Donald Trump has partly backed down on the most extreme aspects of his cruel policy towards migrants seeking safety — but Shaun King writes that separating migrant families is something the US has been doing for centuries.
Like most of you reading this, I am deeply appalled at scenes of immigrant children being snatched away from their parents in the United States and sent to separate detention centres — often locked in cages with strangers, with no real idea of when they’ll ever be reunited with their families.
But I often see two troubling responses to this crisis.
The first is a statement that goes something like this: This is not the America I know and love. The second is a question, rooted in the same ignorance, goes something like: How could this ever happen in the United States?
What is happening right now in our country is, without question, a human rights catastrophe. Yet every deeply entrenched mechanism used in these policies and the spirit fuelling this catastrophe are as American as Facebook and Disneyland.
Let me break it down. There are several troubling factors at play here. All were fully and completely present before this current crisis began. They set the tone and created the culture in which something so heinous could ever take place.
This has happened here before. It has happened millions of times across the years.
First, this has happened here before. In fact, it has happened millions of times across the years in this country.
Africans forced into slavery in this country were routinely separated from their children — not only in being transported to the Americas, but then repeatedly at the auction block. Not thousands, but millions — of mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, parents and children, brothers and sisters — were all forcefully separated from each other.
This was no brief period of this nation’s history, but a feature of the institution of slavery that existed in the United States for nearly 250 years.
Not only were enslaved African children routinely separated from their families, but so too were Native Americans. From the late 1800s all the way until the 1970s, children were routinely taken from Native American homes by force and sent to barbaric “Indian schools”, where their hair was cut and their names and culture stripped away. Many never saw their families again.
What might be most shocking, though, is the way the US — today, in the present — separates so many families whose stories go unremarked upon. I’m talking about the crisis of mass incarceration in the US, of which the crackdown on immigrants is but one horrific piece.
Right now, as you read this, hundreds of thousands of adults and children, disproportionately Black and Latino, are in jails all over this country — not because they’ve been convicted of a crime, but because they cannot afford cash bail. Many of them will languish in jail not for days or weeks, but for months and years without ever being convicted of a crime.
In fact, about 65% of people in local jails in this country on any given day have not been convicted of a crime. They are in jail simply because they cannot afford bail. They, too, are separated from their families.
You’d have a hard time finding an extended period of US history where children and parents of colour weren’t forcefully separated from one another by the white power structure in this country. It’s woefully and painfully normal, so much so it happens again and again. This nation has mastered separating parents and children.
It should come as no surprise, then, that so many on the right — those who would bristle at acknowledging, let alone apologising for, this history — are embracing a policy of forced family separation.
On June 18, Fox News’s Laura Ingraham said, with a smug smile, that the immigrant children being held in detention centres are “essentially in summer camp”. This is in spite of the reality that leading doctors and medical groups across the country have said that forcefully separating children from their parents in detention centres causes “irreparable harm” to the children. It is in spite of the gut-wrenching audio obtained by ProPublica of detained children sobbing and wailing for their parents while they are mocked by guards.
Nearly 60% of Republicans approve the practice of separating immigrant children from their parents at the border. And it’s not hard to understand why.
At the root of the current human rights crisis is white supremacy and bigotry.
For years now, Trump has dehumanised border-crossing Latinos every chance he gets — routinely calling them animals, murderers and rapists. He reduced entire nations of colour to being “shithole countries”. On June 18, he reiterated this, saying immigrants were coming from “the most dangerous places in the world”.
This essential step — of reducing immigrants to a subhuman status — must not be overlooked. It happened throughout the transatlantic slave trade. It happened throughout the genocide of Native Americans. It happened throughout the Holocaust. It happened throughout the Rwandan genocide. It happens today with victims of police brutality.
Whenever a group suffers unspeakable horrors and oppression, the people in power first reduce and dehumanise them — allowing the conscience of the people in power to be fully at ease during the oppression. This is how Ingraham could compare the detention centres to “summer camps”: She has convinced herself that the US is doing these subhuman children a favour.
At the root of the current human rights crisis at US borders is white supremacy and bigotry.
Trump does not have a problem with immigrants. His mother was an immigrant from Scotland. His grandparents were all immigrants. His first wife, Ivana, was an immigrant from what is now the Czech Republic; Trump’s children with her — Donald Jr., Ivanka, and Eric — have an immigrant parent. Trump’s third wife, Melania, is an immigrant from Slovenia. She just became a citizen in 2006. His son with her, Barron, has an immigrant parent.
So no, Trump doesn’t hate immigrants. But he does seem to hate immigrants of colour. And this distinction is essential.
Melania Trump’s parents are benefactors of what Trump and the right call “chain migration”. They are in the United States legally because of their relationship to her. Trump and conservatives rail against this policy — but his parents, grandparents and in-laws all benefited from it.
If the right wing hated immigrants, Trump would probably be among the least-liked public figures in the country. But many of those on the right — like everyone here but Native Americans — are descendants of immigrants. Their problem is not with immigrants; it’s with immigrants of colour, be they from Mexico or the Americas, or any of the nations listed in Trump’s Muslim ban.
White supremacy and bigotry drive so many US policies. Trump’s senior policy adviser Stephen Miller has shown bigoted tendencies since high school. He is said to be the chief author of both the Muslim ban and the new policy of separating immigrant children from their parents.
There are two more essential factors at play in what is happening at US borders right now. We need to talk about these things to see how we got to this point.
The first is that no nation in the entire world incarcerates more people than the US does. There are routinely about 2.3 million people in jail on any given day, and at least 10.6 million are put into jails every year.
The US has criminalised poverty, forcing people into jail if they cannot afford to pay the most basic fees, whether traffic tickets, court fines or cash bail. The US has criminalised drug use, sending millions of people to jail over the generations for simple drug possession. This nation has criminalised mental illness. Two million people with a mental illness are jailed in this nation each year.
It was only a matter of time until people seeking asylum at US borders were also criminalised and warehoused. It’s what the US does.
Instead of solving our most difficult problems, we increase police forces, build more jails, including tent cities if necessary, and arrest people — especially people of colour.
Lastly — and this is key — what is happening right now at US borders has everything to do with profiteering and the privatisation of US jails. It is a huge multi-billion-dollar industry.
The US has publicly traded companies whose business it is to profit off of mass incarceration — and there is a profit margin on building and running emergency holding facilities and tent cities like we see being formed right now to detain immigrant children and families. Not only are these places being staffed and secured, but the food, cleaning crews and supplies all have an exorbitant cost.
The same conservatives who campaign on cutting costs and reducing deficits have no problem spending billions on mass incarceration. Executives from the private prison industry have seen their profits explode under Trump. He has been rewarded handsomely with six-figure donations from their executives. In this country, when you see evil, you can almost always follow the money trail.
What’s happening right now is awful. It didn’t come out of nowhere, though. It came right from the American playbook. The US has routinely mistreated and abused people of colour for hundreds of years — and has wilfully separated millions of families, sometimes permanently, for sport and profit, on this soil.
Speak out against it. Organise against it. But realise that what you are seeing has deep roots.
[Slightly abridged from The Intercept.]