“We Are Really Good at Being Shocked”: Laura Briggs on the Lasting Crime of Child Separation

Laura Briggs is a Professor of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is the author of How All Politics Became Reproductive Politics: From Welfare Reform to Foreclosure to Trump; Somebody’s Children: The Politics of Transnational and Transracial Adoption;and Reproducing Empire: Race, Sex, Science, and U.S. Imperialism in Puerto Rico.   Now, Briggs is raising the stakes in her new book Taking Children: A History of American Terror.

The child separations going on at the border during the Trump administration have shocked the conscience of many Americans. Is this situation much worse than the child separation policies of the past? Is the reaction louder and more agonized because it’s happening in the glare of media and social media?

Child separation has shocked the conscience of the nation before. It was arguably the most effective tool in the arsenal of abolitionists, who told stories of children separated from their mothers in pamphlets, speeches, and books to offer a moral, sometimes sentimental account of why slavery had to end. It was cited by members of Congress when they explained their support for the 13th amendment abolishing slavery. 

In 1928, the Meriam Report said that children in Indian boarding schools were facing hunger, overcrowding, substandard medical care,  and illiteracy. It was such a scandal that [President Herbert]  Hoover asked for an emergency appropriation for food and clothing to counter his bad press. 

In 1960, when Louisiana’s governor replied to school desegregation by kicking “illegitimate” children and their siblings off welfare—hoping to terrorize Black single mothers, put their children in foster care, and demoralize the whole community—the Urban League started a public campaign to “feed the babies” that reached across the country and shamed the nation as supplies of food were airlifted to New Orleans. In 1977, Congressional hearings in 1975, 1976, and 1977 on the taking of Native children and placing them in adoptions in white communities horrified Senators and the federal Congress, resulting in the passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act. I could go on.

We are really good at being shocked. What we are not good at is a sustained, thoughtful analysis of all the ways communities of color have lost their children and the boring, unglamorous steps necessary to stop it from happening. It’s like with the Trump administration. A court order stopped them from taking children to deter migrants, so they switched to saying that asylum seekers were unfit, neglectful parents—straight out of the Louisiana playbook, and the War on Drugs one, and the mass incarceration one. We don’t learn how to stop them because we don’t remember.

The Trump administration says their border detention policies are a continuation of Obama’s. Is there any truth to this?

No. But that doesn’t mean the Obama administration doesn’t have a lot to answer for. In 2013, the number of unaccompanied children and mothers with small children coming from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala doubled, and conservatives called it a “surge.” Nativists staged demonstrations and made a lot of noise in the press about Obama’s “lax” immigration policies. In response, the Obama administration reinstated the family detention policies of the George W. Bush administration—which they had pledged to dismantle. Unaccompanied children were detained for days at the Customs and Border Protection facilities like the one at McAllen, Texas where under Trump, children died of the flu. The difference is that Trump illegally held them there for months, and his administration took children who were with their kin and caregivers and separated them, making them “unaccompanied.”

The episodes of child separation you detail in your books take place over hundreds of years and in many different locations and situations. Are there similar dynamics at play across the range of examples you showcase?  

Most of these campaigns to take children began as an explicitly racist, xenophobic, or anti-Indian politics, unless they were operating under the sign of anti-Communism, which often did the same work. But, ironically, they were often continued and extended under liberal leadership.

Is the United States the only country committing these crimes?

Not at all. In the new book I mention other campaigns: child-taking in Spain under fascism, in Argentina and other Southern Cone countries during Argentina’s Dirty War and Operation Condor. Even more, I explore the dynamics of Reagan-era wars in Central America, where children were taken from their parents to terrorize communities called “Communist” in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—sometimes the parents of those who have lost children at the border since 2018, and even the translators in our asylum system.

Children of color, whether Black, Native, Latinx or Central American, are often viewed with a harsher lens – less innocent, less smart, less culturally significant, than their white peers. How has the continued practice of separating children from families contributed to this stereotyping? How can we combat it? 

The folks who have enacted policies to separate children from their parents have regarded the children as unnaturally grown, and their mothers as lacking in maternal feeling. For example, Trump’s people regarded those seeking asylum as basically illegal immigrants who were trying to manipulate the law by calling themselves refugees, and they complained that special rules on the treatment of children made bringing a child with you basically a get-out-of-jail-free card. They celebrated their strategy of deterring “illegals” by taking squalling children from their parents and caregivers and calling it “zero tolerance.” “Womp, womp,” said former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, mocking in high frat-boy form the story of a child with Down syndrome separated from her mother

In interviews around the Southern border and “The Wall,” the Trump administration has said the practice of separating children from families functions as a deterrent for refugees coming to our border. Can you speak to the historical and moral significance of this concept?

So the Trump administration, or at least Stephen Miller and Trump’s base, regard refugees as just another group of immigrants who can be deterred from crossing borders. But international and U.S .law say that if you have a reasonable fear of death or persecution, you have a right to  be given asylum in another country. Fundamentally, the Trump administration is dismantling the international asylum system by attempting to terrorize refugees into either staying in their home countries or seeking asylum somewhere else.

Prior to the Trump administration, most Americans would be shocked to think about their government separating children from their families. How has this presidency affected people’s understanding of their government’s cruelty? 

Two things. One is that Trump has been crass and cruel in his treatment of immigrants, in a way that has engendered opposition. People are already primed to be outraged when he does things like separate children from their parents. During the Obama administration, outside the immigrant advocate community, few people were upset about the president calling for expedited removal of unaccompanied minors, deporting them without a hearing. People wanted to trust Obama, and so refused to believe his administration was being harsh toward immigrant children.

But as I said, across the history of the nation, people in the United States have been shocked many times by the government or groups like Southern slaveholders separating children from their families. But we don’t want to remember these events, because we are invested in an idea of the United States as a magical place where cruelty and injustice don’t happen. When we talk to school children about humans’  capacity for inhumanity, we turn to Europe and tell them about the Holocaust. We don’t also teach them about 300 years of enslavement in the United States.