Parent-Child Separation on the Southwestern Border

Preventing Forced Child Adoptions and Important Advocacy Actions for Social Workers

By Karen Smith Rotabi, MSW, MPH, PhD

People who seek asylum from “Northern Triangle” countries of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras have been suffering systematic human rights abuses on the Southwestern border. Specifically, the current Presidential administration’s “zero tolerance policy” has separated children from their parents or caregivers this past summer. This move comes even when many people from the region are qualified to request asylum, proving evidence of credible fear and insecurity in their home countries. As an expert witness, I have represented quite a few such individuals most often originating from Guatemala (see Costantino, Rotabi & Rodman, 2012).

Violence has reached epidemic levels in the Northern Triangle, with violence against women a harsh daily reality. That is, both societal and familial violence against women is common and persistent. The problem is so profound that a migration push has resulted; multiple related factors include weak states controlled by organized crime and narco-traffickers in an environment of legal impunity. Directly linked is an “invisible war” in Central America, largely forgotten in discourse even though smuggling and human trafficking commonly occur from the region. Fundamentally, the consequence of extreme poverty in the weak states, marked by violence and inequality, has resulted in a migration push. This human migration is directly related to profound human suffering as individuals and families travel north across Mexico with hopes of arrival in the U.S. for the purposes of asylum.

The summer of 2018 border crisis included the third caravan organized by People Without Borders — approximately 1,500 Central Americans participated in this particular exodus. At least 50 of these people intended to seek political asylum based on a number of factors that included gang-related death threats, the systematic killing of family members in revenge, rape and persecution on political grounds. Even with compelling reasons, the Customs and Border Patrol allowed only 20 immigrants to arrive at the final fence/barricade because the facility in San Ysidro reported as full. Important to note is the fact that on April 6, 2018, then–U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the “zero tolerance” policy aimed at affirming the criminalization of undocumented or “illegal” entry into the United States.

Among the results was the forced family child separation that we all witnessed, in horror, on television as investigative reporting indicated profound human suffering inclusive of children experiencing the inevitable trauma of living separate from their parent(s) in detention facilities. Photos in the press included facilities with chain link fence and conditions that were equated to “cages” for children. It is impossible to know all of the conditions because limited information was released by the U.S. Federal government in a process that lacked transparency.

However, for those of us watching from a social work perspective, it was clear that internment indeed occurred for children and their families. These are conditions not unlike those we have seen in previous genocides of persecuted peoples.

While the consequences may be obvious to us as social workers, the average American trying to follow this outrageous policy and inhumane conditions was often left confused. Of course, immigration policies — and failure to reform policies in the past 10–20 years — can be very confusing. However, one area of certainty is that accepting the forced family-child separations is unthinkable for us as professional social workers. As I have voiced elsewhere, one of my greatest concerns was the use of adoption agencies for so-called temporary foster care.

For example, Bethany Christian Services received a number of children even though their primary mission is child adoption. When there was outcry about an adoption agency conveniently setting up foster care, the agency responded with a denial designing programming that could lead to child adoption. However, advocacy groups have been speculative for good reason. In all honesty, children have been falling into adoption scenarios for many years now as their parents are deported from the U.S.  While Bethany has not specifically been implicated in these issues in the past, to my knowledge, it is critically important that private adoption agencies be held at a distance from children caught in the asylum seeking, detention and deportation process.

In closing, I offer three suggestions for professional social workers. Our commitment to ethical decision-making for the best interests of the child requires that we (1) think critically about involving ourselves in the paperwork processes of child adoption. Rather, we must (2) advocate for children to be reunited as soon as possible with their families as is required by international child welfare standards. And, (3) further advocacy is essential as Central Americans seek asylum. I will continue to stand ready to offer expert testimony for asylum seekers from Central America. I challenge all of us, as members of NASW, to seek an opportunity to get involved even if your action is simply talking with anyone who will listen about the injustices and need to stop such inhuman actions on the Southwestern border. Fundamentally, we must continue to allow Central Americans to file for asylum as they flee their home countries, for they are seeking safety, often with the hopes of saving their own lives.

Karen Smith Rotabi, MSW, MPH, PhD, is Professor and Chair of the Department of Social Work at California State University Monterey Bay. She has lived and worked in Central America and she now periodically testifies in Federal courts as an expert witness for asylum seekers and the conditions in their country of origin with an emphasis on Guatemala.

Related Publication:

Costantino, R., Rotabi, K. S., & Rodman, D. (2012). Violence Against Women and Asylum Seeking: Global Problems and Local Practices Applied to Guatemalan Women Immigrating for Safety. Advances in Social Work. Available from