In July 2019 Elora Mukherjee, the director of the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic at Columbia Law School, testified before Congress about conditions at a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) facility in Clint, Texas, that housed migrant children who had been separated from their parents:

At Clint, I saw children who were dirty. They could not wash their hands with soap because none was available. Many had not brushed their teeth for days. They were wearing the same clothes they had on when they crossed the border. Clothes that were covered in nasal mucous, vomit, breast milk, urine. Multiple children had a strong stench emanating from them because they had not showered in days, and they were wearing the same clothes. They could not even change their underwear….

We met a girl tasked with caring for a two-year-old who did not have a diaper on. He never speaks, she reported. He peed in his pants and all over the chair during a meeting with us. The youngest child I met with at Clint was five months old. At CBP facilities last month, my colleagues found a newborn detained for seven days, a two-year-old detained for 20 days, and an eight-month-old detained for three weeks….

I have three children of my own. They are three, six, and nine. I do not have the words to explain to them what is happening to children their age in America right now.

During the spring and summer of 2018, the Trump administration’s policy of family separation had made its way into the public consciousness in disjointed fragments: photographs of children in pens, huddled on mats under mylar blankets; a clip of a government lawyer, Sarah Fabian, stammering out an argument against providing detained children with toothbrushes and soap; leaked audio of Central American girls crying inconsolably for their parents; Melania Trump visiting a children’s detention center while wearing a jacket scrawled with the phrase “I REALLY DON’T CARE, DO U?” The principal architect of the policy, Stephen Miller, dismissed Emma Lazarus’s poem on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty as something “that was added later,” claiming that the statue represents “liberty enlightening the world” rather than a desire to take in anyone’s huddled masses.

Family separation was shrouded in denial and confusion, much of it generated by Trump officials who wished to mask the extent of the trauma they were inflicting. On June 17, 2018, Kirstjen Nielsen, the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), tweeted that “we do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period.” This was a lie. Nielsen had signed off on such a policy the previous month, formalizing a practice that had been taking place since 2017. In the few short weeks since she’d made it official, well over two thousand children had been taken from their parents.

There is, extraordinarily, no official figure for the number of children separated from their parents at the southern border by the Trump administration. The ACLU’s best estimate is 5,400. On June 26, 2018, a judge issued a preliminary injunction requiring immigration authorities to reunite most separated families within thirty days and to reunite children younger than five within two weeks. As of April 2021, the parents of 445 children had still not been found.

Trump officials often claimed that their policy was no different from that of previous Democratic administrations. In 2014 the Obama administration had implemented family detention, and detainees were sometimes maltreated and kept in poor conditions, but adults were separated from children only if they were charged with federal crimes or suspected of being traffickers. The systematic separation of families—known in Trumpese as “Zero Tolerance”—was an innovation accomplished by the trick of opting to prosecute as felons all adults who crossed the border illegally, making it permissible to take their children under the guise of protection. There was, and is, no practical reason to do so. The point was to terrorize migrants and deter them from seeking asylum.

One of the most disgraceful aspects of Zero Tolerance was the lack of proper record-keeping. Children were taken from their parents without much thought as to how they might be reunited. A report on the debacle by the Office of the Inspector General describes a culture of carelessness within Customs and Border Protection and a lack of communication between the DHS, which is responsible for arrestees, and Health and Human Services (HHS), responsible for looking after unaccompanied children:

CBP’s official system of record contained incomplete data and too many errors to reach a conclusive or accurate count of all families separated during Zero Tolerance…. Without a reliable account of all family relationships, we cannot confirm that DHS has identified all family separations, and therefore, we cannot determine whether DHS and HHS have reunified these families.

This was published in November 2019, more than a year after the injunction to reunite separated families. The callousness and incompetence with which the policy was executed implicates many officials in the Trump administration. As the NBC journalist Jacob Soboroff recounts in Separated: Inside an American Tragedy, Kevin McAleenan, the commissioner of US Customs and Border Protection, L. Francis Cissna, the director of US Citizenship and Immigration Services, and Thomas Homan, the acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, all pushed Secretary Nielsen to adopt the policy of separating “family units.” After The New York Times got hold of a leaked list of seven hundred separated children—the first public confirmation of the existence of Zero Tolerance—Scott Lloyd, the director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, floated the idea of destroying the list, though at the time it was the only record connecting children to parents and its destruction would have made it effectively impossible to reunite them. White House Chief of Staff John Kelly blithely dismissed an NPR journalist’s concerns about the cruelty of the policy:


The children will be taken care of—put into foster care or whatever. But the big point is they elected to come illegally into the United States and this is a technique that no one hopes will be used extensively or for very long.

After his resignation in 2018, Kelly accepted a seat on the board of Caliburn International (now called Valiance Humanitarian), which runs one of the largest facilities housing migrant children who have been separated from their families at the border.

Zero Tolerance was official policy for only a few months, until Trump, under pressure from the media, signed an executive order ending it, saying that he “didn’t like the sight or feeling of families being separated.” This sensitive humanitarian was hard to connect to the character who had announced his candidacy for president by condemning Mexicans as rapists and murderers or gleefully brainstormed childlike plans (spikes, a moat filled with alligators) to deter migrants from scaling his big beautiful wall. In 2019 he seemed to have another change of heart, telling Secretary Nielsen that he wanted to reinstate the policy. Nielsen reportedly told him that she did not think she could do so. Shortly afterward, she was forced to resign.

“There’s nothing American about tearing families apart,” tweeted Hillary Clinton, as the crisis peaked in June 2018. Clinton’s familiar construction—bad thing X is un-American and thus an anomaly—is symptomatic of what Gore Vidal once called “the United States of Amnesia.” “We learn nothing because we remember nothing,” Vidal wrote in 2004, a line quoted by the historian Laura Briggs in Taking Children: A History of American Terror, a wide-ranging and uncomfortably revealing account of what might be called the tradition of family separation. The routine sale of enslaved children was, Briggs reminds us, American. So was the forcible removal of Native children to boarding schools, with the aim of eradicating their language and culture. “Child taking,” she writes, is a “counterinsurgency tactic…an effort to induce hopelessness, despair, grief, and shame.” The UN convention on genocide includes among its definitions “forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

Perhaps amnesia is an understandable form of defense. If America’s memory returned, it would surely be troubled by the testimony of Amelia Jones, who was enslaved by a Republican congressman named Daw White in Manchester, Kentucky, just before the Civil War. In the late 1930s, aged eighty-eight, Jones was interviewed for the Federal Writer’s Project:

The day he was to sell the children from their mother, he would tell that mother to go to some other place to do some work and in her absence he would sell the children. It was the same when he would sell a man’s wife, he also sent him to another job and when he returned his wife would be gone. The master only said “don’t worry you can get another one.” Mrs. Jones has a sister ninety-two years of age living with her now, who was sold from the auction block in Manchester. Her sister was only twelve years of age when sold and her master received $1,220 for her, then she was taken south to some plantation. Also her father was sold at that place at an auction of slaves at a high price, handcuffed and taken south. She never saw her father again.

In the seventeen volumes of Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936–1938, Jones’s experience is echoed again and again. In Arkansas Nancy Anderson, aged sixty-six, remembers her friend Jane Peterson, raped repeatedly by her master: “She was so glad freedom come on before her children come on old enough to sell. Part white children sold for more than black children. They used them for house girls.” In Missouri Hannah Allen, 107, tells her interviewer, “I was two years old when my mother was sold. De white people kept two of us and sold mother and three children in New Orleans.” In Mississippi, eighty-year-old Anna Baker remembers her mother’s bravery after emancipation: “She come to de place an tol de marster she want her chillun. He say she can have all ’cept me.”


Child separation did not end with emancipation. Briggs describes how, during the twentieth century, welfare policy became an instrument for breaking up Black families. Welfare was, as far as possible, restricted to white people. Nationally in 1931, 96 percent of recipients were white, and only two Black mothers across the entire South received payments, one in North Carolina, the other in Florida. Later, the use of so-called suitable home rules allowed southern states to target households receiving welfare and to classify them in explicitly eugenic language as “fit” or “unfit,” according to assessments of parenting and sexual morality. Children could be removed from “unfit mothers,” making it risky for Black families to apply for welfare, and easy to intimidate them into withdrawing claims.

Sometimes these laws were enacted in apparent response to civil rights activism. Within days of the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, Mississippi attached a suitable home clause to a welfare bill. During the Little Rock school desegregation campaign in 1957, Governor Orville Faubus enacted a similar rule, later bragging that “8,000 illegitimate children were taken off the welfare rolls during my term of office.”

One of the fictions that allowed nineteenth-century white Americans to escape confrontation with the evil of slavery was the pseudoscientific theory that Black people felt less pain, so-called dysaesthesia aethiopica. They were also held to have poorly developed affective capacities. As the slaver Haley says in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, “Tan’t, you know, as if it was white folks, that’s brought up in the way of ’spectin’ to keep their children and wives, and all that.”

Family separation at the southern border recapitulates previous events in American history, and so does the reaction to it. Uncle Tom’s Cabin became an antebellum phenomenon because it mobilized feelings about the separation of children from their parents, channeling them into the political project of abolition. The scene in which Eliza Harris carries her child across the half-frozen Ohio River to escape the slave catchers became one of the most famous in nineteenth-century American culture, appearing in countless illustrations and reenacted onstage:

If it were your Harry, mother, or your Willie, that were going to be torn from you by a brutal trader, tomorrow morning…and you had only from twelve o’clock till morning to make good your escape,—how fast could you walk?

The moral force of childhood, from its emergence as a distinct category in the eighteenth century, has stemmed from its association with innocence and purity. The protection of children is an imperative that can be used to argue for the end of slavery or to justify race war. The best-known slogan of the American far right, coined by the white supremacist terrorist David Lane in the early 1990s, is the so-called fourteen words: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.”

If the future for white children is in doubt, other children are the enemy. Under the logic of racial nationalism, protection can’t be extended to those other children. Therefore they have to be excluded, not just from whiteness, but in a certain sense from childhood itself. Only white children are fully and unequivocally children, vulnerable and pure. Others feel less and sin more. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, one genteel riverboat traveler puts a question to another: “Suppose, ma’am, your two children, there, should be taken from you, and sold?” “We can’t reason from our feelings to those of this class of persons,” comes the reply. In May 2018 President Trump argued that migrant children were exposing America to gang crime: “They exploited the loopholes in our laws to enter the country as unaccompanied alien minors. They look so innocent. They’re not innocent.”

The detained children are not quite children. They are “alien minors,” who perhaps do not suffer as keenly as we would. In many cases their parents “chose” to put them at risk of separation, a choice that suggests they are deficient in familial feeling. We could never do that to our children.*

The text of the 1954 Mississippi bill that introduced a suitable home clause into state law included a definition of the function of the family:

Listed among the recognized functions of the family are the passing on from one generation to another of the special ways of life that make up the civilization of the nation. Parents are expected to help each child to develop moral and social standards through example, training, and education.

This reasoning finds its way almost unchanged into the text of the 1776 Report, a document published in 2020 by a Trump-appointed commission on “patriotic education”:

By their very nature, families are the first educators, teaching children how to treat others with respect, make wise decisions, exercise patience, think for themselves, and steadfastly guard their God-given liberties. It is good mothers and fathers, above all others, who form good people and good citizens. This is why America’s founding fathers often echoed the great Roman statesman Cicero in referring to the family as the “seminary of the republic.” They understood that the habits and morals shaped in the home determine the character of our communities and the ultimate fate of our country.

Announcing the formation of the 1776 Commission, Trump pitched it as a corrective to antiracist education, saying that

teaching this horrible doctrine to our children is a form of child abuse, the truest sense…. There is no more powerful force than a parent’s love for their children. And patriotic moms and dads are going to demand that their children are no longer fed hateful lies about this country.

If the family is the training ground for republican virtue and a building block of national civilization, then abusive families undermine these large and important projects. One solution that American elites have historically found is the substitution of a good family in the form of the state. Brigadier General Richard Pratt, a veteran of the Indian Wars and the founder of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, believed that the sequestration of Native people on reservations was interfering with his moral mission to “kill the Indian to save the man.” It was necessary, he told an audience in 1892, to “release these people from their tribal relations and to bring them individually into the capacity and freedom of citizens.” Pratt’s influential program of education aimed to destroy linguistic and cultural ties, its effects visible in chilling “before” and “after” photographs of groups of Native children whose hostile stares and tense bodies have been transformed into civilized attitudes of placidity and sentimental contemplation.

The violent separation of Diné children from their families was witnessed by the writer Dane Coolidge in 1930:

The wild Navajos, far back in the mountains, hide their children at the sound of a truck. So stockmen, Indian police, and other mounted men are sent ahead to round them up. The children are caught, often roped like cattle, and taken away from their parents, many times never to return.

Native children were already on the land, so they had to be separated from their families and re-formed into Americans.

Other children were trying to enter from the outside. The first targets of restrictive American immigration legislation were Asians. Amid anti-Chinese hysteria, the Page Act was passed in 1875, effectively barring entry to all Asian women. It was soon followed by the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. Subsequent waves of legislation maintained a near-total ban until 1943. Chinese-Americans who had birthright citizenship under the Fourteenth Amendment struggled to have their constitutional rights recognized. In 1898 the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Wong Kim Ark, a US citizen who had been denied entry in San Francisco by a customs official who declared himself a “zealous opponent of Chinese immigration.” Ark was detained for five months on various steamships in San Francisco harbor, one of many Chinese-Americans who suffered in similar ways. While in office President Trump frequently expressed a desire to overturn birthright citizenship: “You have a baby on our land, you walk over the border, have a baby—congratulations, the baby is now a US citizen…. It’s frankly ridiculous.”

For American nativists, Asians have always represented an incorrigibly alien presence. Yellow peril rhetoric is, as H. Rap Brown once said of violence, as American as cherry pie. The US has found uses for cheap Asian labor while remaining hostile to Asian families, because of the risk that alien social values might be reproduced on white American soil. Family separation was used by officials like Collector John Wise, the man who detained Wong Kim Ark, to impede the formation of Asian-American families. Wise took it upon himself to impose his own conditions for entry, requiring Chinese who claimed birthright citizenship to present two white witnesses to their birth. Sometime in the mid-1920s, after half a century of restrictionism, government researchers interviewed an angry Chinese father whose family life was still split between the US and China:

My wife come over here and you Americans cause her a lot of trouble. You pen her up in the immigration office and then have doctors come and say she has liver trouble, hookworm, and the doctor does not know anything about it, to tell the truth. When my little boy came to this country, he was kept in the immigration office for over two months. Poor little fellow—he was so homesick.

One of the most prominent contemporary American nativists is the Fox News host Tucker Carlson. Scoffing at President Biden’s characterization of the January 6 incursion into the US Capitol as “the worst attack on our democracy since the Civil War,” Carlson suggested as a counterexample the Immigration Act of 1965, which ended the policy of discrimination against Asians: “That law completely changed the composition of America’s voter rolls, purely to benefit the Democratic Party.” On his April 8 show he promoted a striking conspiracy theory:

Now, I know that the left and all the little gatekeepers on Twitter become literally hysterical if you use the term “replacement,” if you suggest that the Democratic Party is trying to replace the current electorate, the voters now casting ballots, with new people, more obedient voters from the Third World. But they become hysterical because that’s what’s happening actually. Let’s just say it: that’s true.

Carlson is only one of many American right-wingers (J.D. Vance seems to be another) to have developed an interest in identitarianism, a strand of politics associated with the French Nouvelle Droite, a far-right tendency that combines social conservatism, localism, hostility to immigration, and opposition to neoliberalism with conspiratorial thinking about the hidden hand of what used to be called “international finance capital.” Its ideas circulate widely among the populist gilets jaunes, and one of its chief ideologues is Renaud Camus, a self-declared anti-egalitarian and aristocrat of the spirit, given to melodramatic flights of lamentation about the decline of the West. Camus has made a familiar journey from left to right, a soixante-huitard socialist who marched for LGBTQ rights, then became the melancholy proprietor of a fourteenth-century Gascon castle near Toulouse. He channels some of his activities through a political party (essentially little more than a Web forum) called, revealingly, the “Parti de l’In-nocence.” He sees innocence as a philosophical ideal, and with the punning neologism “nocence” signifies that he stands against the various “nuisances” of twenty-first-century modernity, chief among them migrants who violate the “European character of Europe” or the “French character of France.”

Camus’s 2011 book Le Grand Remplacement (The Great Replacement), to which Carlson was referring, has become required reading for young right-wingers of the kind who gathered in Charlottesville in 2017. The book describes a conspiracy of globalist elites to replace the native-born people of France with non-Europeans, primarily Muslims, through mass migration and the decline in the white birth rate. Camus’s ideas dovetail with another conspiracy theory popular on the American right concerning “cultural Marxism,” a Jewish plot to undermine the West through the dissemination of Frankfurt School critical theory. When the torch-bearing Charlottesville marchers chanted “Jews will not replace us,” they did not mean that they believed a Jewish population would replace them, but that a Jewish conspiracy was afoot to replace them with compliant nonwhites. Carlson, to be fair, did swap out “Jews” with “the Democratic Party.”

Children are, of course, the shock troops of replacement. They are the primary manifestation of human potential. If there are jobs that “real Americans” are unwilling to do, then labor must be found somewhere, but while work may be acceptable to anti-immigrant conservatives, play is not. All the activities of social reproduction, the ways people care for one another and make spaces they call home, are a threat. Play is particularly subversive, because through play children imagine and build new worlds. Through play, children whose parents came from “shithole countries” might invent new Americas, new Europes, and that must not be allowed to happen.

Under the Biden administration, migrant children are still being housed in the same facilities at the border as they were during Zero Tolerance. Families are still turned back without being allowed to make asylum claims. Citing the pandemic, the Biden administration has said that it considers the border closed (though as vaccination rates increase and cases drop, there is increasing pressure on it to change this policy). Unaccompanied children are sometimes being admitted on humanitarian grounds. During April 2021 the number of children held in Border Patrol custody dropped sharply, after efforts were made to speed up processing and find more suitable shelters. The spring 2021 “flood” of such children, so prominent in the media, differs from previous waves in 2014 and 2019, which largely comprised child migrants who had made the journey from Central America alone. Now the parents are likely to be in camps on the Mexican side of the US border, and to have made the wrenching decision to send their children across unaccompanied. So even though family separation is no longer active US immigration policy, it is still the effective outcome. Until meaningful action is taken to reform immigration policy and address the violence in Central America that refugees are fleeing, this unhappy American tradition will continue.

—June 2, 2021