The surreal spectacle of thousands of little children — including toddlers and even infants — torn from their parents’ arms and jailed like animals in cages by US immigration authorities has rightfully shocked the world’s conscience. It has left many Americans asking, “what have we become?”
It’s not what we’ve become but rather what we’ve always been. We are a nation that has, since its earliest days, stolen children from their parents. When a country is built upon a foundation of genocide and slavery, such crimes are inevitable.
We will never know how many indigenous children were killed or orphaned by US policies and actions in the 18th, 19th and even 20th centuries. We do know that founding fathers including Thomas Jefferson repeatedly called for their “extermination,” and that subsequent presidents, most notably Trump hero (and prolific slave owner) Andrew “Indian Killer” Jackson, proved more than willing to exterminate.
Later, separating children from their families and communities was adopted as the what was billed as the final solution to America’s enduring “Indian problem.” Under the motto “kill the Indian, save the man,” Native youth were forcefully imprisoned in boarding schools where their language, their culture and their very identity were beaten out of them. They were forced to adopt the alien religion, language and culture of their oppressors; physical, emotional and sexual abuse ran rampant and many children died from overwork, malnutrition and disease. You may imagine this to be ancient history, but as late as the 1970s, up to a quarter of Native American children remained separated from their families.
We will also never know how many black children were stolen from their parents and sold off to far-flung corners of the South during the three centuries in which African people, themselves stolen from their loved ones, were enslaved in America. Nor will we know how many black children lost parents or perished themselves in the multigenerational campaign of white terrorism that was Jim Crow. We do know that the Bible verse Attorney General Jeff Sessions cites in defense of seizing migrant children is the exact same scripture that defenders of slavery and Jim Crow segregation hid behind to justify their crimes.
So many of our nation’s darkest chapters were written during times of war. Such was the case with the more than 100,000 Japanese men, women and children, the vast majority of them US citizens, who were imprisoned in concentration camps during World War II. In addition to the entire families who were held, American children of Japanese descent were forcibly removed from orphanages and foster homes and interned. Shiraishi Sakamoto, who was just three years old when Army soldiers dragged her from the Maryknoll nuns who were her only family, later warned of the need to educate Americans about “the injustice of innocent young people being targeted by prejudice.”
“It shows what human nature in any history is capable of doing,” Sakamoto told the Los Angeles Times in 1997.
That includes today. But it’s not only migrant children who are being targeted by racial and economic prejudice. It is also the countless black and brown children who have lost one or both parents to mass incarceration, violence or drugs. Hundreds of thousands of adults and children who haven’t been convicted of any crime languish in jails across America simply because they cannot afford bail. When Homeland Security Secretary Kristjen Nielsen claims that breaking up families is “no different than what we do every day in every part of the United States,” she is telling the truth. That doesn’t make it right.
Countless too are the orphans and widows born of the bombs and bullets that have claimed at least hundreds of thousands, and possibly many more, lives in more than half a dozen majority Muslim nations since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. This figure rises daily as Trump fulfills his campaign pledge to “bomb the shit out of” Isis. It’s interesting that a nation which has spilled tremendous blood and treasure waging a never-ending war against terrorism is itself terrorizing both parents and children by separating or threatening to separate families guilty of nothing more than trying to survive.
Of course this glaring hypocrisy isn’t new to America. It’s what we do. And when millions of you wonder how we could have gotten here, where the president speaks of an immigrant “infestation,” where right-wing pundits dismiss the literal caging of toddlers — who have been called “child actors” — as “summer camp” and where even the ICE director won’t call such imprisonment humane, you should already know the answer.
We haven’t “become” anything. This is what we have always been. We are much more than just this, but this too is what we are.