Where Are Our Family Values?

The picture of the young Mexican mother, Guadalupe Garcia de Rayox, confined behind a chain link fence in Phoenix, haunts me. She was deported, torn away from her two young children, after she showed up for a routine check-in with ICE officials. So too does the picture of the Denver mother surrounded by her three children, Jeanette Vizguerra, who took refuge in a church rather than face deportation and separation from her little ones. The ages of the children who lost or face the risk of losing their mother to deportation range from 6 to 12.

Is this the kind of nation we have become? One that punishes the children for the mistakes made by their mothers decades ago?

The five minor children of these two mothers are all U.S. citizens, born here years after their mothers made their undocumented bid for a better life. While one can debate the rightness or wrongness of what these women did back then, the incontrovertible fact is that the U.S. government is now punishing their children – their citizen children – by depriving them of maternal care and support. Fortunately, both sets of children have fathers in the country, but maternal separation may forever harm their ability to trust in institutions, like the government, to look out for their best interests.

At Cornell, I teach a family sociology course where we spend a lot of time discussing how American families have changed over time. One of the questions we explore is whether the ramifications of a shifting economy and the greater involvement of women in the paid labor force is positive or detrimental (or both) for family well-being. While many of my students wrestle with the notion that economic change may result in new and often better roles for family members, they all seem to agree that the primary family responsibilities that remain – providing emotional care for family members and rearing children – are essential and cannot be outsourced to other institutions, such as the government. With that consensus established, we then spend a considerable amount of time debating how well the family is doing with regards to these functions, and what role public policy may play in facilitating such duties. As many times as I’ve conducted these discussions in nearly two decades of teaching, what has never emerged is the idea that the government itself might suddenly make it impossible for a family to fulfill either of those responsibilities. Never before have students imagined such a horrifying possibility.

To be sure, children sometimes lose a parent through untimely death or the disruption of the parent’s relationship. But these are not voluntary choices, nor have they been made by the government of the country of which the children are citizens.

Our leaders often talk about family values. Many believe that the traditional family is weaker than it was in the past and has lost many of its important functions as a result of changing family forms. Yet this deportation policy, which targets undocumented parents with little concern for the severity of their misdemeanors nor the consequences that removing them will have on their citizen children, highlights our nation’s hypocrisy when it comes to valuing families. These children have rights as citizens to care and education.

Tearing apart families in this fashion flies in the face of Americans’ notions of protecting family values. In fact, demographic data shows that many of these illegal families embody the “traditional” family values - marriage, children, hard work ― that politicians supposedly revere. Our government should not be destroying families. Societies are judged by how well they take care of their most vulnerable citizens. This is not the way to make America great.