Americans Should Show Zero Tolerance to “Zero Tolerance” Immigration Policies

The executive action signed by President Donald Trump on June 20th is not enough to end family separation. Hundreds of children remain separated from their parents. Now families will be detained for an indefinite period of time simply for applying for asylum or for crossing into the U.S. outside of the ports of entry, which is only a misdemeanor.

Recent images of family separations may have pushed empathetic Americans to their limits, but the truth is that our immigration system has separated many parents from their children for decades.

We have a high demand for low-cost workers with few avenues for low-skilled workers to come to work in the United States. Because of that, many adult migrants leave children in their country of origin. Millions of families have been separated across borders for many years, leading to suffering and trauma for both the children and parents. After a period of time, children often attempt to reunify with their parents in the United States, resulting in the surge of unaccompanied minors that we saw a few years ago.

Parental deportations also create family separations, depriving U.S.-born children of parental care.

Family separation is not new, and neither are shelters for unaccompanied minors. What was new in recent months was separating families that come to the United States seeking asylum. All these types of forced separations create lifelong trauma. It easy to see the cruelty of doing this to children. Everyone can understand the traumatic impact that separation has on children; what lawmakers need to understand is that our current immigration system inflicts trauma on adults too, which in turn affects their children. Ending the detention of children is not enough. If the public truly cares about these children, they need to advocate for comprehensive immigration reform.

Trump’s “zero tolerance” approach to immigration won’t work because it ignores the harsh realities immigrants and asylum seekers face. Proponents aim to dissuade immigrants from coming to the United States. Their goal is to see immigration decrease drastically or disappear altogether. But this is unlikely to happen given that many people are leaving their homes in Central America and Mexico to flee kidnappings, extortions, and death threats. Immigrants and asylum seekers will continue to come to the U.S. border until the situation in their countries changes. Building a border wall is a waste of American tax dollars that will do nothing to decrease the arrival of immigrants and asylum-seeking families. Despite the increasing visibility of refugees and asylum seekers, the percentage of international migrants has not increased, and border apprehensions are down from a decade ago.

If Congress really wants to solve the issue of family separation, it should create larger guest worker programs, strengthen asylum courts, pass the DREAM Act, provide amnesty to those already here and decriminalize drug use. Militarized responses to drug trafficking have created much of the violence and corruption in Mexico and Central America creating asylum seekers. We need real immigration reform that gives citizenship to those currently in the United States; this would open the door for orderly family reunification through legal avenues that can be expedited and made more efficient. This is good for everyone since, in the long term, refugees and asylum seekers are net contributors to their new countries.

To justify its “zero tolerance” approach to immigration, the administration argues that immigrants harm a nation’s culture. Trump recently tweeted, “Big mistake made all over Europe in allowing millions of people in who have so strongly and violently changed their culture!” But immigration does not pose a cultural threat to Europe or the United States. After many years of research, I’ve shown how, despite the resistance to grant legal status to immigrants, cities in the United States are doing a much better job of integrating immigrants than many European societies. Many immigrants in the United States carve out lives for themselves as they and their children integrate. Putting detained families together in camps is an improvement, but it is not a solution. Instead, we must create new pathways for legal immigration.


Ernesto Castañeda is an assistant professor of sociology at American University and author of “A Place to Call Home: Immigrant Exclusion and Urban Belonging in New York, Paris, and Barcelona” (Stanford University Press 2018).

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