Rainbow Rant: Families, all families, should be free

Joy Ellison
Crowds fill the Ohio Statehouse lawn during the Families Belong Together national day of action rally JUne 30 at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus. [Photo by Brooke LaValley]

The Trump administration has consistently missed court-ordered deadlines for reuniting immigrant children with their parents.

Like hundreds of thousands of people across our country, including many here in Columbus, I attended protests against Trump's immigration policies. Many of these demonstrations were organized under the slogan, “Families Belong Together.” Immigrant children must be returned to their parents immediately.

It is not, however, enough for these families to be together. Families, including queer and transgender families, belong free.

The recent focus on “family” has me skeptical. Family separation at the border is only one way our country's cruel, unjust immigration system divides loved ones. Here in Columbus, Edith Espinal is living in sanctuary in Columbus Mennonite Church after a judge denied her asylum case. If Espinal is deported, she will be taken away from her three children and her husband. Immigration activists have been raising concerns about cases like Espinal's for years. Why is family separation only now making headlines?

Queer and transgender immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers are also suffering under our nation's immigration policies. On May 31, Roxana Hernandez, a trans woman from Honduras, died while in ICE custody. After applying for asylum, she was held at a detention center in a cell so cold that detainees called it an “ice box.” Why isn't more of our larger LGBTQ family mourning her death?

Slogans that focus on families narrow our focus to only the most sympathetic victims of Trump's policies. Sadly, not all families arouse liberal compassion. Take the 2.7 million children in the United States who have a parent who is incarcerated. Because of racial disparities in our criminal legal system, black children are disproportionately impacted by this kind of family separation. These children are also suffering a deep, lasting pain. Why aren't they a part of our conversation about family separation?

There is an explanation: Dividing black families has a long history in our country, stretching back to slavery. Black mothers have been pathologized and blamed for everything from drugs to poverty.

Concern over family separation is hollow and hypocritical if it doesn't extend to the families of incarcerated people. We can't pretend that “family” is a neutral concept untainted by oppression.

The awful truth is this: Trump is happy enough to detain immigrant families together indefinitely. If the fight for family reunification means that families are locked up together with no end in sight, it is time for a new slogan. Immigrant organizers and other activists have been thinking and writing about these issues for many years. Those of us who are new to this fight should heed their wisdom.

Our definition of family needs to be wide enough to encompass everyone: immigrant families, refugee families, queer and trans families, black and Latinx families, chosen families and more. Moreover, we need to expand our vision of what constitutes justice. Families don't just belong together; they belong free.