The Long, Dark History of Family Separations
Taking Children: A History of American Terror, by Laura Briggs, University of California Press, 256 pages, $24.95
America exploded with indignation in 2018, when the Trump administration initiated mass separations of border-crossing migrant children from their parents, shipping the kids to the federal equivalent of orphanages.
The administration said the parents had broken a federal law that prohibits crossing the border without documents. Never mind that many, if not most, of the families intended to claim asylum, or that they handed themselves to Border Patrol agents as soon as they traversed the international line. Never mind that when claiming asylum, a person without papers can legally cross at any place on the border whatsoever. These parents had broken no law, but the administration defined them as criminals subject to arrest and trial. While in jail they couldn’t care for their children, officials said, so the government needed to take the kids.
The administration also said that it was sending a “deterrence” message to Central Americans: If you come here, we will take your children.
Public outrage and civil rights lawsuits quickly softened President Donald Trump and swayed judges. By summer’s end, most of the parents and children were reunited. Most, that is, who fit a highly constrained definition of “families”—adults caring for their biological children only. Aunts, uncles, grandmothers, and older siblings head many families in poverty-stricken and violence-ridden countries. But extended kin trying to escape terrible conditions are often accused of “trafficking” the children in their care.
As a result, many immigrant children remain in federal detention. Family separations continue apace, but most of us have moved on, telling ourselves that the boys and girls of 2018 are back with mom and dad, that the whole thing was an aberration, that America loves family unity.
But these separations, as shocking as they were to some Americans, are part of a much longer history. Different arms of the government have been destroying families for a very long time, a history entangled with race, immigration, and colonization. The current administration’s family separation policy is only the most recent example of this appalling legacy.
Most of us already know some of what Laura Briggs writes about in Taking Children. Most of us are aware that, for hundreds of years, African-American children were routinely and forcibly separated from their parents on auction blocks.
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