Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

This #GivingTuesday, whatever is your first priority, your second priority has to be independent media.

2021 has been one of the most dangerous and difficult years for independent journalism that we’ve ever seen. Our democracy is facing serial existential threats including the climate emergency, vaccine apartheid amid deadly pandemic, a global crisis for biodiversity, reproductive freedoms under assault, rising authoritarianism worldwide, and corporate-funded corruption of democracy that run beneath all of this. Giving Tuesday is a critical opportunity to make sure our journalism remains funded so that we can stay focused on all your priority issues. Please contribute today to keep Common Dreams alive and growing.

Please Help This #GivingTuesday -- Though our content is free to all, less than 1% of our readers give. We’re counting on you. Please help Common Dreams end the year strong.

The separation of Central American families carried out by the Trump Administration is just the latest version of cruel family separation practices rooted in America’s soil. (Photo: @ajplus/Twitter)

The separation of Central American families carried out by the Trump Administration is just the latest version of cruel family separation practices rooted in America’s soil. (Photo: @ajplus/Twitter)

An American History of Separating Families

I initially was unable to answer my students’ question of how the U.S. government can engage in such cruelty, until together we realized that family separation is embedded in American history.

Anita Sinha

On Thursday, the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary released a report with a title that pulls no punches: “The Trump Administration’s Family Separation Policy: Trauma, Destruction, and Chaos.”  It opens with the righteous statement that “these preventable tragedies must not be forgotten.” The Committee’s indignation is justified, but what is missing is historical context. The separation of Central American families carried out by the Trump Administration is just the latest version of cruel family separation practices rooted in America’s soil.

The report is a product of a 21-month investigation that, in the Committee’s own words, “revealed a process marked by reckless incompetence and intentional cruelty.” The Administration formally executed the “zero tolerance” family separation policy between April and June 2018.  However, the report details that the executive branch began sowing the policy’s seeds weeks after inauguration, in mid-February 2017, and the actual separation of families began before the President’s announcement. In fact, it reveals that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) reported that by April 2018–the same month the President publicly revealed zero tolerance–the government already had separated “at least 856 children” from their parents, of which “twenty-six percent were under the age of five.”

The report also details how government officials when they first started separating families acknowledged that there was no way to link children with their parents, but did nothing to rectify this. Last week, we learned that the government has yet to find the parents of 545 migrant children.  The HHS Office of Inspector General estimated that in total, the U.S. government separated nearly 2,800 children.  The Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights issued a report this summer on the Administration’s ongoing practices that separate migrant children from their parents.

The law clinic I direct represents two of these thousands of separated families. In both cases, U.S. immigration officials separated the parents from their children, who at the time were under the age of eight, soon after the families crossed the border.  Officials ripped both children from their parents’ arms, put them on planes, and held them in shelters thousands of miles away.  The government deported their parents within a week of their arrivals.  Both parents then spent agonizing weeks in their home countries trying to get information on the children’s whereabouts.  After about six months, the U.S. government finally returned the children to their parents.

Even as someone who for almost two decades has witnessed egregious harms inflicted on non-citizens by the U.S. government, I found myself particularly affected by the cruelty my clients had suffered.  I initially was unable to answer my students’ question of how the U.S. government can engage in such cruelty, until together we realized that family separation is embedded in American history.  It was a practice tied to our inhumane founding, to force a fantasized notion of America by solving the so-called “Indian problem.”  Part of this solution was separating Indigenous children from their families, first by placing them in boarding schools and later by promoting and facilitating their adoption by non-Indigenous families.  A 1978 U.S. House of Representatives report cited that the government separated approximately twenty-five to thirty-five percent of Indigenous children from their families.

There was also the separation of enslaved families and kidnapped freed African Americans, about which Ta’Nehisi Coates says, “Here we find the roots of American wealth and democracy – in the for-profit destruction of the most important asset available to any people, the family.  The destruction was not incidental to America’s rise; it facilitated that rise.”  Local governments and private organizations removed Polish and Irish immigrant children from the mid-19ththrough early 20thcentury, the majority of whom were Catholic, through a movement called “orphan trains.”  Most of 150,000 to 200,000 children were not orphans, and were placed with Protestant and Anglo-American families.  Although family separation arguably is not explicitly the objective of U.S. mass incarceration and mass deportation policies, it certainly has been their outcome.  

Imagine if the House Committee report placed the Trump Administration’s family separation practices in the context of the separation of vulnerable, mostly Black and Brown, families as deeply rooted in American history. Some might say that doing so would dilute its critical force. I offer that providing historical context would force us to think more broadly about systemic oppression, creating spaces for change that could be more meaningful to communities in the U.S. most vulnerable to state sponsored violence and harm.


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

Anita Sinha

Anita Sinha is an Associate Professor of Law and Director of the International Human Rights Law Clinic at American University, Washington College of Law

 

... We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

Omar Hangs Up After Boebert Uses Call to Double Down on 'Outright Bigotry and Hate'

"Instead of apologizing for her Islamophobic comments and fabricated lies, Rep. Boebert refused to publicly acknowledge her hurtful and dangerous comments."

Jessica Corbett ·


Win for Alabama Workers as NLRB Orders New Union Vote After Amazon's Alleged Misconduct

A union leader said the decision confirmed that "Amazon's intimidation and interference prevented workers from having a fair say in whether they wanted a union in their workplace."

Jessica Corbett ·


'For the Sake of Peace,' Anti-War Groups Demand Biden Return to Nuclear Deal With Iran

"It's time to put differences aside and return to the Iran nuclear deal," said one advocate.

Julia Conley ·


'That's for Them to Decide': UK Secretary Rebuked for Claiming Vaccine Patent Waiver Won't Be 'Helpful' to Global Poor

One U.K. lawmaker asked when the government would "start putting the need to end this pandemic in front of the financial interests of Big Pharma?"

Andrea Germanos ·


Shell Slammed for Plan to Blast South African Coastline for Oil and Gas During Whale Season

"We cannot allow climate criminals, like Shell, to plunder in the name of greed," said Greenpeace.

Kenny Stancil ·

Support our work.

We are independent, non-profit, advertising-free and 100% reader supported.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values.
Direct to your inbox.

Subscribe to our Newsletter.


Common Dreams, Inc. Founded 1997. Registered 501(c3) Non-Profit | Privacy Policy
Common Dreams Logo