Family separation as a policy: America has done it before

Trump is not the only US president to have ripped thousands of families apart.

Immigrant children in cages Obama2014 Reuters
Immigrant children watch television in a holding cell where they are being processed and held at the CBP Nogales Placement Center in Arizona, on June 18, 2014. [Ross D. Franklin/Reuters]

Yet another amnesia epidemic has broken out in America.

Like all the other episodes when memory fails and even a passing understanding of recent history evades America’s vast media/political commentariat complex, this latest bout of mass amnesia – particularly acute among “progressives” – has triggered a Pollyannaish pining for a nation and a time that never truly existed.

This nostalgia for a welcoming America where its heart and humanity are as big and sturdy as the Statue of Liberty and the inscription about those poor, tired, huddled masses chiseled on it, not only distorts the truth, but fuels a revisionism that camouflages a long, uncharitable record of treating would-be immigrants like politically expedient, human Pinatas.

The much less familiar part of the quote inscribed on Lady Liberty reads: “Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” The fact is, asuccession of Democrat and Republican presidents have battered and barred “tempest-tossed” immigrants from entering that “golden door” when the nativist mood and xenophobic pressures demand it.


Of course, Donald Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy towards undocumented asylum-seekers is a signature reflection of the seething, sinister man himself and his frothing, bible-toting supporters who invoke God to defend and approve of their spiritual leader’s internment camps for thousands of distraught kids, forcibly removed from their parents and dumped like anonymous pieces of luggage into tents or cages to wait and wonder when and if they will ever be re-united with family.

The staccato sobs of imprisoned children from Guatemala and El Salvador pleading, again and again, for their “Papas” and “Mamas” pierce the soul. But America’s bureaucratic immigration machinery, like Trump and his legion of malevolent acolytes, has no soul and went about assigning each child a number, a thin mattress and a tin-foil blanket, numb to the anguish.

(Trump did a volte-face yesterday only after a crescendo of bi-partisan and potentially politically debilitating criticism grudgingly convinced him to sign a hasty executive order ending the separation of children from their parents now to be held indefinitely by US authorities.)

But these awful scenes and stories have been an ugly staple of America’s often wicked immigration policies years before Trump and his loyal stormtroopers took office.

Consider, for example, the forgotten story of Andres Jimenez, a ten-year-old who joined thousands of others at an immigration reform rally in Washington DC in September 2014, to beg tearfully then President Barack Obama to let him hug his father again at their home in America.

Three years earlier, Andres Sr, a hard-working contractor, had been deported despite fashioning a new life and family in Florida after fleeing his native Guatemala two decades ago.  

An expired license plate led to his exposure and the family’s undoing. So, at the rally, the American-born Andres Jr took to a microphone and implored Obama in Spanish to sign an executive order to help reunite fractured families like his. “President Obama, I want to have a family like yours,” he said, to no avail.  

The Jimenez family was not alone. Reportedly, more than 72,000 families were torn apart in a similar way and for similar reasons in 2013. In June 2014, the Fair Immigration Reform Movement (FIRM) issued a blistering press release denouncing the “needless family separations.”

“This week alone, hundreds if not thousands of children will lose parents to our broken immigration system, which causes needless family separations every day. A recent report noted that more than 72,000 children lost parents to deportations in 2013 alone. Against that backdrop, President Obama and his Administration would do well in moving to provide relief to immigrant families who would otherwise live in fear of separation,” FIRM wrote.

The relief never arrived and the fear never subsided. Indeed, by 2016, Obama was being excoriated by The New York Times and immigration advocates for establishing “privately run, unlicensed lockups” – otherwise known as “family detention centers” – in Pennsylvania and Texas to warehouse a “surge” of unaccompanied children and mothers entering the US from Central America in conditions that mirrored, it turns out, Trump’s internment camps.   

The Times went on to describe Obama’s “family detention centers” as “family prisons” that were erected on “dubious legal grounds.” The newspaper’s editorial board added that “their existence belies President Obama’s oft-professed concern for the humane treatment of people fleeing crime and violence in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.”

Finally, the Times admonished Obama by insisting that: “It would be far better to score a humanitarian victory by reuniting children and families.” Sound familiar? 

The expressed intent of Obama’s “family prisons” was to deter even more poor, desperate Central American families from crossing into the US illegally.

(Trump has acknowledged publicly and crudely that his “zero-tolerance” policy is also designed to be a deterrent.) 

Todd M Rosenblum, the former deputy undersecretary for the Department of Homeland Security in the Obama administration, has admitted that the “dehumanising” detention centres were meant to “stem the flow” of asylum seekers.

The broad consensus in our White House meetings was that we had to stem the flow, both at the source and at the border,” Rosenblum wrote recently. “The initial triage location for the children and adults seeking asylum was harsh holding facilities proximate to the border. These were cold and dehumanizing pens, much like the ones the Trump administration is using today for longer term detention.”

Predictably, Rosenblum absolves the Obama administration of responsibility for causing any lasting trauma to the children housed in “cold and dehumanizing pens” by arguing that their detention was only “temporary” and ultimately officials rejected any edict that divorced kids from their loved ones by force because it was “heartless.”

Still, according to the “non-partisan” Migration Policy Institute (MPI), “the Obama administration record is characterised by much higher removals than preceding administrations.” Figures compiled by MPI show that from 2009 to 2016, the Obama administration “removed” almost 3.1 million “non-citizens,” far outpacing both George W Bush and Bill Clinton. 

Donald Trump is, to be sure, cruel. But other presidents have confirmed that when it comes to kicking children and their parents out of America or keeping them apart, Trump has no monopoly on cruelty.  

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.