As American as Child SeparationHistorians in the News
tags: immigration, Child Separation
Rachel Nolan is an assistant professor at the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University.
In June 2018, I attended a protest in front of the gold-domed Massachusetts State House, in Boston. It was the height of furor over the Trump administration’s child-separation policy, words so flat-sounding that they cannot even approach the pain of what was happening. Since April 2018, the government had employed a “zero-tolerance” policy, forcibly separating children from their parents—supposedly, to deter migration at the US-Mexico border. Most of the families were Central American—from Honduras, Guatemala, or El Salvador. They were fleeing such chaos and suffering at home that nothing would deter them. But this didn’t prevent the US government from taking their children.
Despite decades of dulled response to the mounting horrors at the border, child-snatching touched a nerve. There were widespread protests across the US, often expressed with signs, or speeches, to the effect of “This is not us,” or, “This is un-American.” Hillary Clinton tweeted, “There’s nothing American about tearing families apart.”
At the Boston protest, a Black woman, with a commanding air, stepped to the microphone with a different view. “This is not a new story,” she said. “We have a long legacy of children of color being ripped from their parents. At the auction block, at Native American reservations, because of the war on drugs, and now because of what’s happening at our borders.”
I had just moved back to Boston. I asked another protestor, “Who is she?” It was Ayanna Pressley, then at-large city councilor, now congresswoman in the US House of Representatives.
Pressley gave as succinct as possible a summary, two years in advance, of the argument of Laura Briggs’s new book, Taking Children: A History of American Terror. To call the book “timely” is an understatement. Briggs traces the history of a very American practice of separating children from their parents—mostly poor and of color—against the parents’ will. Briggs adds US foreign policy, in the form of support for military regimes in Latin America that forcibly separated and “disappeared” children. But, otherwise, Pressley’s list hits the grim highlights.
Is “taking children” too broad a category for understanding such different phenomena as Native American children kidnapped and sent to boarding school and Black children separated from their enslaved parents? Briggs does risk flattening out her argument, by gathering many kinds of historical patterns under the category “child taking.” But the synthetic view has its merit. As critic Fintan O’Toole recently wrote in a different context: “To see history—at least the history of war—in terms of people is to see it not as a linear process but as a series of terrible repetitions: what happens to human flesh in episodes of organized violence is always and everywhere the same.” For “war,” swap in “racist violence,” or “genocide.” Once you are looking at the people, you see not just slaughter and rape, but the children taken, over and over, in a horrifying loop. As Briggs notes, since the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, taking children has been recognized as a constitutive part of the crime. The best-known part of the 1948 definition of genocide is “killing members of the group.” But the last, lesser-known part of the five-point definition is “forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
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