Understanding the Spectacle of Children Separated at the Border: A History
By Laura Briggs | November 26, 2018
In May and June of 2018, the world watched as Donald Trump’s administration separated immigrant children from their parents. Most migrants were refugees seeking asylum. Rather than the orderly process demanded by U.S. and international law, they found terror and chaos in the U.S. The family separations became a spectacle, and some in Trump’s political base actively cheered. Republican Party operative and CNN contributor Rick Wilson said:
“[Trump’s] core supporters want anybody who’s darker than a latte deported. They’re not happy about immigration of any kind. They don’t believe in the asylum process. They want to take and separate these families as a matter of deterrence and as a sort of theater of cruelty.”
For many commentators—left, liberal, even some Republicans like Wilson—this was a dumpster fire of a “transformation” in our national racial politics. Just as the president had refused to condemn white supremacists in Charlottesville for the murder of Heather Heyer, now critics saw echoes of Nazism in the U.S. child separation policy that put children in converted prisons and tent cities. To immigrant advocates, white nationalism seemed to motivate both. Stephen Miller, the spokesperson for the alt-right in the administration, was apparently the architect of the ‘zero tolerance’ policy.
But critics didn’t have to go to Europe and the Nazis for examples. As others have noted, there are plenty of precedents in the United States for this policy that are more relevant to this moment. From Andrew Jackson’s effort to drive Native peoples out of lands settled by Europe’s descendants to his vice president, John Calhoun’s, insistence that slavery was integral to the institutions of the United States, the belief that this is a white nation is firmly rooted here.
White ethno-nationalism isn’t new to the U.S. It’s just nineteenth century.
This isn’t even the first time that images of children taken from their parents have inflamed U.S. politics. In the national crisis of child separation, both opponents and supporters of family separation were working off of nineteenth-century scripts. In fact, this unburied legacy is part of what made the whole thing so emotional. Consider how similar this image, below, which abolitionists used to make the case for ending racial slavery, is to those we’ve seen on the nightly news and newspapers’ front pages in the last year.
These images were staples of abolitionist literature because, as slavery’s opponents had no access to the levers of power from the courts to the legislatures to the White House (until Lincoln’s election), through which they might end slavery. Many of slavery’s opponents, including all women and most Black freedmen, were not even allowed to vote. And so they relied on stories and images to change hearts and minds. Over and over, they told dramatic stories of weeping mothers and children torn apart. “My poor mother, when she saw me leaving her for the last time, ran after me, took me down from the horse, clasped me in her arms, and wept loudly and bitterly over me,” Charles Ball wrote of the day his mother was sold away from him. “I never again heard the voice of my poor mother.” Abolitionists, Black and white, wrote about scenes from plantations and auction blocks, and these sentimental stories became one of the most effective tools abolitionists had. Indeed, in the 1850s, in a failed bid to protect slavery from reformers, Southern states actually began to ban separating infants from their mothers.
On the opposite side, we can look to another nineteenth-century tradition, the practice of passing around “before and after” images of Native children sent to Indian boarding schools as trophies of Jacksonian white supremacy. The first Indian Boarding School was started by Richard Pratt, an infantry officer, who was encouraged by the War Department to use the techniques he had perfected in “breaking” prisoners from the Indian Wars at Fort Marion, Florida—essentially the Guantanamo Bay of its day. Taking children “as hostages for the good behavior of their people”— Pratt arranged for children to be removed from Native communities in the Plains and the Southwest and transported to the Carlisle Indian School Pennsylvania. School officials cut their hair, punished them for speaking indigenous languages, subjected them to military drills, and mixed children from different, sometimes mutually hostile, tribal nations. Some tried to run away or return home on foot, and these were kept for longer periods. The school hired a photographer to chronicle their transformation from savages to civilized, as they shed buckskin and beads for suits, ties, and dresses. The photos were turned in souvenirs, passed from hand to hand and sold everywhere, much as lynching photos would be decades later. In them, we see a tradition of organized loathing not at all dissimilar from the hate aimed at Central American immigrants today. Like those who traded Pratt’s transformation photos, they would watch and thrill to video and photos of asylum-seekers’ children taken away at our borders.
Where the abolitionist images were effective in building opposition to slavery, the Indian School photos had the opposite intent: persuading people of the value of boarding schools in transforming Native people from tribalized enemy savages to civilized subjects that would return home and civilize their peoples in turn. Together with the Dawes Act, the Indian Schools sought to turn citizens of tribal nations into a collection of nuclear families. Even as opponents publicized the Schools’ inadequate nutrition, forced labor, widespread illiteracy, and endemic disease, the photographic evidence of this settler colonial project’s effectiveness won the day against Native peoples’ protests.
From demonstrations in the halls of Congress to banners on the walls of churches, today’s latter-day abolitionists have drawn on this anti-slavery legacy, even as people like Stephen Miller followed the visual and rhetorical strategies that call to mind the Indian-killing tradition. Some Twitter users and journalists directly cited this abolitionist prehistory; more just recognized the historically wrought emotional wallop that separation images carried. Some reiterated a specifically gendered trope of mothers separated from babies and children; others told stories of fathers.
These abolitionist drawings, boarding school photos, and immigrant images and videos are not ephemeral oddities. They’ve survived and are now all over the Internet because they show us an archive of activism and emotion, both for and against white nationalism.
The Indian school photos are a record of a genocidal fantasy that Native people could be made to disappear. That project failed, both demographically and in the schools themselves, which ultimately became the cradle of American Indian pan-tribal activism, but Pratt’s dictum that they had to “kill the Indian to save the man” reminds us of the intention—as do the cemeteries on boarding schools’ grounds. It’s the same wish that’s behind the effort to place children separated at the border in adoptive white families, a project that is only intensifying at present.
The nineteenth-century abolitionists are still with us, too. Through their images, they taught today’s activists how to fight against the “zero tolerance” policy that put children, even nursing infants, in cages. Whatever fresh horrors will spring from the efforts to promulgate a white nationalist border policy—and sending troops to the border certainly raises legal and ethical questions—stopping the separation of children was and remains important, even if it ended with many of those same children in immigrant detention, albeit with their families, and the right to asylum still under severe threat.