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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Family Reunification

Immigrants from El Salvador hugging.

Immigrants from El Salvador hugging.

Ethical perspectives from multiple fields

Margaret R. McLean, Irina Raicu, Yael Kidron

(AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

In today’s blog post, we offer a multidisciplinary analysis of some of the ethical dilemmas raised by the separation of families at the border.  Authors are Margaret R. McLean, director of Bioethics; Irina Raicu, director of Internet Ethics; and Yael Kidron, director of Character Education.  Views are their own.

A Bioethics Perspective

While the government struggles to reunify parents and children forcibly separated at the border, one wonders why this is so drawn-out.  Isn’t this the age of genetic medicine, a time when we can spit in a tube and discover a genetic mutation associated with cancer or find our long lost ancestors?  If we can find the roots of our family tree through genetic testing, why not use it for family reunification and fix this mess?  Testing companies 23 and Me and MyHeritage have offered to help.  All that’s required is to compare the genetic material found in a bit of spit or a cheek swab from parents and children and, like in a game of lotto, finding a match.

Seems doable certainly but ought we to do it?

Genetic testing requires informed consent, which must be freely given and include real options.  Children cannot consent and their frightened, desperate parents have no real option other than to get the test.  Migrant parents likely are not fluent English speakers and, like most of us, likely do not understand the inherent risks of genetic testing, e.g., the discovery of non-paternity or the risks to privacy from long term storage of individual samples and genetic profiles.  Will the government provide access to genetic counselors?  Where will this intimate information end up?  Who will have access to it and for what purpose?

Equally troubling is the assumption that “family” is defined by genetics alone, that biological relationship is the sole determinant of “family” when we all know that “family” relationships are far more complicated.  Knowing biology does not necessarily equate to knowing who is in a loving relationship with a child.  What about adoptive families?  Or the life-long caregiver?

U.S. District Judge Dana Sabaw got it right when he limited the use of genetic testing to situations of “last resort” when other ways of identifying parents and their children have failed.  Parents must provide consent. Samples should only be used for reunification and destroyed within seven days.

With these ethical caveats in mind, let’s use genetic testing when needed to right the wrong of “zero tolerance” and family separation and reclaim the mantle of welcome for those fleeing violence and injustice.

—Margaret R. McLean

An Internet Ethics Perspective

All that talk of a “connected world.” Or of the internet somehow dissolving boundaries. The current family separation crisis created by Trump administration policies is giving the lie to those naïve claims. Sure, boundaries might have dissolved for hackers, but not for poor families who flee violence and are detained in the process. For children and their family members who, in our hyper-connected world, are purposefully disconnected from each other. Even as some families are in the process of being reunified, for others the chaos and the disconnection deepens.

Incommunicado in South Texas: Migrant parents await reunification in seclusion,” reads a July 22 headline in The Texas Tribune. “On the brink of being released from detention and reunited with children separated from them sometimes months ago,” the paper reports,

migrant parents are being held at the South Texas facility [of Port Isabel] in a sort of limbo--not free to leave, but with limited or no access to phones…

For the family members and lawyers of those detained at Port Isabel, being cut off from communication just as they were expecting a joyous reunion with their children has prompted fear and panic.

A Salvadoran woman named Claudia, separated from her son Kevin since May 23, was abruptly moved to South Texas from the T. Don Hutto Residential Center near Austin on July 9. She had been calling her lawyer twice daily and remained in regular contact with her sister in Virginia. Then, … the regular communication ceased on Wednesday. When her sister called the facility, she says a guard told her Claudia was no longer there.

But a volunteer attorney reported seeing her, still there.

All of us are tracked on the internet in myriad ways, but the government can’t seem to track the human beings, whether older or younger than 5, whom it moves from place to place like random pieces in a board game with ever-shifting rules, separated from other human beings who might have provided them some sense of comfort and normalcy.

Imagine how things might have been had the US government made different choices. First, of course, it might have chosen not to separate family members who cross the border together. Families might have been detained together or released while their cases were being processed (two alternative programs had proven extremely effective at tracking the released immigrants and having them show up at hearings, and, if that was the outcome, show up for deportation). Or, even had it chosen to separate children from their adult family members, the government might have chosen not to separate children younger than 5. Or younger than 10. (Someone, somewhere, made all those policy choices. Someone decided that a 5-and-a-half-year-old would be treated like a 16-and-a-half-year-old.)

Even with the current age delineations in place, the government might have chosen to keep track of family ties. It might also have set up some computers and schedules and allowed the detained, separated family members to make video calls to each other. An internet connection can’t replace the physical connection to a parent or grandparent or sibling, especially for a young child--but it would have reduced the anguish and fear caused by sudden absence, prolonged, with no information about the loved ones suddenly removed.

You don’t need virtual reality goggles to empathize with those suffering such anguish. All you need is to listen to the recording of a 3-year-old sobbing on the phone to her mother, during one of three brief phone calls that she got over the course of three weeks. As reported by PBS News Hour, the 3-year-old had crossed the border with her grandmother, who carried the girl’s birth certificate and guardianship papers. As a result of Trump administration policies, the two were separated. The girl is one of tens of children under 5 whom the government still deems “ineligible” for reunification—in this case because she crossed with a grandparent, rather than a parent.

No, this is not “a connected world.” It’s a world in which some people are connected—sometimes more than they want, sometimes to strangers with whom they don’t seek connection—while others are disconnected, purposefully, by policy, from the people they need most.

—Irina Raicu

A Character Education Perspective

We strive to teach our children to be responsible, compassionate, and kind. We also encourage them to listen to others, put themselves in others’ shoes, and seek win-win solutions in social conflicts. However, these educational goals are complicated by current events, such as the dehumanizing act of separating children from their families, the lingering challenge of returning those children to their families, and the use of degrading messages against immigrants in some social media outlets.

Imagine a social studies teacher talking in class about immigration from Northern Europe to the United States during the first half of the nineteenth century. Some of the students in the classroom are or know someone who is an unauthorized immigrant. Some other students are curious about the controversies in the news. How can the teacher foster a message of ethics and empathy while answering questions about current events?

Avoiding the topic is not an adequate solution. Increasingly, schools in the nation are striving to become trauma-informed schools, where adults and students are prepared to respond to stress symptoms of students sensitively. Given that English language learners are the fastest growing student population in the country, schools should take into account that some of their students are concerned about immigration-related issues, although they may be reluctant to discuss their personal stories.

Students’ ethical reasoning depends on their empathic perspective-taking – the ability to recognize the needs, emotions, desires, values, and attitudes of others, including those from diverse backgrounds. Students can vicariously experience the hopes and fears of child and teen immigrants through literature. Some acclaimed books have been published over the years and integrated into the core curriculum through lesson plans and curricula such as Character-Based Literacy. Examples of these books include Patricia Beatty’s Lupita Mañana; Fran Leeper Buss’s Journey of the Sparrows; Francisco Jimenez’s The Circuit: Stories from the Life of a Migrant Child; and, Will Hobbs’s Crossing the Wire (2006). Told from the first-person point of view, these stories invite readers to consider the perspective of immigrants. A deliberate, proactive effort to include books about immigration can foster not only perspective-taking but also the expressive skills of students – their vocabulary, speaking and listening skills, and argumentative writing skills – capacities necessary for the growth and participation of democratic citizens. 

—By Yael Kidron

Jul 25, 2018

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