Institutional Racism and the Urgent Need to Transform Public Systems that Separate Families

As the current administration continues to consider separating families in order to further its racist immigration agenda, we have just released a report that examines the relationship between institutional racism and family separation.

Entangled Roots: The Role of Race in Policies that Separate Families, analyzes the three publicly-funded systems that separate families in the United States: immigration, criminal justice, and child welfare. In the immigration and criminal justice systems, family separation is usually an unconsidered, if not quite unintended, consequence of policy, as parents are incarcerated and sometimes deported without their children. In child welfare, family separation is the deliberate result of government policy, as children are removed from their homes out of immediate concerns for their safety. In each system, however, children suffer the consequences of separation. And in each system, children of color are more likely to experience separation and its associated harms.

In immigration, Latinx families are more likely to confront enforcement. Though immigrants from Latin America make up an estimated 77 percent of the unauthorized population in the United States, they have constituted well over 90 percent of immigrants removed by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in recent years.

In criminal justice, children of color are more likely to experience parental incarceration. In 2009, 11.4 percent of African American children had a parent in prison, compared to 3.5 percent of Hispanic children and 1.8 percent of white children.

In child welfare, African American and Native American children are more likely to be removed from their families. One study found that 4.9 percent of white children will experience foster care placement before their eighteenth birthday, compared to 15.4 percent of Native American children and 11 percent of black children.

The roots of these disparities run deep.  As the immigration, criminal justice, and child welfare systems developed over the last century, they often targeted families of color for separation. American Indian children were sent off to federally-funded boarding schools and parents were coerced into giving up their children for adoption. African American families were targeted by law enforcement, and youth and adults were removed from their homes and communities at high rates as mass incarceration exploded. Latinx families were the subject of mass deportation drives, dividing families and leading many U.S. citizens determined to remain with their families to leave the only country they had ever known. As the immigration, criminal justice, and child welfare systems continued to develop, family separation affected many more communities of color.

Given this history of family separation in publicly-funded systems and the disproportionate impact on families of color, the report makes the case that these systems must be transformed. It calls on policymakers “to end the routine separation of children from their parents. Family separations should be rare, and their harm to children should be mitigated in the extremely unusual circumstances when they are necessary.”