There’s a bit of misinformation going around that needs clearing up: the U.S. government did not lose track of 1,500 or so children it had separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border.
No, the 1,500 kids that can’t be found crossed the border alone, without a grown-up. As undocumented minors, they were supposed to be sent to foster homes, but the federal Department of Health and Human Services can’t confirm if that happened.
That’s not much more reassuring, particularly since the United States does have a policy of splitting up families who cross the border without status. The New York Times reports that more than 700 minors were separated from their parents between October, 2017, and April, 2018, and over the past month, the Trump administration has vowed to clamp down even harder.
The goal, supposedly, is to discourage people from even thinking about trying to get into the United States extra-legally, especially certain kinds of people. White House chief of staff John Kelly told NPR that undocumented migrants from Latin American countries are undesirable because they’re “overwhelmingly rural.” "They don't speak English," he repeated twice.
When pressed by NPR as to the morality of family separation, Mr. Kelly said the children would be put “into foster care, or whatever.” That’s repulsive. Once again, though, the scope of American brutality makes it easy to overlook similar behaviour in Canada.
Earlier this week, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley offered a formal apology for the Sixties Scoop – the period between the 1950s and the late 1980s when about 20,000 Indigenous children across Canada were adopted out to largely non-Indigenous families. That follows Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s November, 2017, apology for residential schools, which saw more than 150,000 Indigenous children separated from their families, often forcefully.
Survivors of both have spoken of the many traumatic effects of losing their families and cultures: the assaults and abuse they experienced, the mental illnesses they’ve suffered and the deep rifts left behind in their communities. But even as Canada, finally, offers apologies and money in the face of these injustices, it’s still taking away Indigenous children.
In 2016, Indigenous kids younger than 14 made up 52 per cent of children in the foster system, even though they make up only 8 per cent of the population in that age group. Young people today call it the “Millennial Scoop,” and say it is just as painful.
In Manitoba, almost 90 per cent of children in foster care are Indigenous. A recent study in the journal Pediatrics following almost 6,000 teenage mothers in the province found that those who were in foster care themselves were seven times more likely to have their own children put into care.
Apprehending children instead of finding a way to help their mothers succeed is creating another generation of fractured Indigenous families. It also highlights another long history of separating parent and child: the global scourge of young or unwed mothers seen as unfit to raise their own babies.
The list of marginalized families that Canada tears apart is long. Black children are also overrepresented in foster care, the latest form of black familial disruption. Migrant workers are often denied the ability to bring their loved ones here, either entirely, or only after such a long delay that parents and children have become strangers.
I recently saw education researcher Jessica Ellen Ticar discuss her work with the children of migrant Filipina caregivers. Of 22 youth she spoke with for her PhD thesis, seven had to wait more than a decade after their mothers left for Canada to be able to come here and be reunited. The shortest gap was two years.
Novelist Amanda Eyre Ward interviewed dozens of unaccompanied minors entering the U.S. during research for her 2015 book The Same Sky, including a boy named Sam, just five years old. “Children such as Sam are being taken from their families at the border under the current administration’s ‘zero tolerance’ policy,“ she wrote in an unbearable op-ed in the Washington Post this week. “Are they being misplaced, mistreated, raped?”
Even from arm’s length, witnessing what’s happening in the U.S. right now fills me with panic and grief. That feeling becomes overwhelming when I consider that thousands of other children and parents are currently being forced apart by the Canadian government.
Just because we can’t see them doesn’t mean they aren’t here.