Note: The image above was provided by Custom and Border Protection to a reporter on a tour of Ursula detention facility in McAllen, Texas. Reporters were not allowed to take their own photos via Wikipedia.

Is Justice Possible After Family Separations?

Civic Issue:

According to the Washington Post, “The Trump administration separated at least 5,500 children from their parents along the border between July 2017 and June 2018 in an attempt to deter migration.” Over 500 families have yet to be reunited. On February 2, 2021, President Biden issued an executive order that created a task force to reunite the remaining families. On January 14, 2021, six days before Biden’s inauguration, the U.S. Department of Justice released a review of the family separation policy. The executive summary notes:

We found that Department leadership and, in particular, the Office of the Attorney General (OAG), which had primary responsibility for the policy’s development, failed to effectively prepare for, or manage, the implementation of the zero tolerance policy [the policy used to justify family separations]. Sessions and a small number of other DOJ officials understood that DHS would change its policy in response to the zero tolerance policy and begin referring to DOJ for criminal prosecution adults who entered the country illegally with children and that prosecution of these family unit adults would result in children being separated from them, at least temporarily.,,,

However, DOJ leadership, and the OAG in particular, did not effectively coordinate with the Southwest border USAOs, the USMS, HHS, or the federal courts prior to DHS implementing the new practice of referring family unit adults for criminal prosecution as part of the zero tolerance policy. We further found that the OAG’s expectations for how the family separation process would work significantly underestimated its complexities and demonstrated a deficient understanding of the legal requirements related to the care and custody of separated children. We concluded that the Department’s single-minded focus on increasing immigration prosecutions came at the expense of careful and appropriate consideration of the impact of family unit prosecutions and child separations.

We should note that many, if not all, of the families separated at the border, were seeking to declare asylum. Vox’s Dara Lind explains:

It is perfectly legal to come to the United States without papers and request asylum. International law prohibits the US government from turning away people with legitimate humanitarian claims or from sending them back to countries where their lives are in danger.

Federal law and regulations specify that anyone who comes to the US without legal status, and claims a fear of persecution, has the right to an interview to determine whether that fear is credible; then, if they pass that interview, they have the right to formally seek asylum.

There are two ways to come to the US to claim asylum without having papers. One is to approach the US at an official port of entry, like the one on the end of the El Paso-Ciudad Juarez bridge, and present yourself to agents of CBP’s Office of Field Operations. The other way is to cross into the US between ports of entry — i.e., illegally — and, once caught by a US Border Patrol agent, say you’re seeking asylum. The asylum claim is still legal, but you’ve committed a crime (illegal entry) to make it.

Connections to the Re-Imagining Migration Learning Arc:

    • How do borders impact people’s lives?
      • What is the purpose of borders?
      • How do the visible and invisible borders that people encounter shape their lives?
      • How can borders work in an ethical way?
    • How do individuals and societies navigate ambiguous status?
      • What are the rights of people with ambiguous status (people who are not clearly
        recognized by the State)?
      • How do individuals and societies manage ambiguous status?
      • What are our responsibilities toward people on the move with ambiguous status?

Suggested Discussion/Activities:

Note: While for some students this might be an abstract conversation, for others, it might be more personal, similar to their own experiences or the experiences of family, friends, or members of their community.


  • Consider beginning the discussion with the Three Why’s thinking routine from Project Zero as a way to encourage students to reflect on the significance of the issue.
  • Another, less directed, opening you might use  after explaining the issue is a See-Feel-Think-Wonder thinking routine. This is also from Project Zero. See-Feel-Think-Wonder opens up the space to capture what students have noticed before leading an exploration of the civic and ethical issues that are central to this inquiry. This can also serve as a check-in to gauge your students’ connections to the story.

Recognizing Inequity:

  • Consider the impacts of the policy. What do your students see as the short and long-term consequences of the family separation policy? What kind of interventions might allow them to heal and rebuild their lives?
  • Reflect on justice.
    • Define justice with your students.
    • What would need to happen for there to be justice for the families of those who were separated?
    • What would need to happen for there to be justice for those who were involved in implementing the policy?
    • What would need to happen for there to be justice for the country as a whole?
  • For all of these questions consider: What can be done through legal means, through formal apologies, through financial compensation, through education, and other means to address the injustices identified by families, reporters, the Biden administration, and by those that drafted the January 2020 Justice Department review of the family separation policy?


  • Encourage students to research asylum policy in the U.S. What purpose does it serve? Why do you think the US adopted asylum policy? What is the harm when people are prohibited from seeking asylum?

Take Action

  • Ask students to think about ways to prevent the abuses that occurred through family separation in the future? What structures need to be put in place? What attitudes might be necessary for lasting change to take root?

For additional ideas: Facing History and Ourselves has developed a wide range of classroom resources that explore issues of justice after mass violence. Consider how you might adapt some of the resources and questions they introduce to reflect on the issues at stake in family separation.


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