At least 2,000 children have now been forcibly separated from their parents by the United States government. Their stories are wrenching. Antar Davidson, a former youth-care worker at an Arizona shelter, described to the Los Angeles Times children “huddled together, tears streaming down their faces,” because they believed that their parents were dead. Natalia Cornelio, an attorney with the Texas Human Rights Project, told CNN about a Honduran mother whose child had been ripped away from her while she was breastfeeding. “Inside an old warehouse in South Texas, hundreds of children wait in a series of cages created by metal fencing,” the Associated Press reported. “One cage had 20 children inside.”
In some cases, parents have been deported while their children are still in custody, with no way to retrieve them. John Sandweg, a former director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, told NBC News that some of these family separations will be permanent. “You could be creating thousands of immigrant orphans in the U.S. that one day could become eligible for citizenship when they are adopted,” he said.
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly blithely assured NPR in May that “the children will be taken care of—put into foster care or whatever.” The administration’s main focus is not the welfare of the children, as much as the manner in which breaking up families at the U.S.-Mexico border could send a message to other migrants fleeing violence or persecution. Kelly defended the policy as a “tough deterrent.”
The crisis, to the extent that one exists, is of the administration’s own making. The people fleeing to the U.S. border are a threat neither to American economic prosperity nor to public safety, there is not a great surge of border crossers requiring an extreme response. There are a variety of options for dealing with them short of amnesty, and the separation of families is not legally required.
The policy’s cruelty is its purpose: By inflicting irreparable trauma on children and their families, the administration intends to persuade those looking to America for a better life to stay home. The barbarism of deliberately inflicting suffering on children as coercion, though, has forced the Trump administration and its allies in the conservative press to offer three contradictory defenses.
First, there’s the denial that the policy exists: Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen declared, “We do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period.”
Not so, the administration’s defenders in the media have insisted. The policy is both real and delightful. The conservative radio host Laura Ingraham called the uproar “hilarious,” adding sarcastically that “the U.S. is so inhumane to provide entertainment, sports, tutoring, medical, dental, four meals a day, and clean, decent housing for children whose parents irresponsibly tried to bring them across the border illegally.” She also described the facilities as “essentially summer camps.” On Fox News, the Breitbart editor Joel Pollak argued that the detention facilities offer children both basic necessities and the chance to receive an education. “This is a place where they really have the welfare of the kids at heart,” he said.
Others in the administration—such as Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his former aide, the White House adviser Stephen Miller—offer a third defense. The policy exists, they say, and it’s necessary to uphold the rule of law. Sessions told the conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt that the measures in question are routine. “Every time somebody … gets prosecuted in America for a crime, American citizens, and they go to jail, they’re separated from their children,” he said. Miller has presented family separation as a “potent tool in a severely limited arsenal of strategies for stopping immigrants from flooding across the border.”
It is not an accident that these three defenses—the policy does not exist, the children are better off under the policy, and the policy is required by law—are contradictory. The heart of Trumpism is both cruelty and denial. The administration and its supporters valorize cruelty against outsiders even while denying that such cruelty is taking place.
The policy of shattering families and the cacophony of conservative voices defending it are the fruits of a campaign of dehumanization that began when Trump announced his candidacy for president, declaring that Mexico was sending rapists and drug dealers to migrate illegally to the United States. Trump’s advocates have said that his generalizations about religious and ethnic minorities apply only to some members of those communities—but as president, Trump has used fears of terrorism and criminality among the few to justify persecuting the many. Only some Muslims may be terrorists, but that “some” justifies barring as many as possible from the country. Only some immigrants are MS-13 “animals,” but that “some” justifies caging all unauthorized immigrants.
Dehumanizing “some” dehumanizes the whole. This has been Trump’s strategy from the beginning. It has been an essential element of the most shameful episodes in American history, a list to which the Trump administration’s policy of detaining children to frighten their parents must now be added.
The Trump administration’s purposeful separation of families has roused the ghosts that haunt America. In the antebellum United States, abolitionists seized on the separation of families by slave traders to indict the institution of slavery itself. Family separation was a key part of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which so affected some readers that, the historian Heather Andrea Williams writes in Help Me to Find My People, they went to slave auctions to bear witness: “Some travelers wanted to see for themselves the scenes that Stowe described in the novel, and they likened the people they saw to her characters.”
For the enslaved, who lived lives of toil and hardship as chattel, the forced division of families was among the most agonizing experiences they ever suffered or witnessed.
Solomon Northup, who had lived his entire life as a free black man in the North before being abducted into slavery in 1841, was confined alongside a woman named Eliza and her two children, Emily and Randall. Emily was the child of Eliza’s former master, who tricked her into believing she was about to be freed, and then sold them all to a trader, whose slave pen was a short distance from the U.S. Capitol.
The four were taken to New Orleans. Randall was bought by a Baton Rouge planter. Days later, Eliza and Northup were sold together, ripping Eliza away from Emily. Northup, who himself endured 12 years of bondage, called it one of the worst things he ever witnessed.“I have seen mothers kissing for the last time the faces of their dead offspring; I have seen them looking down into the grave, as the earth fell with a dull sound upon their coffins, hiding them from their eyes forever; but never have I seen such an exhibition of intense, unmeasured, and unbounded grief, as when Eliza was parted from her child,” Northup wrote in 1853.
Eliza never saw her children again. “Day nor night, however, were they ever absent from her memory. In the cotton field, in the cabin, always and everywhere, she was talking of them—often to them, as if they were actually present,” Northup wrote. “Only when absorbed in that illusion, or asleep, did she ever have a moment’s comfort afterwards.”
Henry Brown, nicknamed “Box” because he later escaped slavery by hiding himself in a box, watched his daughter being carted off after he failed to earn enough to purchase his family’s freedom. “I looked, and beheld her familiar face; but O, reader, that glance of agony! may God spare me ever again enduring the excruciating horror of that moment!,” Brown said in an account published in 1816.
She passed, and came near to where I stood. I seized hold of her hand, intending to bid her farewell; but words failed me; the gift of utterance had fled, and I remained speechless. I followed her for some distance, with her hand grasped in mine, as if to save her from her fate, but I could not speak, and I was obliged to turn away in silence.
The children who survived such separations were marked forever. Williams recounts the story of Charles Ball, who watched his family members being sold off to different masters when he was only 4. “Young as I was, the horrors of that day sank deeply into my heart, and even at this time, though a half a century has elapsed, the terrors of the scene return with painful vividness upon my memory,” Ball would write later. Louis Hughes, a former slave from Virginia, would write, “I grieved continually about my mother … It came to me, more and more plainly, that I would never see her again. Young and lonely as I was, I could not help crying, oftentimes for hours together. It was hard to get used to being away from my mother.” The great orator and former slave Frederick Douglass was at a loss for words when describing the anguish of his early separation from his mother:
It has been a life-long, standing grief to me, that I knew so little of my mother; and that I was so early separated from her. The counsels of her love must have been beneficial to me. The side view of her face is imaged on my memory, and I take few steps in life, without feeling her presence; but the image is mute, and I have no striking words of hers treasured up.
Although defenders of slavery would argue that black people felt no pain from such separations, the slave masters themselves understood the coercive power of shattering family bonds. “Often we were reminded,” wrote Lewis Johnson, a former slave in Virginia, “that if we were not good the white people would sell us to Georgia, which place we dreaded above all others on earth.”
After emancipation, freed people would travel hundreds of miles, in an era where such journeys were difficult and perilous, for the smallest chance to find their lost loved ones. The historian Eric Foner quotes a Freedmen’s Bureau agent who observed that in the eyes of former slaves, “the work of emancipation was incomplete until the families which had been dispersed by slavery were reunited.” For many, perhaps most, it would never be complete.
American immigration policy under Trump is not chattel slavery. The children being separated from their families, and the parents being detained as they pick up their children from school, attend church, or go to work, are not being forced into lives of involuntary servitude as property, or passing their condition to their offspring in perpetuity.
Yet the uncomfortable echoes of America’s past with its present are difficult to ignore. There is the intentional cruelty inflicted on the innocent and the denial of that cruelty; the insistence that those targeted by law enforcement are less human than those implementing the law; and the assertion of the primacy of federal law over the wishes of communities to be sanctuaries for all their people. To preserve the political and cultural preeminence of white Americans against a tide of demographic change, to keep America more white and less brown, the Trump administration has settled on a policy of systemic child abuse intended to intimidate prospective immigrants into submission.
And then, as now, it is this particular feature of a broader system that has roused public outrage as little else has done. Defenders of slavery understood the threat such outrage posed and rushed to quell it. Thomas Jefferson wrote that black people simply didn’t feel pain the same way white people did. “Their griefs are transient. Those numberless afflictions, which render it doubtful whether Heaven has given life to us in mercy or in wrath, are less felt, and sooner forgotten with them,” Jefferson wrote in Notes on the State of Virginia in 1785. “In general, their existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection.”
“With regard to the separation of husbands and wives, parents and children, nothing can be more untrue than the inferences drawn from what is so constantly harped on by abolitionists,” James Henry Hammond, among the most prominent apologists for slavery, wrote in 1845.
Some painful instances perhaps may occur. Very few that can be prevented. It is, and it always has been, an object of prime consideration with our slaveholders, to keep families together. Negroes are themselves both perverse and comparatively indifferent about this matter. Sometimes it happens that a negro prefers to give up his family rather than separate from his master. I have known such instances. As to wilfully selling off a husband, or wife, or child, I believe it is rarely, very rarely done, except when some offence has been committed demanding “transportation.”
It was the same tripartite denial offered by Trump officials and defenders: separations are rare and not systemic, they may leave children better off, and the maintenance of law and order demands that they take place. But then, as now, the defense was at odds with reality. From 1815 to 1820, New Orleans alone “saw 2,646 sales of children under the age of thirteen, of whom 1,001 were sold separately from any family member,” the historian Edward Baptist wrote in The Half Has Never Been Told. “Their average age was nine. Many were younger—some much younger.”
Just as Sessions reached for Romans 13 to justify the policy of family separation, so did the South’s theologians, such as Thornton Stringfellow, insist that scripture bestowed “the authority, from God himself, to hold men and women, and their increase, in slavery, and to transmit them as property forever.”
Although the Confederacy and its defenders would later seek to cast their cause as a defense of states’ rights rather than a defense of slavery, slavery apologists insisted that federal law allowed slave catchers to pursue their human quarry even into states where slavery had been outlawed. In 1850, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which required public officials to assist in the capture of escaped black people or be subject to hefty fines. Attempts by local officials to provide sanctuary for those fleeing bondage were thus preempted by the federal government; local communities were drawn into a system that tore apart families in the name of preserving order.
“Moderate Republican newspapers, including the New York Times,” Foner writes, “criticized the Fugitive Slave Act but insisted on adherence to the rule of law.” Choosing procedural objections over clear moral stances, though, did not spare the Union. Even in free states, Americans were forced to confront their own complicity in maintaining an institution that took children from their parents. Slavery’s defenders, for their part, were driven deeper into denial.
“If they acknowledged that these black people were people just like them, who hurt as they did when they lost their loved ones,” Heather Andrea Williams writes, “and if they faced them in their grief, then they might not be able to live with themselves.”
Barack Obama’s administration spent years pursuing record numbers of deportations while exempting certain categories of undocumented immigrants from deportation. In some cases, it even deported unaccompanied minors. But at the same time, the Obama administration supported a pathway to legal status for undocumented immigrants in the United States. Obama’s defenders would no doubt argue that he paired harsh enforcement as a strategy for bringing Republicans to the table on an immigration deal. But that would not erase the suffering caused by Obama’s policies, in pursuit of a deal that was never made.
Yet the Obama administration’s willingness to allow millions of undocumented immigrants to seek citizenship is not simply a minor difference with the Trump administration. It illustrates a stark difference in motivation. Trump’s harsh policies are the product of his view that Latin American immigrants will “infest” the U.S., changing the character of the country. It is a racialized view of citizenship, one that perceives white Americans as the nation’s rightful inheritors and the rest of us as interlopers. It is a worldview both antithetical to the American creed and inseparable from its execution.
I suspect that part of what horrifies Americans is not the novelty of Trump’s policy, but its familiarity. Americans are fighting a part of themselves that they naively thought they had vanquished. From chattel slavery to American Indian schools to convict leasing, child-snatching has been a tradition in America since before there was an America. If one is convinced that the parents are not truly human, then the children cannot truly be children, and what should be unthinkable becomes inevitable.
The sins of the past are not guardrails. There is nothing to prevent them from being committed again, except for the dedication of the living to creating a better world. The people in the past who convinced themselves to do unspeakable things were no less human than you or I. They made their decisions; the only thing that prevents history from repeating itself is making different ones.
“It is not the fault of the slaveholder that he is cruel, so much as it is the fault of the system under which he lives. He cannot withstand the influence of habit and associations that surround him,” Solomon Northup wrote. The architects of the Trump administration’s family-separation policy have no such excuse; they have purposefully chosen to enhance the cruelty of the system they inherited. The president insists in his defense that America must have borders, but America had borders before the Trump administration began deliberately shattering families to make a point.
That alone should illustrate the depth of their conviction. Few of the Trump administration’s policies better exemplify the Trump campaign’s commitment to restoring America’s traditional hierarchies of race, religion, and gender, than family separation. That commitment—and Republicans’ muted opposition to or vigorous support of the administration’s actions —has plunged the United States into a profound moral crisis that will define the nation’s character for decades to come. To harden oneself against the cries of children is no simple task. It requires a coldness to suffering that will not be easily thawed. The scars it inflicts on American civic culture will not heal quickly, and they will never completely fade.
Americans should have fathomed the depth of the crisis Trump would cause in 2016, but many chose denial, ridiculing those who spoke the plain meaning of Trumpism as oversensitive. Since then, Trump has failed the people of Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria; deliberately revoked the immigration status of hundreds of thousands of black and Latino immigrants; retreated from civil-rights enforcement; applied an immigration ban to a set of predominantly Muslim countries; attempted to turn black athletes into pariahs for protesting the unjust killings of their countrymen by the state; and defended the white nationalists who terrorized Charlottesville, Virginia. The separation of children from their families at the border in order to punish children for their parents’ decision to seek a better life America, as the forebears of millions of Americans once did, has now clarified for many what should have been obvious before.
People who would do this to children would do anything to anyone. Before this is over, they will be called to do worse.
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