Families belong. That’s all

Photo: Elizabeth Littlejohn

Families belong together, but they do not belong together in detention. On June 30, 2018, thousands joined rallies in cities across North America to express their anger with the Trump administration’s protocol of separating minors from their parents at the Texas-Mexico border. 

While the Trump administration has visited almost endless affronts to the U.S. public, at a guttural level, this one hit hard: it’s easy to empathize with the elementary brutality of having any loved one, let alone a dependent child, ripped from you. 

Perhaps those who gave it deeper thought considered the violence of separation as compounded onto the painful decision to leave one’s home and loved ones; the grueling travel and exploitation along the way; then the separation and detention, mired in a pit of bureaucracy that means these parents may never see their children again. Perhaps people also made the connection that both the U.S. and Canada have an abhorrent history of this practice: the act of coldly removing children from Black and Indigenous peoples was first policy of the state; today, biased welfare systems that criminalize Black and brown bodies follow the legacy. 

It was energizing to see so many thousands mobilize against family separation; however, many created an incomplete narrative with the slogan “Families Belong Together.” As we stood among the 2,000 people who gathered in front of the U.S. Embassy in Toronto, we wondered, and worried, whether some around us believe that families belong together in detention. This position is also harmful and violent. Activists and allies fighting for migrant rights need to see policies of detention and family separation not as an aberration of our immigration system, but as common practice in settler colonial societies. The Families Belongmovement defines a particular moment in migrant justice history where we can make links to broader colonial and immigration policies that define who is human, and seize the opportunity to advance an anti-colonial and anti-racist immigration system.

The practice of detaining, imprisoning, and surveilling migrant peoples is on a continuum with slavery, indentured labour, and segregation. These practices are a function of a settler colonial state that restrains and contains certain peoples determined as “outsiders.” Notions of who gets to belong and who does not, defined negatively through words like “queue-jumper” and “illegal,” are a way to define “good” migrants against “bad” ones, and distract from the nation-state’s involvement with why migrants must leave their homes in the first place. For example, the role of both Canada and the U.S. in resource extraction in Latin America has dispossessed thousands that now seek better opportunities in cities in the North. International compliance with the violent drug war has empowered both the rise of drug cartels and corrupt military financing that has forced people to flee their homes. Family separation cannot be considered apart from these other cruel practices, which are not just a problem in the U.S. 

The Canadian state currently detains a few hundred immigrants each year, including children. Last year, 162 immigration detainees in Canada were children. Unlike the U.S. or U.K., Canada has no limit on how long migrants can be imprisoned. People have spent years in detention, for the “crime” of not having status. Family separation happens to them, too: while they are in prison, they cannot be with their children. Deportation, which is the government’s end goal for migrant detainees, means family separation as well. For example, just last Fall, Toronto resident Beverley Braham was deported to Jamaica, and forced to make the heart-crushing decision to leave her four-month old child behind.

Canada’s immigration policy is an inherently class-based system that systematically excludes working-class people, becoming a racist and sexist system. This system claims a face of neutrality and “due process” with exorbitant fees that no working poor person could afford. This system contains within it the same values that legalized forced separation of children in the welfare system. 

Currently, over 50 per cent of children in foster care are First Nation, Inuit or Metis. In Toronto, Black children make up 9 per cent of the city’s population yet represent over 30 per cent of those in foster care. Hiding behind the process of bureaucracy, we can see how both systems of family separation have values of white supremacy and colonialism that dictate which families are more deserving to stay together than others.  

Our legal and bureaucratic systems belie a truth about Canada: that Canada itself was created on shaky legal ground; that much of what calls itself Canada is stolen Indigenous land. Early colonizers crafted rules and systems in their favour, restricting the movement of Indigenous peoples and excluding them from decision making, using the cheap indentured labour of migrants to generate economic gain. These legacies continue to this day, in the systems that deem certain parents not able, and in the Canadian state’s approach to migrants. Programs like our Temporary Foreign Worker and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Programs are not acts of benevolence to poor countries and people, but rather, programs that are beneficial to the rich in countries that get labour out of migrants while denying them social benefits.  

Seemingly neutral bureaucratic structures need to be analysed in their totality so that when particular policies are passed, migrants and their allies can demand an overhaul of the system that will benefit the lives of thousands.These systems need to question how citizenship creates the category of “illegal” and how problematic this is given that Indigenous communities and nations have zero input or influence in dictating how immigration happens on Indigenous traditional territories. We must point out the hypocrisy of which families are seen as legitimate and which families are easily tossed aside.  

When we demand that families should stay together, we mean that families should be free together. It means families should live in safety together. That also means, families should not live under the terror of being separated by borders or by child apprehension agents. We also mean that families should be allowed to be together under the temporary Foreign Worker Program, where currently many parents do not see their children for years as they work here.

We need to seize opportunities like this to educate people around us about the myths of the Canadian immigration system and build power for particular demands: An end to the Safe Third Country Agreement, ending the Designated Country of Origin list, giving status on arrival for temporary foreign workers for family reunification, and an end to immigration detention. And these changes must occur with direct leadership and influence by Indigenous nations. 

Nisha Toomey and Sharmeen Khan are members of No One Is Illegal-Toronto. 

Photo: Elizabeth Littlejohn

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