The Trump administration’s practice of tearing apart and incarcerating thousands of migrant families in a cruel attempt to deter them from seeking safety in this country is outrageous.
Now, long after a court-ordered reunification deadline in July, hundreds of families that were separated have yet to be reunited. And a recent report revealed that the Trump administration might not have released full child-separation numbers. Thousands more children than were originally reported may have been taken from their families. And even after that court order, children have continued to be separated.
As the horrors of separation continue, we often fail to consider that women (especially women of color) bear the brunt of the national incarceration crises — including incarcerations at the border. In order to liberate them from this burden, we must empower them.
In October, Sindy Ortiz Flores and her husband, Kevin Joel Ventura-Corrales, fled threats of violence in Honduras with their three young children, including their 17-month-old daughter, Grethshell. In late December, Grethshell was pulled from Ventura-Corrales’ arms at the Mexico-California border and shipped off to a shelter in San Antonio, Texas, for unaccompanied minors — six months after the Trump administration had proclaimed family separation was over.
While Ventura-Corrales was charged and taken into custody by the Department of Justice for crossing the border (not surprising, considering that the number of people prosecuted for this crime has drastically increased under the Trump administration), Flores was trying to get her baby back. After jumping through every bureaucratic hoop and getting nowhere, she was finally able to get in touch with a grassroots organization that fights for racial and gender justice and connect with advocacy groups. The family also got the attention of the national news media. After a New Yorker piece went live about their story, Grethshell was released to her mother.
But the family is still separated. Flores lives in San Francisco, where she is taking care of her children without the help of their father, who is seeking asylum in Arizona.
Flores’ pain is nothing new. There are generations of women across the United States who have lived under a system of mass incarceration that overwhelmingly impacts women of color.
Black women are incarcerated at twice the rate of white women. And in this age of mass incarceration, women are the fastest-growing prison population in the country, incarcerated at a rate eight times higher than in 1980. A stunning one in four women has an incarcerated loved one.
Those increases are the result of ongoing institutional racism; the criminalization of immigrants, migrants and asylum seekers; and a surge in locking people up for drug offenses and other nonviolent crimes, which has been steadily rising since the Clinton administration.
For women impacted by mass incarceration in the United States and women within asylum-seeking migrant families, the separation that results from incarceration carries tremendous bureaucratic hurdles, financial burdens and emotional trauma.
Toll on women and children
A recent report, “Because She’s Powerful: The Political Isolation and Resistance of Women with Incarcerated Loved Ones,” finds that 86 percent of women suffer “significant” or “extreme” emotional and mental health consequences due to the incarceration of a loved one. Moreover, a majority of all women reported that their physical health has been significantly or extremely affected by a loved one’s incarceration.
In America, women with incarcerated loved ones absorb attorney’s fees and court fees; pay tens of thousands of dollars into a cash bail system that preys on families who can least afford it; and are increasingly responsible for the cost of electronic monitoring.
The case is the same for women whose partners are targeted by immigration enforcement, having to take on the entire family’s finances, paying for attorney fees and, if available, coming up with money for a bond that has to be paid in full, often while also being undocumented themselves.
Incarcerated women experience sexual violence. They also experience other forms of trauma such as the denial of medical care and being shackled while giving birth. They’re made victim to overly restrictive visitation policies, inaccessible prison and detention center locations, and incredibly expensive phone-call surcharges.
Immigrant women in detention are also experiencing violence and trauma. Women in immigration detention report sexual assault and exploitation, lack of appropriate health care, and situations that have led to women giving birth while handcuffed to their beds.
It’s no surprise that incarceration and detention take their toll on the whole family.
Children suffer toxic stress when separated from a parent, leaving lasting physical, emotional and mental scars. About 2 million children have an incarcerated parent, that includes 1 in 9 African-American children and 1 in 28 Latino children.
For immigrant children who are already coming from communities with violence, being separated from their parents, in addition to being incarcerated, compounds the trauma.
Traumatized migrant families are forced to contend with a bureaucratic maze of requirements in order to reunite with their children. Just as Flores experienced, families face steep barriers such as labyrinths of paperwork and DNA tests. Parents have been deported to unknown locations without their children, just as children have been placed in fast-tracked adoption.
And after months of separation, some young children are so traumatized, they can no longer recognize their mothers. Flores described Grethshell’s behavior after reuniting as frustrated and detached.
Cruel policies like the one that tore Grethshell and Flores apart have a long history in the United States. Indeed, family separation driven by the immigration and criminal justice systems are part of a long legacy of white supremacy that has generated government policies targeting families of color since the earliest days of this country.
Yet in the face of all this heartbreak, women have been powering their communities and leading the fight against policies that hurt their families, including the fights against family separation and mass incarceration today.
Andrea James created the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, a group that wants to replace the criminal incarceration of women and girls with a more humane system. And Mabel Gonzales, a detainee who had been separated from her children, documented the cases of women inside an Immigration and Customs and Enforcement facility in order to reunite them with their children.
And our fight is not over yet.
Flores’ children are with her again, but her husband’s fate is still in the air. Though he has started the asylum process, there is a chance he may still be deported. It will be a long road to a full recovery for this family. Many others are not so fortunate.
The impact on women when families are separated is one of lasting consequence — whether those families are torn apart and incarcerated at the border or whether they are the victims of an unjust system of mass incarceration. We must restore what has been lost for them. When we fight for the liberation of women — especially black and brown women — we may all become more free.
Gina Clayton-Johnson is the founder and executive director of Essie Justice Group, the leading advocacy organization of women with incarcerated loved ones.
Marisa Franco is the director and co-founder of Mijente, a digital and grassroots organizing hub that strengthens and increases the participation of Latinx and Chicanx people in the broader movements for racial, economic, climate and gender justice. Both Essie Justice Group and Mijente were involved in Flores’ case.
Gina Clayton-Johnson and Marisa Franco