boldly in favor of keeping families together.


Paul Fleming (@FlemingPaulJ) is an Assistant Professor and William Lopez (@lopez_wd) is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. Dr. Lopez is currently working on a book that details how an immigration raid impacts the Latinx community. More of his writing can be found at his Medium site.