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Family Separation Isn’t Just Happening at the Border, It’s Happening in Our Backyards

Workplace immigration raids and arrests have been ripping parents apart from children for years.

A girl takes part in a protest against US immigration policies outside the US embassy in Mexico City, on June 21, 2018.

Today we bring you a conversation with Jess Morales Rocketto, political director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Morales Rocketto discusses how ICE raids around the US are less reported forms of family separation, and how domestic workers are at the forefront of fighting for a just immigration policy in a country that has never had one.

Sarah Jaffe: We are talking today because the Trump administration pretended to solve the problem of family separations on the border, but that has clearly not been solved. Start out by telling us where things are right now as we are talking, Monday afternoon.

Jess Morales Rocketto: Last week, President Trump put out the executive order which was a complete and total sham that did not end family separations, but was the result of the public pressure that the administration in the White House has been feeling around the humanitarian crisis they have created. As of today, there still has not been a change to the most important policy that really created this crisis: the “zero tolerance” policy that prosecutes all migrants as criminals at the border.

Even more than that, in the aftermath of this executive order that they put out, there is no plan to reunify the families that have been separated. Literally, after that executive order came out and since then, we have more than a dozen reports that I personally know … of families that have been separated at the border when they were presenting themselves for asylum.

Honestly, in fact, the more we uncover about this, the more horrifying it is. There is no level of hyperbole that could be had here, because every … hour, it feels like, there is a new article that comes out about some other atrocity that is associated with this crisis. I really do feel like we are at an all-time low moment around immigration policy, which is really saying something.

It is really saying something. And the Trump administration’s answer to “We are not going to separate families” is “We are going to build family jails.” As you said, the history is bad. There is not a good past that we are turning away from here. To really be able to get worse is impressive. Talk a little bit about the history of this and the various ways that our immigration policy has always separated families.

Honestly, it goes all the way back to slavery, as people were separated in slave ships to Africa and then, when they were separated on plantations by their masters. It goes back to Native Americans who were forced to go to Indian schools and separated from their families because of colonization. This is absolutely in the fabric of our country.

And even if you are just talking about the near future, it is absolutely true that the infrastructure for a lot of these problems was erected in the Obama administration that deported more folks than the last three presidents combined. The family separation issue is a part of our past and also a part of our present — of how we think about what to do with migrants who are trying to cross the border when they are apprehended by Border Patrol or immigration enforcement.

But, what I will say is true, because I think sometimes people are making a little bit of a false equivalency, like all of this was happening under Obama. It is true that President Obama’s administration was particularly egregious in their enforcement standards, and at the time it felt like, “Wow! How can it get worse? And under a Democratic president?” and the answer is: “Under a fascist president is how it gets worse.”

What Trump has done is absolutely so much worse. It is this family separation policy, but it is also prioritizing detention. It is refusing to recognize domestic violence survivors who come and seek asylum…. It is also ramping up immigration enforcement at workforce raids, etc. Which happened literally the day before the executive order. This is a particularly acute moment in the crisis, but it has absolutely been a crisis for a long time.

Talk about the workplace raids. Again, it is not a new practice, but it is definitely ramping up once again under this administration. It is, also, a way that people are taken away from their families: They are pulled off the worksite and meanwhile, the employers face very few consequences for any of this.

Completely. A couple of weeks ago in Ohio, there were huge workplace raids and children actually get caught in the middle of that. When they go to the fields and they detain and then potentially put into deportation proceedings everyone in the fields in the middle of the day, their children literally come home from school to their parents not there and they become wards of the state and are completely in limbo and, just like these families who are separated at the border, may not be aware of where their parents have been taken. Parents aren’t aware of where their children are taken. Neither of them knows when they will see each other again. It is not just happening at the border. It is absolutely happening in our backyards.

One of the things that is happening right now is there is growing momentum … to abolish ICE. Can you talk a little bit about the history of this agency? Because it is, again, not very old.

I am loving the messages that people are putting out on social media that say, “We have lived in a world without ICE. It is possible to imagine a world without ICE.” That is a post-September 11 enforcement measure in and of itself: the creation of ICE.

I think what is really incredible about this moment is that we are opening up a conversation around immigration that is causing us to really try to imagine what a future looks like with humane immigration policies. We have never had that in this country. Absolutely, that includes ending family detention, ending family separations, thinking about these agencies — which are in and of themselves enforcement measures — how to just completely change those and have a policy that actually reflects the values that we say we care about.

You work with the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA). One of the things that I keep thinking of when we are talking about family separation is how many migrants come to this country and end up doing domestic work and end up caring for American families while their own families are far away. I would love for you to talk about why it is that it is important for domestic workers to be at the forefront of this fight.

Our immigration campaign at National Domestic Workers Alliance is called We Belong Together and it is focused on family separation because this was something that we knew was a problem in our immigration system and was something that we understood was being totally mismanaged and the consequences were happening [among] our members and our families.

Folks who came here and were not connected with their children for 20 years at a time because they were back in their home countries. Or trying to sponsor their family members and having to be waiting 15-20 years for their family members to be able to come over. I think that part of why we felt like it was really critical to sound the alarm is that in the same way that people don’t value domestic work because it is women’s labor, because it is women of color’s labor, because it is mostly immigrant women’s labor, they also weren’t valuing what they were saying about the immigration system … and about … the reason that people come here is because they are seeking a better life, often for their family. That could be their chosen family, it could be their children, it could be their extended family.

For us, there was just a really clear gap of talking about this from a perspective where women’s voices were at the forefront and where immigrant women’s voices were at the forefront talking about what drives them to make this economic decision — because it absolutely is an economic decision. I think that what is really incredible is the women that we have talked to — we also have been able, in many cases, to engage with their children….

We absolutely are committed to doing everything we can to ensure that this crisis is fixed, but also that this problem of family separation that has been happening is dealt with once and for all.

NDWA put out a report recently about the conditions, particularly of immigrant domestic workers, in the border region because we have this specific border region policy that is … I don’t even know how to describe it. Maybe you can describe it for us. Where, if you are within 100 miles of the border, you are essentially always in a hyper-enforcement zone.

Yes, it is incredible all the ways we criminalize families who live at the border. Even ones who are not a flight risk, add to the community, who are providing vital services. It is just making it even more difficult for them to do their work and it is especially difficult because domestic workers have been a part of the Texas-Mexico border region for years … now they are facing … in addition to long work hours, high rates of wage theft, vulnerability to sexual harassment, lack of benefits or paid time off, or even breaks in some cases, they are also now facing heightened immigration enforcement regardless of status.

Immigrant women should never have to face family separation, especially women who likely have first-hand experience for what it is really like at the border.

It also just struck me that one of the things that people always say about domestic workers as an excuse sort of for bad working conditions is, “Oh, you are part of the family,” so we don’t need to give you a raise. Once again, thinking about that in this context of what we think about whose families matter is really interesting.

Completely. I actually got my start in anti-genocide organizing and I never thought that domestic worker organizing and anti-genocide organizing would roll up against each other as much as they are right now. One of the things that we used to talk about in relation to that work — which, when I was doing it at the time, was really focused in the Horn of Africa — was about the dehumanization that happened and how that is such a clear indicator of a potential humanitarian crisis like ethnic cleansing.

The reason that I personally am so passionate about this right now … is that in many ways, we are actually seeing direct parallels to things like what happened in Rwanda, things like what happened in Sudan, to things like what happened in the Holocaust. I think that sometimes people get worried, like, “Is that hyperbole?” and just being a person at the border, talking to domestic workers about what they are experiencing, talking to families who are crossing, I can definitively say, “It is not hyperbole….”

I think the difference between those past historical crises and this moment is that there is a huge outpouring of people who are saying, “We are not going to stand by while this happens. We are going to raise noise immediately,” and we are also noticing that that pressure is actually working. I just think … it is just so important for everyone to really think about how they can actually make a difference in this.

What can they do? Whether that is going to and signing up to go to one of our rallies or donating to the legal defense services or the organizing or, honestly, talking to your friends and family about it. That is not Pollyanna. Most people still don’t know that this is still actually happening…. We have to do everything we possibly can to stop this.

There are protests at ICE offices across the country going on, it seems like every day. Tell us what is being planned for the next few days and where people can plug into things in their community.

Yes, you are right. One of the best things is that there is so much stuff happening that I can’t keep track of all of it, which is an organizer’s dream. On [June] 28, we are really turning our eyes to Texas [for a rally in] Brownsville that is sponsored by the ACLU. We really want to lift up the stories of the folks at the border and the work of the folks at the border. We are really excited about turning our eyes toward Texas.

Then, on [June] 30, we have over 600 events in all 50 states and a huge mobilization happening in DC. You can find events near you or RSVP at and we are really, really excited. I think this is a pretty unprecedented amount of action around immigration. Just doing everything we can to make sure it is as incredible as the people that we are fighting for.

Where can people keep up with you and find out more about the report that Domestic Workers Alliance put out?

You can find out more about us at or @DomesticWorkers on Twitter. I am @JessLivMo on Twitter.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.

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