In My Bondage, My Freedom, Frederick Douglass recalls a young woman working a Maryland slave plantation. She is turned away, receding into the fields. It is the memory of his mother, whom he hardly knew.
It has been a life-long, standing grief to me, that I know so little of my mother, and that I was so early separated from her. The counsels of her love must have been beneficial to me. The side view of her face is imaged on my memory, and I take few steps in life, without feeling her presence; but the image is mute, and I have no striking words of hers treasured up.
As an adult in his late 30s, Douglass wonders about “the counsels” of his mother’s love, but his memory of her is “mute.” Born into slavery, he escapes bondage and dedicates his life to the abolitionist cause. Drawing from his personal experiences, he describes the social system of slavery that first “breaks” a child into bondage by separating her from her parents, a phenomenon that Orlando Patterson later terms “natal alienation” in order to capture the physical, psychological, and moral injury it inflicts.
Indeed, the separation of children from their parents was a crucial step in the process of racist dehumanization—it symbolized that a non-white human being is a cross between a farm animal and an unlovable “tool with a voice” to be disposed by white proprietors and government agents. In the 19th and 20th centuries, federal public policy similarly attacked Native American communities by forcing Native children into adoption, prisons, foster care, and boarding schools. Not only were these institutions rife with physical and sexual abuse, including beatings, malnourishment, and forced labor, but the children lost their language, names, and sense of cultural identity. In considering the right of immigrant families to stay united, one must connect it to the historical legacy of black chattel slavery and native genocide in the United States.
The ‘zero-tolerance’ immigration policy of the Trump administration facilitates mass arrests at the U.S./Mexico border. Adult migrants and asylum seekers are sent to federal prison to await criminal proceedings for illegal entry and their children are incarcerated in separate facilities. From mid-April to the end of May, nearly 2,000 children were forcibly separated from their families at the southern border.
The administration justifies the recent crackdown by appealing to the rule of law. Those who “choose” to enter the U.S. illegally are criminals and must be prosecuted by the letter of the law. In response to recent public outcry, Attorney General Jeff Sessions cited Romans 13 from the Bible, a passage favored by slaveholders for justifying de jure slavocracy: “obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.” Modern political history has consistently shown that obeying the law, rather than exercising judgment about its moral validity, extirpates conscience, sanctioning racial caste and genocidal violence. Moreover, the appeal to the authority of law conceals that a judgement has, in fact, been rendered: in this case, to criminalize migrants and asylum seekers at the U.S./Mexico border. Funneling people into criminal proceedings is a new policy, one that has created an immigration crisis. Previously, migrants traveling with children were released on bond to await a decision on their petitions—a harrowing ordeal, but one where families with children stayed united.
Yet, Trump blames the Democratic Party for establishing an immigration system with “loopholes,” which “forces” him to implement the zero-tolerance policy. (To think, Trump is the real victim in all of this!) But the truth is that he has chosen to wage the longstanding attack against immigrant communities in an increasingly-belligerent fashion—precisely what he had promised to the American public during his campaign. His only reluctance is to take responsibility for it.
In a recent interview, Trump’s Chief of Staff John Kelly admits that the forcible separation of families is meant as a “tough deterrent.” He thus tacitly admits that the administration is incentivized to make the experience of immigration as degrading as possible. It is meant to expose people to the brute, unmitigated force of white supremacist power. The policy unleashes oddly creative brutality that weds with the historical legacy of attacking black and brown families. For example, Antar Davidson, a former youth care worker in a Southwest Key children’s shelter, reports that he was instructed to tell a pair of 8 and 10 year-old siblings to stop hugging each other after they were separated from their mother. Cameras are forbidden inside these facilities, so it is hard to know what children endure. We do know that it likely spells a lifetime of physical and psychological distress.
We must be clear: These immigrants are refugees. And, strictly speaking, it is not possible to be an “illegal” refugee. A displaced and de facto stateless person is a byproduct of global economic, social, and political forces that have expelled her from her homeland, leaving her without a choice but to petition particular political communities for membership. To reject a person’s standing to participate in the juridical process of adopting a new homeland—and treating people in such a position as if they are criminals—implies that they do not belong anywhere on earth. In fact, the Trump administration is even reluctant to confirm that migrants and asylum seekers have any rights on American soil at all.
My own mother arrived to the U.S. as an asylum seeker with the aid of the Jewish refugee-resettlement organization HIAS, whose motto is “Welcome the Stranger, Protect the Refugee.” There is therefore a very recent historical precedent to welcoming migrants and refugees that shows that the policies of the Trump administration not only fail to follow post-WWII international human rights conventions but the legal precedent established by U.S. courts in the 20th c. To have to petition for the right to join a political community is often a traumatic and humiliating experience. Yet people from Central and South America, the Afro-Caribbean and the Middle East have received far less respect and compassion than white or white-passing ethnic and religious minorities from the former Soviet Union. As W.E.B. Du Bois foretold, the color-line is the most formidable obstacle to the recognition of our shared humanity, as it continues to delineate who are the “good” and the “bad” refugees.