Family Separation at the U.S. Border

What is the human impact of the Trump administration's family separation policy?

Last Updated: August 23, 2018

Over the summer, the Trump administration rapidly expanded a policy of separating children from their migrant parents at the southwest border of the United States. As many as 3,000 children were taken from their parents and housed in government detention centers or foster homes across the country while the parents, who were undocumented immigrants and sometimes asylum seekers, awaited prosecution or deportation. After a federal judge intervened in July, many, though not all, of the families were reunited. The process has been chaotic and traumatic for the families affected. President Trump’s decision to separate families and children at the border to deter illegal immigration has earned condemnation from human rights groups, civil liberties advocates, and mainstream politicians on both sides of the aisle.

Many students may have questions about the policy and its effects, and they may not have had the opportunity to emotionally process the dramatic stories and images in the news while school was out. Hostile and often dehumanizing rhetoric about immigrants has likely made some students fearful about the fates of their own families, friends, and classmates.

This teaching idea provides students with basic information about the family separation policy, as well as the Trump administration’s recent attempts to reunify families following the reversal of the order. The following activities also offer students the opportunity to reflect on and process the human side of this story and on the impacts on individual families and children. Such an emphasis counters the dominant narrative of the separation policy itself, which as Facing History and Ourselves' President and CEO Roger Brooks notes, is rooted in a “view that the immigrants on our southern border are less than human.”

  1. Introduce Students to the Family Separation Policy and the Trump Administration’s Attempt to Reunify Families
    Play the New York Times’ “Daily” podcast to students, The Ineligible Families, (23 min.) or read the following New York Times article, Federal Authorities Say They Have Met Deadline to Reunite Migrant Families. Depending on students’ reading levels, you may want to use the Chunking or Annotating and Paraphrasing Sources teaching strategy, as the article is fairly long and may be challenging for some students.

    Debrief the article/podcast by asking students the following general knowledge questions:

    • What was the administration’s family separation policy?
    • What was the administration’s defense of the policy?
    • How are people still affected by the policy, even after the Trump administration has reversed the order and taken steps to reunify families?
    • Who is taking action on behalf of the parents and children who have been separated? What effect have they had?
  2. Help Students Emotionally Process the Family Separation Policy
    The following activities will help students grapple with their thoughts and feelings about family separation. You can choose one or more of the following activities to use in your classroom:

    • Exit Card: Ask students to briefly respond to following question on a small piece of paper, like an index card, and hand it in before leaving class for the day:
      What questions, ideas, and feelings did the article/podcast raise for you?

    • Journal Reflection: Consider using the following approaches to structure students’ responses to the film:

      • Sentence Stems: This part of the article/podcast makes me feel . . . ; This statement from the article/podcast made me wonder. . . ; If I could talk with one of the people interviewed in the podcast/article, I would want to say/I would want to ask . . .
      • Freewriting: Give students a defined amount of time to write in silence about any aspect of the podcast/article that is on their mind.
    • Color, Symbol, Image: Ask students to think about the most important theme, idea, or emotion that surfaced for them in response to the podcast/article. Then, have them reflect on how they can communicate the essence of what they’ve read using a color, a symbol, and an image. You can either choose to keep students’ responses private or use the Gallery Walk teaching strategy to help students reflect on the patterns, similarities, and differences in how they are responding.

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