What History Teaches Us About Child Displacement


Central Processing at McAllen Border Patrol facility
U.S. Border Patrol Central Processing Center in McAllen, Texas.

Children need their parents.

Knowing that mom and/or dad are there is where kids find their normalcy, their routine, their safety. Psychologists agree across the board that separating children from their parents causes lifelong psychological trauma.

For a “very stable genius,” Donald Trump doesn’t seem to grasp this very simple idea. Neither does his evil minion, Jeff Sessions.

“Kids are separated from their parents all the time,” Trump’s defenders say. That’s true, they are. Parents get sick or have accidents and die. Some of them are unfit to raise their kids, and put them up for adoption, or have them taken away by the Child Protective Services for their own good. Parents are taken to jail for heinous crimes, and you gotta put the kids somewhere. There are kidnappings. Or sometimes children just get lost.

This is different. This is being done on purpose, and it’s not for any reason so noble as to protect the child. This is — by Trump and Sessions’ own definition — an act of intentional cruelty, meant to deter immigrants from entering the United States. Some of them cross the border illegally, some of them apply for asylum the legal way. Doesn’t really seem to matter; their kids are being taken from them regardless.

Ripping children away from their parents is something a terrorist organization would do. In fact, they have: Who can forget the 276 girls kidnapped by Nigerian terrorist organization Boko Haram in 2014? Many of them were finally freed or escaped, but at the time of this writing, some 112 are still missing. The freed survivors, all 20-something women now, still relive the hell they went through everyday.

Make no mistake: it may not be a terrorist organization, but the United States government is terrorizing children.

Making matters worse is that these facilities where kids are being held are barely a step above a prison camp, complete with chain-link fences holding them in, mattresses and foil blankets for sleeping, and communal living. The border patrol agents running these places are not equipped or prepared to run a 24/7 daycare. There have already been reports of abuse, and one parent recently committed suicide after he was forcibly separated from his wife and son.

Lawsuits have been opened, and you can rest assured there will be many, many more.

Just yesterday came word that there are now “tender age” shelters, filled with babies and toddlers who are no doubt inconsolable at being separated from their moms and dads. (It’s a thought so horrifying, it actually broke Rachel Maddow, who’s known for her calm, stoic on-air delivery.)

This pattern is not new to history. In the past, governments have separated little ones from their parents via child displacement for a variety of reasons, and none of them were good. The results were always the same: irreversible, lifelong psychological damage. Social impairment, a proclivity for drinking, increased chances of criminal behavior, an inability to settle down. In many cases, the psychological damage is accompanied by the physical kind, as well.

American Slavery

Small African boys made American slaves
Small African boys made American slaves. Look at all that fear in those innocent little eyes.

Africans were legally made slaves in the United States going back to before the nation was founded, around 1641. Slavery persisted as an institution for over 200 years, until it was finally abolished in 1865.

During those 200 years, it was common for slave owners to tear families apart by selling children or their parents to other slave owners. Many harrowing stories exist of mothers and fathers who saw their kids for the last time being sent away with new owners after being sold on the auction block. The more fortunate among them managed to track their kids down after the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, but a large number never saw their families again.

In both cases, there is documented evidence of severe psychological damage that stayed with them for the rest of their lives. (I mean, they were people treated as property, so… duh. The child displacement must have magnified this to an extreme.)

American Indian Boarding Schools

Apache Indians at a boarding school in Carlisle, PA
Apache Indians at a boarding school in Carlisle, PA. Their faces say it all.

Hundreds of thousands of American Indian children were forcibly removed from their parents and placed in government-mandated boarding schools that attempted to assimilate them into mainstream American culture, forbidding them from practicing their Native American traditions and identities. They were required to speak English, converted to Christianity, and even given English names.

Way to go on the “tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free” thing, there, Greatest Nation on Earth.

Their lives were governed under a martial law-type rule system. When they first arrived, they were stripped of all tribal clothing and their hair was cut. They would be punished for deviating in the slightest from their strict daily schedule. How strict, you ask? How about being required to eat in unison at the ring of a special bell? Or if they defied orders and dared to speak in their native language, they would have their mouths washed out with lye soap. Being locked away in a kind of solitary confinement was a standard sentence for all sorts of violations. Corporal punishment, too.

Tip of the iceberg, friends. Did I mention they were subjected to rampant physical, psychological, and sexual abuse?

These boarding schools kicked off around 1790-ish, but here’s the part where you’re going to need one of those grabber-arm things to pick your jaw up off the floor: The boarding schools were still running well into the 20th Century, until finally abolished by law in 1975.

Nineteen-seventy-five! That’s just four decades ago.

And what was the end result of this forced separation and cultural assimilation? Native Americans who returned home soon suffered from PTSD, alienation by their own people, and an abundance of cultural barriers. They continue to suffer today.

The Stolen Generations

Aboriginal members of the Stolen Generation in Australia
Aboriginal members of the Stolen Generation in Australia.

Very similar to what happened with the American Indian boarding schools is an Australian phenomenon that’s come to be known as the Stolen Generations.

Mixed race children with partial Aboriginal or Torres Strait Island bloodlines were forcibly removed from their families by governmental agencies and churches who believed those indigenous populations were in danger of dying off. The idea was to indoctrinate these kids into white society as a kind of act of mercy. Because erasing their tribal heritage was SUPER merciful.

Remarkably, this child displacement was not an event from the less civilized 18th or 19th Centuries. It took place between 1905 and 1970! A formal apology to the Stolen Generation survivors was finally given in 2008. Yet Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island children continue to be displaced from their families and homes to this day, from less overt causes like poverty, trauma, and discrimination. It was estimated last year that some 17,000 children in Australia are among them.

God only knows what the impact on Australian society will be ten to twenty years from now.

Nazi Concentration Camps

Jewish children at the Auschwitz concentration camp
Jewish children at the Auschwitz concentration camp.

Now we come to it. The ultimate expression of child displacement: the World War II concentration camps where entire races were systematically massacred.

Under the Nazi regime, Hitler’s people were obsessed with finding “Aryan blood.” You know, the whole “master race” thing. When they invaded a new land, they basically kidnapped the kids who lived there and sent them off to be adopted by a German family — if they were deemed Aryan enough. Reportedly, the criteria amounted to little more than “blond hair, blue eyes, and fair skin.”

All the rest — particularly Jews and Gypsies — were taken from their parents and shipped off to concentration camps. Some of these children were experimented on in unspeakably cruel ways. Others were simply sent straight to the gas chamber. No goodbyes with mom and dad, no one there to comfort them as they suffered and died. When the numbers were crunched after the war ended, some 1.5 million children had been murdered by the Nazis.

Understand that no one is suggesting what’s happening to immigrant kids on the U.S.’s southern border is headed in this direction. But we’d be remiss to not include it on this list, because you can’t talk about southern immigration and wholly avoid the topic of race.

President Trump’s own racist ideas and policies are well documented, though he’s somehow deluded enough to believe he’s “the least racist person you’ll ever meet.” From “shithole countries” to tone-deaf comments about “the blacks” or “the Jews,” he may try to hide it, but he’s got a fundamental bias going on under the surface that slips out. It’s probably been there his whole life.

As such, he built a large part of his campaign around fear of “the other.” Remember the Mexicans “sending rapists” over the border and all that? That was the very speech that kicked off his presidential bid. His desire to build a wall is based on both keeping Americans safe inside and keeping Mexicans and others OUT. In his mind, the two are one and the same.

Safety = natural born Americans only.

It’s here that the underlying message behind this “deterrent” comes into focus: separating children from their parents is a horrific thing — unless you’re doing it to law-breaking Latinos, who have it coming. Whether they have it coming because they’re breaking the law, or because of their status as non-Caucasian… Take your pick. Does it even matter? If ALL of Mexico must be literally walled-off to keep its people on their side of the border, isn’t Trump kind of, sort of implying that all Mexicans are criminals?

The Bottom Line

Don’t believe the President’s “it’s not my fault, it’s the Democrats” bluster. Classic deflection from a lifelong manipulator. This travesty IS his fault, enacted by Jeff Sessions’ “zero tolerance” immigration policy. When they’re not busy denying they came up with this whole thing, they’re confirming that they did by reminding everyone that it’s intended to be “a deterrent” against illegal entry.

You can’t have it both ways, boys. A generation from now, the damage you’re inflicting will come back to haunt us all.


Warren Michaels
Stupidity should be called by name, especially when it's stupid people in power. You could say that's my life's mission, but I'd like to think I'm a broader guy than that.

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