Working Paper

Family Separation and Family Detention: The Punitive Construction of a False Binary along the U.S.-Mexico Border

Published 24 August 2020 / By Julia Romani Yanoff

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In this paper, Yanoff analyzes and contextualizes the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s emphasis on family separation and family detention policies over the last five years. These two policy options have gained prominence despite their inherent tension with legal restrictions on child detention and the constitutional right to family unity. Through a historical review of the divided immigration detention system and a legal analysis of key policies, Yanoff argues that family separation and family detention have become normalized due to an overriding commitment to punitive strategies, rather than logistical constraints or fundamental incompatibilities. A system designed to punish migrant adults and paternalistically protect children has prevailed over a structural and relational understanding of child welfare, resulting in irreversible impacts on the dignity and unity of migrant families.


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