Family separations and U.S.-sanctioned trauma are not new
This week hundreds of emails by Stephen Miller, senior immigration advisor to the president, were unveiled and we discovered what many of us knew already – Stephen Miller is racist. Big surprise. CNN states:
In the emails, Miller promotes a notoriously racist French novel that paints a dystopian picture of immigrants as subhuman hordes. He encourages a Breitbart reporter to emphasize stories about crime by immigrants and non-whites. He expresses dismay that Amazon had stopped selling Confederate flags after the 2015 Charleston church shooting.
Miller’s white nationalist ideology explains why he and this administration have been so draconian in their immigration policies, specifically the explosive detention numbers, family separations and the number of children detained in the U.S. The Trump administration’s policy of separating children from their parents at the border led to the incarceration of at least 3,000 children in the spring and summer of 2018. Some of these children have yet to be re-connected with parents. Over the course of FY 2019, the Office of Refugee Resettlement held 70,000 children. At the beginning of the fiscal year as many as 14,000 a day, and for an average detention of 93 days! These policies shocked many in this country, and probably more than any other development, energized a grassroots backlash to the Trump administration’s immigration policies.
However, as we in church circles like to quote from the Bible, “There is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). Family separation, the criminalization of self-determined people seeking a better life, and the gross abuses of enslaved and indigenous people have been around since the founding of this country. These methods of oppression and disenfranchisement are as American as apple pie.
Africans who were enslaved by the founding fathers and colonizers were ripped away from their countries, religion, culture and families by the millions. The threat of having their families sold away was a regular torture tactic used by slaveowners to keep enslaved peoples in line. Those who are familiar with the history of indigenous people in the Americas know that many of their children were ripped away from their families and forced into boarding schools for assimilation. From the article, “Slavery and America’s Legacy of Family Separation:”
Harriet Mason remembered her mistress forcing her to leave her home and family in Bryantsville, Kentucky, to work in Lexington as a servant at the age of seven. She remembered, “when we got to Lexington I tried to run off and go back to Bryantsville to see my [mother].” The grief of a childhood spent away from her family at the whim of her owner led her to suicidal thoughts, “I used to say I wish I’d died when I was little.” Even in her old age she was firm that, “I never liked to go to Lexington since.”
Her recollections capture the cruelty of family separation and underscore how children were big business in the history of slavery. They were laborers and valuable property. They could be hired out just like Harriet Mason. Slaveholders borrowed against their human property. They gifted enslaved children to their white sons and daughters as children, upon their marriages, or as they struck out to begin their slaveholding legacy. And of course, slave children could be sold down the road and down the river. Children knew that at any moment this could happen to them.
The separation of Black families didn’t end with Emancipation. The “Black Codes” and Jim Crow ensured that Blacks would not have equal rights and resulted in uneven enforcement of laws and sentencing, which in turn, made their families more susceptible to forced separation. Malcolm X describes in his autobiography how the foster care system removed him and his siblings from their mother’s care after his father’s murder. More recently, studies have shown how the U.S. welfare system and prison industrial complex have separated families and instilled intergenerational trauma into Black families. The “man in the house” rule is a primary example of how the U.S. government has been intentional in destroying families. The North Carolina Law Review states:
Under the type of state welfare regulation popularly known as the “substitute father” rule, children otherwise eligible for benefits under the Aid to Families with Dependent Children’ program are denied assistance if their natural parent maintains a continuing sexual relationship with someone of the opposite sex. This person is deemed to be a non-absent parent within the meaning of the Social Security Act, thus rendering the family ineligible for AFDC payments. Whether this person is legally obligated to support the children is irrelevant; whether he does in fact contribute to their support is also irrelevant; eligibility under such a rule is determined solely by the relationship between the parent (usually the mother of the children) and the “substitute” (usually an unrelated male).
Children in poor families would not be eligible for welfare benefits if there was a man living in the home – whether that man was financially supporting the children or not. This forced many fathers to leave their homes and encouraged the explosion in Black children born in single-parent households. This was by design. One of my favorite movies, “Claudine,” with Diahann Carroll and James Earl Jones, shows how the welfare system was design to keep families separated, keep fathers out of the home, and keep Black and poor families trapped in poverty.
Stephen Miller’s emails and his position in the Trump administration confirm what we already knew about U.S’ immigration policies and many of the other unjust systems in this country. They are rooted in racism, and if do not force a change of course, generations of people will continue to suffer.