By Antonio Cediel
Nearly 2,000 immigrant children have been separated from their parents in the last six weeks. It’s a longstanding U.S. tradition that began with slavery.
Much of the country is justifiably outraged about the Trump administration’s practice of separating undocumented children from their parents. According to Homeland Security figures, about 2,000 children have been separated from their parents in just six weeks, and many are being placed in tent camps in the desert.
In a May interview with NPR, DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen stated the administration’s case very clearly. When asked whether families would be separated if they crossed the border illegally, she said the following:
Our policy has not changed in that if you break the law, we will refer you for prosecution. What that means, however, is if you are a single adult, if you are part of a family, if you are pregnant, if you have any other condition, you’re an adult and you break the law, we will refer you. Operationally what that means is we will have to separate your family. That’s no different than what we do every day in every part of the United States when an adult of a family commits a crime. If you as a parent break into a house, you will be incarcerated by police and thereby separated from your family. We’re doing the same thing at the border.
Secretary Nielsen is absolutely correct. What is being done at the border is no different than what the government does to families every day in the USA. In fact, state-sanctioned family separation has a long history in our country and is a widespread practice today.
It began during slavery with the brutal, daily and fully legal practice of buying and selling away children from their parents. About the time slavery was abolished, the government then began the practice of forcibly removing Native American children as young as 5 years old from their families in order to “civilize” them in white boarding schools — a practice that lasted more than 100 years and formally ended only with the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978.
Currently, the most insidious engine of forced child separation is embedded within our criminal justice system. Just as the forced removal of Indian children became illegal in the late ’70s, the United States began an accelerated process of mass incarceration that quintupled the number of U.S. prisoners, giving America the highest incarceration rate in the world and paving the way for a new form of legal family separation on a massive scale.
Whether guilty or innocent, men and women spend weeks, months and even years locked up while they await trial (even though we know that money bail only marginally impacts court attendance). The result is that many of these mostly nonviolent individuals end up losing their jobs, their homes or even custody of their children — all before they’ve even had a chance to plead their case in court.
The impact upon our children is staggering: About 2.7 million boys and girls in the USA have a parent behind bars, and more than 5 million have had a parent locked up at one point in their lives.
Notably, the fastest growing group of prisoners is women (a fourteenfold increase since 1970) and about 80 percent of these women are mothers — most of them single parents.
Part of the reason that the type of everyday family separation Secretary Nielsen talks about is so widely accepted is that once an individual or group is labeled “criminal” in our country, all manner of treatment becomes acceptable. By labeling Mexican immigrants as murderers and rapists, by referring to undocumented immigrants as “animals,” by labeling Haiti, El Salvador and African nations as “s–thole” countries, and by opening a special government office to highlight the victims of immigrant crimes, (though immigrants commit crimes at lower rates than the general population), Trump has been gradually setting the stage for the increasingly cruel treatment of immigrants at our southern border.
Likewise, by criminalizing virtually every movement of black bodies (driving, walking in the wrong neighborhood, barbecuing in the park, or sitting in a Starbucks), we have created a system in which skin color predicts arrest more accurately than the actual commission of crimes.
Despite what Democrats will tell you, disdain for black people is a bipartisan affair. A 2016 Reuters poll revealed that nearly half of Trump supporters described blacks as more “violent” and “criminal” than whites, while 40 percent described them as more “lazy.” Less publicized was the fact that nearly one-third of Clinton supporters described blacks as more “violent” and “criminal,” and one-quarter described them as more “lazy” than whites.
The subtle and not-so-subtle belief that black and brown people are intellectually and morally inferior, that we threaten our country’s moral and social fiber, and that we are not fully human has always held strong currency in America. Even Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recent attempt to use biblical justifications for the cruel treatment of immigrant children has a rich tradition: Slave owners cited the same Romans 13 passage about obeying government in order to fend off would-be abolitionists (never mind that the United States itself was birthed from the rebellion against the British crown, which considered itself God-ordained, and never mind that Jesus and his parents were themselves refugees who would now be jailed and separated at the U.S. border).
Trump and his team’s “law and order” framework is the same one articulated by President Richard Nixon in the late 1960s and more subtly invoked by Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton as they ramped up the drug war and fueled massive prison expansions. We jail and separate families at the border to deter illegal immigration; and we jail and separate poor families within our country because they can’t afford bail or proper legal representation.
Any parent will tell you that there is nothing more terrifying than the thought of having your child torn away. Using terror as a deterrent against the arrival of asylum seekers and destitute families and justifying it with poor Bible teaching is abhorrent. And yet, as Secretary Nielsen has pointed out, in a country that needlessly separates hundreds of thousands of families each year, this is nothing new.
Antonio Cediel is the campaign manager for Faith in Action’s LIVE FREE campaign and a former school superintendent.
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