The US Has a Long History of Helping to ‘Disappear’ Central Americans

Use quotes to search for exact phrases. Use AND/OR/NOT between keywords or phrases for more precise search results.

Analysis Immigration

The US Has a Long History of Helping to ‘Disappear’ Central Americans

Tina Vasquez

Family separation is a devastating American tradition. And now migrant children will be lost in a system where there is no plan to reunite them with parents or guardians.

Despite members of his administration asserting that only Congress could end the policy of family separation at the border, President Donald Trump signed an executive order Wednesday ending the practice. Migrant families will now be imprisoned together indefinitely.

But for the thousands of children who have been subjected to the policy, there is no plan or framework in place to reunite them with parents or guardians. Instead, Trump’s action has disappeared these children into an already labyrinthine system run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). They will end up in a nationwide patchwork of long-existing shelters and foster care settings, as well as new facilities, such as tent cities and old Walmarts serving as makeshift child-care facilities.

The United States has made a practice of disappearing—or aiding in the disappearing—of Central American migrants. While many immigrants have been subjected to the United States’ cruel immigration system, with detention and deportation becoming primary tools of the state, Central Americans are experiencing multiple layers of violence. Because of civil war and gang violence in the region, both of which are partly fueled by U.S. foreign policy, generations of Central Americans have been disappeared, presumably murdered in their countries of origin. Those who migrate to escape this violence are only met with more and sometimes never heard from again. A Border Patrol policy dating back to the 1990s purposely pushes migrants further into more dangerous, isolated areas of the desert, and has killed and disappeared countless people. Now, the Trump administration is specifically targeting Central American migrants by removing protections for children; ending the ability to claim asylum due to domestic and gang violence; and using its zero-tolerance policy to deport asylum seekers possibly to their deaths and disappear children into the immigration system.

There is a historical and deeply American context for Trump’s strategy of separating families, this latest iteration of which was intended to deter migrants. Sold to different slave owners, enslaved families were ripped apart and often never saw each other again. For hundreds of years, federal and state governments took Native American children from their parents and placed them in missions, boarding schools, other institutions, or in the homes of white families to “civilize the savage born.” From 1941 to 1967, as many as one-third of Native American children were separated from their families as a result of “forcible removal.”

Roe has collapsed and Texas is in chaos.

Stay up to date with The Fallout, a newsletter from our expert journalists.


Family separation, even as a policy, has always been a natural byproduct of the immigration system. Take, for example, the Alien Transfer Exit Program (ATEP), which launched in 2008 and specifically targets Mexican men. As part of ATEP, Mexican male migrants are detained near the border and, instead of being repatriated to their area of origin, they are left hundreds—and sometimes thousands—of miles away at the opposite end of the U.S.-Mexico border. Even when Mexican men aren’t migrating alone and are with their families when detained, ATEP is still utilized.

Trump’s policy of subjecting families to prolonged detention is also deeply American. Consider Japanese internment, which incarcerated 120,000 Japanese Americans—two-thirds of whom were U.S. citizens—during World War II. A more recent example is the use of family detention as a way of handling the 2014 Central American migrant crisis. The Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI) makes these connections clear.

“It is tempting to label this policy ‘un-American,’ but the truth is, family separation is a devastating tradition in the U.S. From the nearly 250 years of slavery in U.S. to the harsh conditions in Japanese internment camps of the 1940s, U.S. policy has torn families apart, causing deep intergenerational trauma and betraying any sense of humanity,” Opal Tometi, executive director of BAJI, said in a statement.  “It is no secret that Trump and his administration view immigrants of color as less than human, revealing the cruelty behind his immigration policies.”

Children Rendered Parentless

While the families separated at the border migrated together, the moment a child was taken from their parents, they were rendered an unaccompanied immigrant child (UIC), the same status given to children who migrate to the United States alone. UICs are placed in ORR’s sometimes abusive shelters and foster care settings, but due to the sheer number of children who have been taken from their parents—more than 2,000 as of this week—ORR’s contracted facilities are over capacity. This is why UICs are being placed in Trump’s notorious tent cities and other facilities converted into makeshift shelters, including a former Walmart building in Texas.

Many of the children are so young they are unable to speak or advocate for themselves. The Associated Press reported this week that there are three “tender age” facilities where babies are imprisoned. Questions remain about how children this young—who may not know their names or those of family members—will even be reunited with their families.

In Michigan, which has provided foster care to UICs who migrated to the United States alone, the state Department of Civil Rights has launched an investigation into civil rights violations for children as young as 3 months old. There have also been cases in which children as young as 18 months have been deported without their parents, and parents deported without their children. Asylum-seeking parents who have been prosecuted as part of the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy report they were given an ORR number to call to track down their children while in custody. But it’s almost impossible to utilize while detained because of restricted phone access and the wait time for the hotline, the cost of phone calls in detention, and the inability to leave a callback number. In other accounts, parents released from custody do not have their child returned to them, but rather must track them down themselves, navigating language barriers, lack of legal counsel, and a generally chaotic system. For parents deported back to countries from which they sought asylum, international calls are insurmountably expensive and toll-free numbers don’t work from their country of origin.

As it turns out, the Trump administration has no plan to reunite the families it separated at the border. The New Yorker reported that “no protocols have been put in place for keeping track of parents and children concurrently, for keeping parents and children in contact with each other while they are separated, or for eventually reuniting them.” Immigration attorneys and other advocates are trying to piece together information about the whereabouts of children based on federal charging documents used in the parents’ immigration case, according to the New Yorker, but where the child is being held can have nothing to do with where the family was arrested.

Lack of communication and a divergence of “institutional agendas” among the different federal immigration agencies handling the parents and the children also pose problems, the New Yorker reported. Because of prior executive orders and the nature of the administration, ICE is deporting immigrants as quickly as possible. Meanwhile ORR’s main function is decidedly different. Mark Greenberg, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, was with the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), the agency that oversees ORR, from 2009-2017. Greenberg, who was acting ACF assistant secretary from 2013-2017, told Rewire.News that the basic idea for the unaccompanied children program was to provide services to immigrant minors and help them reunite with their parents or other family members as quickly as possible once the children were in the United States and awaiting immigration proceedings.

“The idea of using ORR as the place to hold children because their parents are being arrested and prosecuted is fundamentally different than the original purpose of the program,” Greenberg said. “The goal used to be to have kids in custody for as short a time as possible. Because their parents are being arrested and awaiting criminal proceedings, it complicates everything.”

Other issues are at play. There is a backlog for releasing children in ORR custody because of a policy implemented by ORR Director Scott Lloyd, which is subjecting Central American boys, who make up a majority of the children separated from their parents at the border, to prolonged detention. Because of this backlog, parents are being deported before their children’s cases are resolved. Prior to the family separation policy at the border, the Trump administration was also targeting undocumented parents who appeared at ORR to get their children out of custody.

Recently, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) also proposed a rule change that would allow information to be collected concerning the potential sponsors of unaccompanied immigrant children—and potentially use that information to arrest the sponsors. The proposal would also retain biometric information about potential sponsors and people in their households, which might frighten parents and eligible family members from attempting to get children out of federal custody out of fear of being targeted. This would essentially render children lost in the system.

The Disappeared

Fernando Garcia, founder and executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights, told Rewire.News in a phone interview that rather than acknowledging that Central American migrants are fleeing violence, the Trump administration has used rhetoric to “lay the violence of their countries and their forced migration at the feet of [migrant] parents with no context for how we got here.”

“We don’t even know the numbers of people who have disappeared in their countries, trying to get to the United States, or with these children now [separated from their families], who may never see their parents again. There is an untold story about migrants, about how they are disappeared. Our organization receives calls from people all over the country who never heard from their family members again. This is all the result of the policies of the United States. None of this is happening in a vacuum. It is the policies of the United States that are killing and disappearing people, and it is the responsibility of the United States to address this,” Garcia said.

Many governments have a long history of “disappearing” people, and the United States has a long history of helping.

Take El Salvador, for example, which is the country of origin for many asylum seekers being brutalized by the Trump administration. From 1980 to 1992, El Salvador experienced a civil war in which the United States provided funds and other resources to a dictator who utilized death squads. Many families in El Salvador have yet to find the bodies of their loved ones from that time period, and the bodies keep piling up. According to the Associated Press, “more than 25 years after the end of its civil war, families in El Salvador are still searching for an estimated 3,000 children who disappeared in the fighting.”

While Attorney General Jeff Sessions has used rhetoric surrounding the gang MS-13 as justification for inhumane immigration policies, often insinuating it formed in Central America and spread to the U.S., MS-13 actually began in Los Angeles. The gang became transnational in part because of U.S. deportation policies. Gangs have a stronghold in Central America and their violence is the primary reason Central Americans—and especially women, who are often the target of gender-based violence from gangs—are fleeing to the United States and seeking asylum.

But as of this month, the United States no longer recognizes gang violence and domestic violence as acceptable reasons for seeking asylum. In 2014, Al Jazeera reported that since 2009, crime-related violence in El Salvador claimed the lives of an estimated 21,394 people, the majority of whom were victims of gang-related violence. This is largely what lead to the great migration of Central American asylum seekers to the United States in 2014.

Trump’s policy of separating parents from their children at the border, with no plan in place for reuniting these families, once again has the United States aiding in the disappearing of Central Americans, while also criminalizing them for attempting to escape the conditions in their countries that were in part created by the United States.

Sessions’ recent justification for the Trump administration’s policy of separating families was the kind of ahistorical re-telling that leads not just to the normalization of migrants being disappeared, but tells the American public that they deserve it.

“It should be noted the perils to which these parents subject their children,” Sessions said June 14. “Hundreds of aliens die every year trying to make it to the border to illegally enter this country. In many cases, children are trafficked, abused, or recruited by criminal gangs. No one should subject their child to this treacherous journey.”

Sessions’ remarks were clearly disingenuous, an attempt to minimize the administration’s goal of pushing an anti-immigrant agenda by pretending that ripping apart families is being done out of actual concern for families. It was also paternalistic, which Mary Small, policy director of the Detention Watch Network, previously told Rewire.News is often the stance the federal government takes with migrant families.

“With women, we pretend [enforcement policies] are to protect them from the dangers of migrating north. It is very gendered. We treat women migrants as if they’re not making informed decisions on behalf of their families in light of the circumstances they’re facing in their home countries and the only way to help women understand this is a harsh punishment when they arrive [in the United States],” Small said. “For men, the public narrative is that they are dangerous and need to be deterred from entering the U.S. The common root of both is that immigrants make poor choices for themselves and their families and they are people not to be trusted. They are dangerous men and hapless women.”

While the blazing heat and bitter cold of the borderlands makes the trek to the United States incredibly dangerous, Sessions conveniently failed to mention another way the United States has successfully disappeared migrants: the Prevention Through Deterrence strategy. Much like the administration’s attempt to deter migration by stealing children from parents, the federal government has an ongoing policy that uses death as a deterrent for those attempting to migrate to the United States.

As Rewire.News previously reported, in 1994 Border Patrol rolled out a strategy called Prevention Through Deterrence, which militarized urban border areas in an effort to steer migrants away from ports of entry and into “geographically harsher” and “more remote and hazardous border regions,” according to an August 2010 Congressional Research Service report. This effort provided “Border Patrol agents with a tactical advantage over illegal border crossers and smugglers,” that report further explains.

The Border Patrol’s strategic plan for 1994 pointed out how the northern U.S. border’s “sub-zero” temperatures and the southern border’s “searing heat” can have an effect on “illegal entry traffic,” as well as how mountains, deserts, lakes, rivers, and valleys are “natural barriers to passage.”

“Illegal entrants crossing through remote, uninhabited expanses of land and sea along the border can find themselves in mortal danger,” the plan stated.

Border Patrol also outlined “indicators of success,” which included fee increases by smugglers. It also assumed that the new strategy might set off more violence at attempted entries and the potential for more protests against immigration policy. In other words, if the program functioned as intended, Prevention Through Deterrence would reshape migration, leading to more deaths and disappearances.

Those pushed into the desert by Border Patrol and who ultimately die have not endured an “enforced disappearance” in the classic sense, at least not as defined by the United Nations, Rewire.News reported. But what do you call it when migrants are pushed deeper and deeper into the harsh desert as part of a state-sanctioned strategy while Border Patrol vandalizes humanitarian aid left for migrants?

This strategy was highlighted in a report by two Tucson, Arizona-based immigrants’ rights organizations—Derechos Humanos and No More Deaths—that intentionally used the word “disappeared” in the report for those whose whereabouts are unaccounted for after they attempted to cross the border. The language also mirrors what is said by families calling the Missing Migrant Crisis Line, who according to the report, often say, “Estoy buscando a una persona desaparecida” (I’m looking for a disappeared person).

Much like Prevention Through Deterrence, Trump’s policy of separating immigrant families was meant to act as a deterrent, but the end result is the same: the disappearing of migrants. As Small previously told Rewire.News, the question of whether the implementation of “cruel and horrific things” works to stop the flow of migrants is “the wrong question.”

Both Democratic and Republican administrations have failed to address the migration of Central American asylum seekers in a humane way and for too long, have operated as if cruel and unusual punishments—such as family detention or the separation of families at the border—will discourage migrants from attempting to enter the United States. The fact that none of the United States’ policies has stopped migration only speaks to the circumstances that force people to migrate.

Greenberg echoed Small’s sentiments, telling Rewire.News that when a policy has such “horrendous effects” on the well-being of children and on the relationships of children and their parents, the measure shouldn’t be considered as a deterrent.

“The issues of disappearance, of family separation and child incarceration, are inhumane, but this is all part of the agenda. When you look at the arc over the last two years, everything from Trump trying to destroy the dreams of the Dreamers to massive immigration raids and family separation, it’s all part of a racist agenda,” Garcia said.

“Right now, in this moment, the Trump administration is using children as political pawns because the persecution and abuse of their parents is not enough. These things have been problems for many years, before this administration. But now we have a White House that openly embraces racism and xenophobia. These are truly dangerous times.”