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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

On Family Separation and Communication in the Age of the Internet

Irina Raicu

Irina Raicu is the director of the Internet Ethics program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.  Views are her own.

After my mother left Romania, when I was a pre-teen, I didn’t see her again for almost two years. During that time, I communicated with her mostly through letters—though there were some phone calls, too, when I got to hear her voice. The calls were rare, and often came late at night, after I’d already gone to sleep (probably because it was cheaper for her to call then). So the conversations, brief, would take on a dream-like quality. The time difference underscored the distance between us. Still, we were able to communicate.

That was before the internet.

Now, I can email and text and make lots of calls—even video calls—and I can stay in touch with folks via all sorts of social media. Communication, even across vast distance, is now easy and fast—even instantaneous, even free.

But not for many children separated from their parents, under our government’s policies and practices.

In a court in San Diego, last Friday, the ACLU explained to a federal judge that, since his court order ending the broad family separation policy of undocumented immigrants back in June 2018, the administration has separated more than 900 additional children from their parents.

At a July 2018 hearing, judge Sabraw had held that the government can still separate children from parents under certain circumstances, but that this policy “assumes absolute good faith on the part of the government that if it elects to separate a family based on criminal history that it is doing it under its criteria that it ordinarily follows.”

In fact, according to a recent ACLU court filing, the government has been separating children on the basis of arrests that never led to convictions, or convictions for minor offenses, many incurred long ago. According to an article in Slate, in “179 cases where reliable information about timing was provided, the most recent offense was on average 10 years old. There were 15 cases where a parent and child were separated based upon charges that were more than 20 years old.” Other cases of separation involve misidentifications and refusals to reverse obvious errors.  An example from the ACLU filing, cited in Slate:

A woman who was raped by a gang member in front of her 3-year-old was separated from her son because she had been arrested while she was with the gang member in question. Despite the government of El Salvador confirming that the mother had “no criminal history,” the mother and son have not been reunited after five months.


A 10-year-old who only spoke an indigenous language was separated from his father for six months after an allegation of sexual assault against someone else was mistakenly applied to the father. During that time, the boy “began to forget his family’s native language, and he suffered extreme isolation because of his inability to speak Spanish, English, or any language common in the shelter” where he was held.

And another:

A 2-year-old was recently separated from his father in New Mexico and taken to New York because of the father’s two past DUI charges. The father and son were not allowed to communicate for two months.

Consider that decision—to not allow separated children and parents to communicate. There are so many distinct horrific aspects of the current immigration crisis (the asylum seekers being prevented from even crossing the border; the conditions in immigration detention centers, even when families are not separated; the prolonged detention, even when alternatives are available; the arrest of undocumented family members who try to take in detained children); still, the ongoing family separations, and the decisions not just to separate children (even very young children) from their loved ones, but to also not allow the family members to communicate, seem particularly harmful.

Imagine being a child in a different country, in detention, separated from your family, and not knowing anything about your mom or dad. Not hearing their voices at all—not just for days, or weeks, but for months. In the age of the internet and constant communication and world-spanning “communities” and research about complex human networks and “People You May Know” features, in our rich county with vast technological resources, traumatized children don’t even get the kind of communication that I was able to have, decades ago, with my mom.

At the hearing last Friday in San Diego, the judge didn’t make any rulings. According to Bloomberg, he did, however, say that immigrant kids

shouldn’t be separated from their parents just because of a past criminal violation. … “If we have a fundamental right to this (parent-child) relationship, it should not be interrupted absent some evidence-based determination of risk,” Sabraw said. “The government should be looking behind these convictions in an evidence-based objective manner and making risk assessments.”

That, once again, appears to assume “absolute good faith on the part of the government” in making those risk assessments—just as the judge had assumed good faith, last July, in the government’s application of criteria for family separations. Will it take another year before we find out whether the risk assessments are as deeply problematic as the current separation decisions?

The ACLU attorney who has been arguing the family separation case told Slate that one of his challenges “is to make sure the public knows that the [family separation crisis is] still going on and these kids are not forgotten.”

If the Internet isn’t being used to help separated children communicate with their parents, it can at least be used to spread awareness of the fact that children are still being traumatized by family separation. To donate to groups who are helping those impacted. And to look up what judge Sabraw will eventually order in response to the latest revelations from the ACLU.

Photo: "2015/365/325 Communication Problem" by cogdogblog, cropped, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Aug 23, 2019

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