America Was in the Business of Separating Families Long Before Trump

Children are crying for their parents while being held in small cages. The attorney general tells us the Bible justifies what we see and the White House press secretary backs him up. Be horrified and angered, but not because this is a new Trump transgression against real American values. America was in the business of separating families long before Trump. 

I am not talking about spurious claims that Obama did the same thing or the valid comparisons to how our criminal justice system uses a cash bail system that every day rips children from their families before they or their parents have been convicted of any crime. The true story is that the United States has a well-documented history of breaking up non-white families.

When we sent Japanese Americans to internment camps, families were often separated when fathers were sent hasty relocation orders and forced labor contracts. In some cases, family members (usually the father) had been arrested earlier and sent to a different camp.

Forty years later, the U.S. government apologized, provided reparations of $20,000 to every survivor of those internment camps, and blamed the “grave wrong” on “racial prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.” 

Sound familiar?

The separating of Native American families was more intentional. America deliberately tried to wipe native culture from our country. According to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, beginning in the late 1800s, thousands of American Indian children were forcibly sent to government-run or church-run “boarding schools,” where they were taught English and forbidden to speak their native languages.  

An exhibit at the museum includes a quote from Richard Henry Pratt, founder of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, stating: “In Indian civilization I am a Baptist, because I believe in immersing the Indian in our civilization and when we get them under, holding them there until they are thoroughly soaked.”

The boarding schools forced children to cut their hair and give up their traditional clothing. Their meaningful native names were replaced with English ones. Their traditional religious practices were forcibly replaced with Christianity. They were taught that their cultures were inferior. Teachers sometimes ridiculed the students’ traditions. These lessons humiliated the students and taught them to be ashamed of their heritage.

“They tell us not to speak in Navajo language. You’re going to school. You’re supposed to only speak English,” John Brown Jr., a Navajo who served in World War II as a code talker by using his Navajo language for tactical communications the Japanese could not decode, told the museum in a 2004 interview. “And it was true. They did practice that, and we got punished if you was caught speaking Navajo.”

And then, of course, America enslaved Blacks for 246 years. Separating enslaved families was done for profit, for punishment, or simply because a seller or buyer wanted it that way in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. 

“Destroying families is one of the worst things done during slavery,” said Henry Fernandez, co-founder of the African American Research Collaborative and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. “The federal government maintained these evils through the fugitive slave laws and other rules which defined African Americans as property with which a slave owner could do whatever they wanted.”

Each of these policies, Fernandez said, begins with the assumption “that the idea of family is simply less important to people of color and that the people involved are less than human. To justify ripping families apart, the government must first engage in dehumanizing the targeted group.”

“The Weeping Time” exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture documents the U.S. history of separating children from parents.  “Night and day, you could hear men and women screaming … ma, pa, sister or brother … taken without any warning,” Susan Hamilton, a witness to a slave auction, recalled in a 1938 interview. “People was always dying from a broken heart.”

A report in the Maryland State Archives includes a narrative from a man named Charles Ball, who was enslaved as a child and remembered the day he was sold away from his mother.

“My poor mother, when she saw me leaving her for the last time, ran after me, took me down from the horse, clasped me in her arms, and wept loudly and bitterly over me,” Ball recalled. “My master seemed to pity her and endeavored to soothe her distress by telling her that he would be a good master to me, and that I should not want anything.”

Ball added that when his mother’s persisted, his master hit her with a rawhide whip.

Thousands of former slaves looked for lost relatives and children who had been sold away from their families. They placed thousands of ads in newspapers. Those ads are now being digitized in a project called “Last Seen: Finding Family After Slavery,” which is run by Villanova University’s graduate history program in collaboration with Philadelphia’s Mother Bethel AME Church.

Our history of separating families is no older than our use of the Bible to justify transgressions against humanity. In 1667, Virginia law stated that if an enslaved person became Christian it did not mean freedom because the only way that conversion could happen was through the “charity and piety of their masters.” When Texas withdrew from the union it declared that enslaving people was justified by “the revealed will of the Almighty Creator.” William T. Thompson, the designer of the Confederate Flag said, “As a people, we are fighting to maintain the Heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race.” Jeff Sessions is simply the most recent person to try to justify an indefensible policy by referring to the Bible. 

On June 14, Attorney General Jeff Sessions cited biblical scripture Romans 13 to claim support for the Trump administration’s forced separation of immigrant families. “I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order,” he said.

As it happens, this is the same passage cited by loyalist preachers who said America should not declare independence from England; it was cited by southerners defending slavery; and, it was cited to defend authoritarian rule in Nazi Germany and South African apartheid.

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Dr. Timothy Leary

"You have to separate the nits from the lice": Daniel Boone circa 1780.


To the shame of our nation and people, this is not the first time families have been separated. To our greater shame, it is not the first time we have not learned from our history. Doing it again, with familiar excuses only shows that those in charge of the policies of separation are shameless, lacking in decency, and lacking even more greatly than the rest of us in knowledge.


Sharon, we can do better than what's going on. This Congress and administration are worthless.


Separating them is a last resort. Since most Central Americans and Mexicans are ultimately denied asylum we should be able to sort the ones that qualify from the ones that don't within a day or two but the ACLU and advocates drag the process out for years until they have an anchor baby or have "put down roots" which makes it harder to deport them. You guys also make it next to impossible to detain them and a couple recent articles point-blank said that this was so they can dissappear. We need a system that is fair to people with real asylum claims, US Citizens, and other non-Latinos.


Speaking of racial diversity........why hasn't anyone spoke about the caucasion population and the mis-conduct to them.

Dr. Timothy Leary

That's right. Who were the victims in what is referred to as "white flight".?

Clifford Erickson

Every parent that has gone into a family court room knows that our family court system is stealing and adopting out our children.CPS just admitted that 75% of all their cases were UNFOUNDED.This mean that 75% of American children taken from good loving homes were taken simply because they were adoptable.Family court is a 40 billion dollar a year industry and it was NEVER in the child's best interest.Family court is the biggest fraud in American history.Defy those gag orders and speak out!! #ustoo

Helaine Becker

anyone who has identified mental illness knows the pain of DCF, CPS separation for years and lifetime with their children- we need the rights to contact our children online at the very least.


I commented Senator Sara Gelsers' Facebook in regards to this --- She is a main player in the upheaval of the agency uppers a couple of years ago --- I was offended that she was raising so much noise about the separation of foreign parents and children and she's since turned her back on our own families. Still I don't comprehend why ours have been dismissed; still being victimized by the governmentally-ran child trafficking ring.....all for the sake of money. And for anyone that opts to take "them vs ours" as something to be offended by ---- Don't. .... If I have to choose my own child or that of a neighbor I will choose mine, and so would the greater percentage of folks, if not all if push came to shove.
With that said Clifford --- Thank you for acknowledging them and for being so forthright and even using some of their own terminology. If you might direct me to where I could find stats as you have, I'd greatly appreciate that as well.


I am with you!! They are SELLING our children to adoption agencies.


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