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(Photo: Bryan Cox/U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement via Getty Images)

'Many studies show the devastating effects on disrupted families, including higher rates of poverty, along with the psychological, educational, economic, and social damage suffered by children." (Photo: Bryan Cox/ICE/Getty Images)

A Vile Act of Inhumanity: Splitting Up Families like the Slave Traders Did

More than 90 percent of deportation attempts in the first two months of the Trump administration were against people who had committed no crime other than to be living in the country without required documents.

Paul Buchheit

Families are being split up in the name of "zero tolerance" immigration policies. Jeff Sessions said, "[Your] child will be separated from you as required by law. If you don't like that, then don't smuggle children over our border." John Kelly, White House chief of staff, added, "The children will be taken care of — put into foster care or whatever." Yes, he said "whatever." 

This isn't much different from slave-trading days. People then were forced INTO the country and families separated; now they're forced OUT OF the country and families separated. In both cases families have done whatever is necessary, in their own personal worlds, to survive and stay together and find happiness. And in both cases an institution of authority has made rules on behalf of the better-positioned segment of society, rules which impact the lives of those deemed somehow less valuable. 

This may not be the deadliest act committed by American leaders, but it's incomparably vile in its cruelty toward human beings who have been living among us, sometimes for many years. For conservatives who are always preaching the importance of stable families, it's shocking to see the little opposition to breaking up and turning out so many loving mothers and fathers and children.

Destroying a Family 175 Years Ago 

In 12 Years a Slave, Solomon Northup tells us about Eliza, a slave woman with two young children, 10-year-old Randall and 7-year-old Emily, all three of them owned by a slave trader with the ironical name Freeman. When Randall was taken from her in a slave auction, Eliza, in a "paroxysm of grief," begged and beseeched the buyer to take all three of them, promising to be the most faithful slave that ever lived. But he couldn't afford them all. Eliza embraced her son passionately for the last time, kissing him again and again, until the threat of a whip on her back forced her to release him. His last words were "Don’t cry, mama. I will be a good boy. Don’t cry." 

Then another man came to buy Eliza herself, and this prompted Northup to narrate: "[N]ever have I seen such an exhibition of intense, unmeasured, and unbounded grief, as when Eliza was parted from her child. She broke from her place in the line of women, and rushing down where Emily was standing, caught her in her arms. The child, sensible of some impending danger, instinctively fastened her hands around her mother’s neck, and nestled her little head upon her bosom. Freeman sternly ordered her to be quiet...Then, with a volley of great oaths, he struck her such a heartless blow, that she staggered backward, and was like to fall. Oh! how piteously then did she beseech and beg and pray that they might not be separated. Why could they not be purchased together? Why not let her have one of her dear children? 'Mercy, mercy, master!' she cried, falling on her knees. 'Please, master, buy Emily. I can never work any if she is taken from me: I will die.'" 

The purchaser, taking pity on her, offered to buy both of them, but Freeman refused, as Northup recounts: "'I won’t sell her. She’s not for sale.' There were heaps and piles of money to be made of her, he said, when she was a few years older. There were men enough in New-Orleans who would give five thousand dollars for such an extra, handsome, fancy piece as Emily would be.." 

As Eliza cried out in anguish, Freeman "tore Emily from her mother by main force, the two clinging to each other with all their might. 'Don’t leave me, mama--don’t leave me,' screamed the child...stretching forth her little arms imploringly. But she cried in vain. Out of the door and into the street we were quickly hurried. Still we could hear her calling to her mother, 'Come back--don’t leave me--come back, mama,' until her infant voice grew faint and still more faint, and gradually died away.." 

Destroying a Family Today 

The Time story "No One Is Safe" tells about the family of Alejandro and Maria and their two young daughters, Isabella, who was just starting to talk, and Estefania, who was beginning to take her first steps. A third child was on the way. 

Early on a Friday morning, as he drove to his job of picking grapes, pistachios and oranges in California’s Central Valley, immigration agents scrambled out of two cars at a stop sign and arrested him as a "fugitive alien" for overstaying his visa. When Maria got his call from the police station she immediately feared the worst. Despite having no criminal record, not even a speeding ticket, and for ten years doing the punishing but essential field labor that most Americans avoid, and while just beginning a family that dearly depended on him for income, he was subject to immediate deportation to Mexico. He was gone in a month. 

Word of Alejandro's fate quickly spread through the neighborhood. Immigration agents were seen near the park. At times like this, people in a besieged community, some of them desperately poor, are afraidto even apply for food stamps for fear of being raided by government agents. And it terrifies the children. Six-year-old Angel Ortiz was getting ready for school when he saw immigration agents take away his father. Now when he sees DEA agents on TV, he yells out, "Those guys kidnapped my daddy!" It's reminiscent of another U.S. policy that targets people unwanted by American leaders, that of the drone wars, which caused a 13-year-old Pakistani boy to say, "I no longer love blue skies...The drones do not fly when the skies are gray." 

Alejandro's wife Maria now has three little daughters, all citizens, but she herself is undocumented, so she's in constant fear of being deported herself. "It’s a cruel way to live," she says. One effect of the family split-up is that Maria herself has to work in the fields to support her three children. She talks about her little girls growing up without their father: "It’s the worst thing that you can do to a family." When Alejandro calls on FaceTime from 1,000 miles away, Isabella, who is 2-1/2, tells her father that she loves him. She may not see him for years. 

Counting the Ways this is Inhumane 

These are human beings, part of a sacred bond of parents and children united together as a family. Conservatives blame broken families for society's dysfunction, but they just sit by as families are broken up. 

More than 90 percent of deportation attempts in the first two months of the Trump administration were against people who had committed no crime other than to be living in the country without required documents. 

Further, as Juan Cole suggests, it is inexcusably wrong-minded to "take US citizen children away from their mothers and fathers all of a sudden, giving them no time to make alternate arrangements. As for foster homes, with all due respect to the dedicated people who often run them, social science has proven that they are the biggest producer of a criminal class in the US." 

And as for John Kelly's detestably dismissive "foster care or whatever" comment, many parents, according to Jorge-Mario Cabrera, the communications director at the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA), don’t have a trusted friend or relative available to take care of their children. 

Worst of all, many studies show the devastating effects on disrupted families, including higher rates of poverty, along with the psychological, educational, economic, and social damage suffered by children, and even stress-related physiological changes in unborn children.

Immigrants Are Not the Problem.. 

Immigrants have proven to be entrepreneurs, job creators, neighborhood boosters, and generally law-abiding citizens. Immigrants are not the problem. The massive 30-year transfer of wealth to the richest 2%to 5% of the American people is a big part of the problem. Immigrants are an easy scapegoat for a deteriorating society. Stripping them from their children is the vilest act of inhumanity. 

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Paul Buchheit

Paul Buchheit

Paul Buchheit is an advocate for social and economic justice, and the author of numerous papers on economic inequality and cognitive science. He was recently named one of 300 Living Peace and Justice Leaders and Models. He is the author of "American Wars: Illusions and Realities" (2008) and "Disposable Americans: Extreme Capitalism and the Case for a Guaranteed Income" (2017). Contact email: paul (at)

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