One of the worst American policies today is the decision of President Donald Trump’s administration to separate many immigrant parents from their children after they illegally cross the U.S. border. Obviously, a case can be made for enforcing the border, but deliberate cruelty is never a good idea. Those children — innocent victims all of them — will likely be traumatized for life. I am uncomfortably reminded of the U.S.’s long history of separating parents and children from the days of slavery and during Native American removal and extermination.
If you agree with me on this, I’d like to push you one step further. It’s horrible to forcibly separate lawbreaking parents from their young children, but we do that to American citizens, too. According to one 2010 study, more than 1.1 million men and 120,000 women in U.S. jails and prisons have children under the age of 17. These separations can be traumatic, and they help perpetuate generational cycles of low achievement and criminal behavior.
These problems are especially pressing for female prisoners and their children. From 1991 to 2007, the number of children with a mother in prison more than doubled, rising 131 percent. About two-thirds of the women in state prisons are there for nonviolent offenses. Sixty percent of those women have children under the age of 18, and in one survey one-quarter of the prisoners’ children were under the age of 4. Forty-one percent of the women in state prison had more than one child.
I have a simple proposal: Let’s take one-tenth of those women and move them from prison to house arrest, combined with electronic monitoring. That would allow for proximity to their children. If the U.S. isn’t plagued by a subsequent wave of violent crime — and I don’t think it will be — let us try the same for yet another tenth. Let’s keep on doing this until it’s obviously not working. In some of these cases the court might rule that the mother — especially if she is prone to child abuse or substance abuse — will not have full custody rights to her children. Many other children, though, will benefit, and even visitation rights can help a child.
In prison, contact usually is hard. When it comes to state prison, only 14.6 percent of mothers reported that they received personal visits from a child once a month or more; that same number is only 12.3 percent for fathers.
After we have made progress in reducing the female prison population, let us start in on the men, while recognizing that severe violent offenses will be a bigger problem for that population of convicts.
By the way, there are current programs, eight facilities by one estimate, in which mothers raise their babies . That suggests that keeping the mother and child together can be feasible (for many, if not all mothers) under house arrest as well, and presumably to the benefit of the babies. These are test cases, and they are still subject to prison regulations and other legal constraints. At any time, these mothers can be separated from their children, if only because politicians decide they don’t like the idea. So far such removals are more of a threat than a reality, but the stress on the family remains.
The problem of family separation isn’t just in long-term incarceration. Consider another common American practice, when parents, especially mothers, are arrested, and immediately forced away from their children. Often the children are given to the other parent or to grandparents, but not always: The Frontier, an investigative news site in Oklahoma, “asked Tulsa Police what their policy was regarding children of the arrested. They pointed us to their policy manual, which said: If children needed to be taken from the scene of an arrest, they would be transported to the … shelter.” Again, we forcibly separate children from their U.S. citizen parents, just as we do for illegal immigrants, even if some of the legal details differ.
One estimate suggests that 11 percent of the children of imprisoned mothers end up in foster care. This is not an area of investigation where data collection has been thorough or systematic, another sign of our neglect of the issue. Nonetheless it seems that after the arrest of a parent, treatment of the children by the police is irregular across the country and often poorly handled.
In citing this evidence, I don’t mean to normalize the current treatment of illegal immigrant families — I consider it a moral disgrace. What I am saying is that our treatment of outsiders is rarely an accident, and it so often mirrors how we have been treating each other all along. That is yet another reason to be nicer to those who are most vulnerable.
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Stacey Shick at firstname.lastname@example.org