Woman and child on auction block,1800s

“Woman and child on auction block,” from the New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Image: New York Public Library Digital Collection


Like most of you reading this, I am deeply appalled at what I see happening right now in the United States — immigrant children being snatched away from their parents and sent to separate detention centers, often locked in cages with strangers, with no real idea of when they’ll ever be reunited with their families. It’s an abomination.

But I often see two troubling responses to this crisis that show just how aloof and asleep millions of Americans are right now.

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, that goes something like this: How could this ever happen in the United States?

What’s 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 fueling this catastrophe are as American as Facebook and Disneyland.

Let me break it down. At least five troubling factors are at play here. All five were fully and completely present before this current crisis ever 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. And 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 in this country. 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 of them never saw their families again.

What might be most shocking, though, is the way the U.S. — today, in the present — separates so many families whose stories go unremarked upon. I’m talking about the crisis of mass incarceration in America, 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 percent 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 American history where children and parents of color weren’t forcefully separated from one another by the white power structure in this country. It’s woefully and painfully normal. And it’s because it’s so normal that it is so easy for it to happen again and again in this country. This nation has mastered separating parents and children. Pretending otherwise is to offer a revisionist history.

It should come as no surprise, then, that so many on the right — those who would bristle at acknowledging, let alone apologizing for, this history — are embracing a policy of forced family separation.

On Monday night, Fox News’s Laura Ingraham said, with a smug smile, that the immigrant children being held in detention centers are “essentially in summer camp.” This, in spite of the reality that the leading doctors and medical groups across the country have said that forcefully separating children from their parents in detention centers causes “irreparable harm” to the children. This, 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 percent 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 at American borders is white supremacy and bigotry.

For years now, Donald Trump has dehumanized border-crossing Latinos every chance he gets — routinely calling them animals, murderers, and rapists. He reduced entire nations of color to being “shithole countries.” On Monday, 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 of people suffers unspeakable horrors and oppression, the people in power first reduce and dehumanize them — making it such that the conscience of the people in power is fully at ease during the oppression. This is how Ingraham could compare the detention centers to “summer camps”: She has convinced herself that the United States is doing these subhuman children a favor.

At the root of the current human rights crisis at American 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 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 color. And this distinction is essential.

Melania Trump’s parents are beneficiaries 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 and 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 all descendants of immigrants themselves. Their problem is not with immigrants; it’s with immigrants of color, 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 American policies. Trump’s senior policy adviser Stephen Miller has shown bigoted tendencies since high school. And now he is said to be the chief author of both the Muslim ban and the new policy of separating immigrant children from their parents. We are living in the age where hate crimes are on the rise in the United States. White supremacists are running for office in record numbers.


MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 12:  A two-year-old Honduran asylum seeker cries as her mother is searched and detained near the U.S.-Mexico border on June 12, 2018 in McAllen, Texas. The asylum seekers had rafted across the Rio Grande from Mexico and were detained by U.S. Border Patrol agents before being sent to a processing center for possible separation. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is executing the Trump administration's zero tolerance policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants' country of origin would no longer qualify them for political asylum status.  (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

A 2-year-old Honduran asylum-seeker cries as her mother is searched and detained near the U.S.-Mexico border on June 12, 2018, in McAllen, Texas.

Photo: John Moore/Getty Images


There are two more essential factors at play in what we see happening at our border right now. We need to talk about these things to really understand what’s going on, to see how we got to this point.

The first is the reality that the United States is the incarceration nation. No nation in the entire world incarcerates more people than we do. We routinely have somewhere around 2.3 million people in jail and prison on any given day, and at least 10.6 million are put into jails and prisons every year. The United States has criminalized poverty, forcing people into jail if they cannot afford to pay the most basic fees, whether traffic tickets, court fines, or cash bail. The United States has criminalized drug addiction, sending millions of people to jail and prison over the generations for simple drug possession. This nation has criminalized 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 America’s borders were also criminalized and warehoused. It’s what this nation does.

It was only a matter of time until people seeking asylum at America’s borders were also criminalized and warehoused. It’s what this nation does. Instead of solving our most difficult problems, we increase police forces, build more jails and prisons, including tent cities if necessary, and arrest people — especially people of color.

Lastly — and this is key — what we see happening right now at America’s borders has everything to do with profiteering and the privatization of America’s jails and prisons. It’s a huge, multibillion-dollar industry. Our nation has publicly traded companies whose business it is to profit off 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, the cleaning crews, and the supplies all have an exorbitant cost.

The same conservatives who campaign on cutting costs and reducing deficits then have no problem at all spending multiple billions of dollars on mass incarceration. Executives from the private prison industry have seen their profits explode under Trump, and 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. Period. No ifs, ands, or buts. It didn’t come out of nowhere, though. It came right from the American playbook. This nation has routinely mistreated and abused people of color for hundreds of years — and has willfully separated millions of families, sometimes permanently, for sport and profit, on this soil. Speak out against it. Organize against it. But just know that what you are seeing has deep roots.