A History of Family Separation and the Long Durée of Criminalizing Children

We carry our history with us. We are our history. If we pretend otherwise, we literally are criminals.”

-James Baldwin

American nationalism, like all other nationalisms, is an imagined concept. In this regard, it is not exceptional in its history. However, something imagined is not necessarily rendered fictional. Just as race continues as the living organism of racism, so does the cancer of white herrenvolk democracy remain at the fulcrum of current immigration policies. As contemporary products and inheritors of this history, we often believe our hands are clean from past sins that are not of our making or within our control, fatal inventions that were not of our creation. Hence the constant appeal by politicians, critics, pundits and advocates across the political spectrum to an abstract “American Creed” that supposedly renders Mr. Trump’s policies un-American. This is a strangely ahistorical statement to make about a president whose electorate has always comprised a significant portion of our political landscape. As Mark Twain was once reported to have said, “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” The past cannot be easily discarded, for experience is the teacher of our interpretations of the present. In light of this fact, Twain’s words provide currency for understanding the precursors to our time. The first decades of the twentieth century, for example, were a time when white American nationalist ideology reigned supreme, even to the detriment of eastern European migrants fleeing the pogroms of Europe. Unsurprisingly those decades bear a close resemblance to the administration’s recent actions regarding family separations and the President’s suggestion that “We cannot allow all of these people to invade our Country.”

Moreover, the manner in which the U.S government today is ripping the children of undocumented immigrants from their families is also not unlike the ways Native Americans and African-American enslaved families experienced the trauma of American racism, slavery and colonialism for the benefits of securing white claims to the land.[1] Some instances in recent memory rarely discussed in the current public outcry are the cases that have been uncovered by researchers from The Guantánamo Public Memory Project. Like past events in Guantanamo, Cuba, the gap between American ideals and its actions are a mirror to how American white supremacy is the self-serving logic behind the humanitarian crisis on the Mexican-American border. It is a logic that rests on the systematic forced separation and detention of “unwanted” families. And to men like Pat Buchanan what’s at stake is “political, social, racial, ethnic — character of the country entirely.”

For echoes of how the past reverberates in the present, one must begin by noting that such statements are instructive of a great specter of American history that continues to unravel: the specter of xenophobia, westward expansion, and the place of these phenomena in America’s political imagination. Today’s indefensible separation of children from their parents or families at the United States’s southern border with México is a tradition that is as old as the country. Far from being un-American, severing the ties of children from their kin networks is as American as apple pie. For instance, among the first laws passed by Congress in the late eighteenth century was the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. To further appease slaveholders, lawmakers doubled-down by passing the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Both legislations guaranteed a slaveholder the right to pursue a child running away from bondage. These children were sometimes unaccompanied and it was not because they did not have families. Companionate marriages were common among enslaved families, but it did not secure one’s progeny from being sold away as legal chattel. Unlike most other fugitives fleeing to the United States, waves of African-American migrations were, for most of the late eighteenth to nineteenth centuries, an involuntary movement, a reaction to the Second Middle Passage, when Black familial ties were under constant threat. As Malcolm X once pointed out, African-Americans are a stolen people on stolen land: Black people “didn't come here on the Mayflower… You [Black people] came here on a slave ship—in chains, like a horse, or a cow, or a chicken…[and] were brought here by the people who came here on the Mayflower.”

The forced migration of African-Americans was a “uniquely cruel and brutally destructive” practice. According to historian Walter Johnson, it unfolded “In the seven decades between the ratification of the Constitution [in 1787] and the Civil War [in 1861],” when “approximately one million enslaved people were relocated from the upper South to the lower South.” In Stolen Childhood, historian Wilma King notes how “The emotional cost of family separations was high regardless of the reasons and the ages of those involved.” There was not a trauma faced by an adult slave that an enslaved child did not also encounter, with long-term effects that were far costlier. “Separation from families” she adds, as well as “friends along with the removal from one’s place of birth were not unusual in the slave trading milieu.” Most enslaved children became of age in slavery, which meant lack of medical care, high rate of child mortality, mental and sexual abuse, and a comparative death rate that was shockingly inhumane. White children in the nineteenth century comparably suffered a death rate of about 12.9 percent, while that number doubled for the enslaved child at 26 percent.

As for the millions of families who are indigenous to the land, their story is ground-zero in the annals of American empire, racism, and colonialism, with culturally catastrophic results. At any point throughout U.S history, policies of excluding the so-called undesirables have also included: Chinese, “homosexuals,” “idiots,” “feeble-minded persons,” “criminals,” “epileptics,” “insane persons,” alcoholics, “professional beggars,” all persons “mentally or physically defective,” polygamists, prostitutes, anarchists, AIDS and HIV-positive persons, Haitians, Jews and select Muslim groups and others. Native Americans, however, are unique in their position as inhabitants on a stolen land of which they are both proprietors and the dispossessed. As early as 1763 white settler rebellion against restrictive British imperial land policies, the American War of Independence, Jacksonian Indian Removal policies, Gold rush fever in the Pacific Northwest, and President Abraham Lincoln’s homestead acts facilitated the expropriation of Native American lands to clear space for Euro-Americans. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 ushered a long period of ethnic cleansing that uprooted as many as 60,000 Indians comprising the “Five Civilized Tribes,” including the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, Cherokee, and Seminole Indians. In the California plains, between 1846 and 1873, an influx of white settlers reduced the Indian population from 150,000 to 30,000. As the Nez Percé Indians tribal leader, Chief Joseph, put it: “White men had found gold in the mountains around the land of winding water,” and a human catastrophe followed in their wake.  

In the southern and the mid-Atlantic states, children were the collateral for the Jeffersonian philosophy of “Americanizing” Indians into white persons by assimilation. Capt. Richard H. Pratt, a devotee of this ideal, founded the Pennsylvania’s Carlisle Indian Industrial School, a government-sponsored institution that forcibly separated Native American children from their parents, removed them from their homes and communities, restricted their usage of indigenous languages, and sought foremost to Anglicize Native Americans through a form of education that could “kill the Indian in him, and save the man…[because] all the Indian there [who] is in the race should be dead.” Supported by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the 1887 Dawes Act, the boarding school’s “civilization” project proliferated around the country and resulted in the loss of religious ties to home, and even endangered native languages.

Fast forward to the twentieth century, one finds a repeat of the insufferable treatment of Black children again at the hands of the state. In the early 1990s, under President Bill Clinton, more than 35,000 Haitian refugees who fled the political violence of a repressive military junta supported by President George Bush Sr. were ordered to be held in detention camps in Guantanamo, kept under military surveillance, and then repatriated back to Haiti. In the 1992 election, then presidential candidate Bill Clinton had criticized Mr. Bush’s practice  as “cruel” and “immoral.” Once in power, Clinton preserved the policy, and ordered the Coast Guard to intercept refugees at sea. Sometimes denied medical care, many of the children were orphans whose parents had been killed in their homeland. As the inhumane policy reached crisis levels, a federal judge admonished Mr. Clinton’s detainment of the refugees as “outrageous, callous and reprehensible” and as “the kind of indefinite detention usually reserved for spies and murderers.”

And now the US government is exercising similar treatment toward Central and South American children fleeing similar conditions to their Haitian predecessors. In the future, historians will have to note how the past and present converged in president Trump’s reconfiguring of twenty-first century immigration policies as watershed in resuscitating racial expulsion as national policy.

For those who disagree with the president, an understandable feeling of shock has left the nation reeling in disgust and responding with an ahistorical assertion that such practices were not only inhumane but un-American. In our search to understand the overt display of cruelty, the general misperception is that Mr. Trump’s policies are the nadir of American immigration history. They are not. As narrated here, the country has seen this many times over, and activists and advocates of the marginalized have had some success pushing back against fascist racist regimes. In some instances, it was the American presidency that formed the bulwark against a punitively vicious Congress, as in the case of president Grover Cleveland who protested that lawmakers’ were “making illiteracy the pretext for exclusion, to the detriment of other illiterate immigrants.” One hundred years ago, in 1917, President Woodrow Wilson vetoed a “Literacy Test” with a message that chided congressmen for what he considered to be a bill that was not only unnecessarily harsh and oppressive” but sought to persecute “Those to whom the opportunities of elementary education have been denied, without regard to their character, their purposes, or their natural capacity.”

In the case of Black children, the first radical legislation ever enacted to protect formerly enslaved children, was the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which the House passed by overriding President Andrew Johnson’s veto. like Mr. Trump, Johnson was a champion of white supremacists who one contemporary denounced as a President who “unites in his character the seemingly opposite qualities of demagogue and autocrat, and converts the Presidential chair into a stump or a throne.” Thanks to the Radical Republicans, the Bill was a landmark for progressivism as it was the first time that Congress legislated on civil rights to mandate that “all persons born in the United States…[are] hereby declared to be citizens of the United States.” In a time when patriarchy was the expected front in securing the household, by granting the men of the Black community the “full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of person and property.” Representative Henry Raymond of New York noted that the legislation was “one of the most important bills ever presented to this House for its action” because it ensured that children would not face re-enslavement, separations, or kidnappings, as had been common before the Civil War (1861-1865). As a monumental law, the Civil Rights Bill helped began a healing process for child victims of separations who remembered “the terrors of the scene return with painful vividness,” and parents who had once lamented that “My pen cannot Express the griffe I feel to be parted from you all.” For one enslaved mother, separation from her child was “the worst of all evils” the system had condoned.

As the exemplary courage of the unaccompanied Haitian children showed, where there is oppression, follow the lead of the resisters. Before it became a permanent locale for terrorists’ cells and enemies of the state, Guantanamo Bay’s prison complex rehearsed the militarization of migrant camps on Haitian refugees and the 356 unaccompanied Haitian children held there in 1990s. In 1995, Haitian youths led a Children’s Hunger Strike against the U.S government. They reported that the U.S military had verbally abused, handcuffed, stepped on, and disciplined them by segregation. While Washington granted asylum and humanitarian parole to some 20,000 Cubans in this period, the U.S was deporting Haitian children back to Haiti, where conditions had not stabilized politically. One child alluded to a racist double-standard: “Maybe if I shed my skin, I’ll be treated differently,” by the authorities. On May 8, the Haitian children refused to go to school while in camps. They resisted most orders and did not eat, leading many to become unconscious. By June’s end, the international embarrassment forced President Clinton to grant 111 Haitians, including 48 unaccompanied children, entry to the U.S.

Another lesson in radical resistance is how Native Americans have moved beyond concerns for the freedom to move, and have instead engaged in a movement to establish the vital right to stay home. Generations after being forced off their land, indigenous communities have proved defiantly courageous in their triumph over injustice, even in the face of military threat. As one of the most important land-based social justice movements in generations, Standing Rock has empowered Native American activists to reclaim their stake in the debate of who owns America, and in effect they have challenged the President Trump’s imagined community of Americans.

As has always been true in American history, it has fallen on the marginalized to materialize “the American civil religion,” what the Swedish sociologist and economist Gunnar Myrdal called “the American Creed,” to its real and fullest potentials. Altogether, the ideals of this creed are enunciated in what may be called the American Bible of values: The Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Reconstruction Amendments. After the atrocities of World War II, these, as well as a collective essence of human dignity, was summarized by The United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights as: “the essential dignity of the individual human being, of the fundamental equality of all men, women, and of certain inalienable rights to freedom, justice, and a fair opportunity.” We must defend as the first and foremost principle that these values, in the case of children, are nonnegotiable no matter their political status or origins. In the effort to oppose the Trump administration’s inhumane treatment of migrant children, it is not enough to recast American values as the victim, however. We must repurpose the usable past by upholding the legacies of the men, women and children who prevailed in the face of similar struggles.


For Further Reading:

 Daina Ramey Berry, The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation. United States: Random House Inc. 2018.

 Grant Ulysses Foreman, Indian Removal: The Emigration of the Five Civilized Tribes of Indians. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press. 1972.

Jess Bravin. The Terror Courts: Rough Justice at Guantanamo Bay (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013).  

 Jonathan Hansen. Guantanamo: An American History (New York: Hill and Wang, 2011).

Jana Evans Braziel.  “Haiti, Guantánamo, and the ‘One Indispensable Nation’: U.S. Imperialism, ‘Apparent States,’ and Postcolonial Problematics of Sovereignty.” Cultural Critique No. 64 (Autumn, 2006), pp. 127-160.

 Amy Kaplan. “Where is Guantanamo?” American Quarterly September 2005 (v. 57, no. 3) pp. 831-858.

Lauren Martin and Matthew Mitchelson. “Geographies of Detention and Imprisonment: Interrogating Spatial Practices of Confinement, Discipline, Law, and State Power,” Geography Compass January 2009 (v. 3, no. 1) pp. 459-477.