Community, History, Militarism and Policing, Refugees

Immigrants, Refugees, and American Family Values: A Historical Reckoning  

July 16, 2018

By Anita Casavantes Bradford

In April 2018, the US Department of Justice authorized Immigration and Custom Enforcement officers to file immediate criminal proceedings against any person apprehended while attempting an unauthorized entry into the U.S.—regardless of their reasons for seeking entry—and their subsequent separation from any minor children that accompanied them. As I write, several thousand children between the ages of 5 and 17 are still awaiting court-mandated reunion with their families before the end of July. 

Hundreds of thousands of Americans nationwide have protested the “zero tolerance” policy. Democrats, immigrants’ rights activists and religious leaders have called it inhumane, a “new low for our immigration policy,”  and insisted that it does not reflect the values of our nation or the morality of its people.

I share their outrage. As a historian, however, I feel compelled to point out that the state-sponsored separation of children from their poor, non-white or immigrant parents is hardly an unprecedented act. Nor is it inconsistent with American values.

Historically, our nation’s oft-professed commitment to family values has rested on the assumption that only certain kinds of families—those of white, Christian, heteronormative, middle class citizens—deserved to be cherished and defended. The refusal to recognize the intimate bonds between those who do not fit into these categories  led to the separating of enslaved African American children from their parents, the rounding up of poor immigrant children from northeastern city slums and their transport on “orphan trains” to new homes with more “suitable” families, and the forcible removal of indigenous children from their homes and their internment in residential schools. More recently, it motivated the diatribes against “welfare queens” and undocumented Latin American migrant mothers of “anchor babies.” Today, the persistent belief that poor immigrants and people of color are incapable of the kind of pure and selfless love practiced by the idealized American family has produced the claim that migrant children may be “better off” separated from their parents in US detention facilities.

A cursory review of U.S. immigration history also reminds us that Americans have long restricted the admission of those seen as racially, culturally or otherwise unworthy of living and working among us.  Even after the abolition of the racist national origins quotas in 1965, many Americans continue to view white, Christian, independently wealthy or highly educated immigrants as more deserving of citizenship, and poor immigrants of color from “shithole countries” as an economic and/or cultural threat.  We have similarly crafted refugee admission policies to match our perceived national interests. During the Cold War, we accepted millions of anti-communist Hungarians, Cubans and Southeast Asians as refugees but refused asylum to Nicaraguans, Salvadorans, Guatemalans and Haitians fleeing extreme human rights violations perpetrated by right wing US-aligned governments. Today, at a time when the number of refugees in the world exceeds fifty million—more than at any time since the second world war—the Trump administration has reduced the numbers of refugees admitted to the US to the lowest since the passage of the Refugee Act of 1980.

In order to do this, the White House has relied on two strategies: first, by imposing “extreme vetting” on already-U.N.-approved refugees; second, and perhaps more importantly, by characterizing unauthorized entrants who request asylum as economic migrants seeking to enrich themselves at the expense of US citizen workers. This discourse,  one which has been employed with great success by anti-immigrant forces throughout the twentieth century,  conveniently preserves Americans’ cherished myth of the U.S. as a sanctuary for the oppressed in the past while empowering our elected leaders to prevent their admission in the present. It is also one that has forced hundreds of thousands of Central American asylum seekers since the 1980s into the ranks of the undocumented, living in constant fear of deportation back to countries where hunger, violence and deprivation awaits.  

These are the people targeted by the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, which dictates that all who enter the country without authorization, even those seeking asylum, will be placed in criminal proceedings. Their legal designation as criminals provides ostensible legal cover for the administration’s decision to separate the children of irregular migrants from their parents as a deterrent to their seeking asylum in the US.

Even within the time-honored tradition of American efforts to restrict the immigration of ‘undesirables,’ this is a new low. I am outraged and sickened by it, as I believe all decent Americans must also be. But in advocating for the reunion of families torn apart by this policy, we cannot engage in self-deceit or moral platitudes.

It’s time for a historical reckoning. We must face the fact that Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy is more consistent with American values in practice than we would like to admit. We must acknowledge that this is not the first time that our government has sponsored or facilitated the separation of children from parents who are poor immigrants or people of color.

We must do all we can to make sure it will be the last.


Anita Casavantes Bradford is associate professor of Chicano Latino Studies and History. She is a historian of immigration and childhood whose second book, Suffer the Little Children: Unacompanied Migrant Children and the Geopolitics of Compassion in Postwar America will be published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2020.


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