Taking children has been a strategy for terrorizing people for centuries. There is a reason why “forcibly transferring children of the group to another group” is part of international law’s definition of genocide. It participates in the same sadistic political grammar as the torture and murder that separated French Jewish children from their parents under the Nazis and sought to keep enslaved people from rebelling or to keep Native people from retaliating against the Anglos who violated treaties to encroach on their land. Stripping people of their children attempts to deny them the opportunity to participate in the progression of generations into the future — to interrupt the passing down of languages, ways of being, forms of knowledge, foods, cultures. Like enslavement and the Indian Wars, the current efforts by the Trump administration to terrorize asylum seekers is white nationalist in ideology. It is an attempt to secure a white or Anglo future for a nation, a community, a place.

The past stalks the present, the ghost in the machine of memory. This is why history writing matters; it gives us ways to understand the specters already among us and to assemble tools to transform our situation. Things change; the epidemic of child taking in the context of mass incarceration is quite different from separating refugees from their children at the border, but you cannot track the differences without a map of what happened. Writing histories is also a defense against the efforts to implant false memories, the insistence that things happened that did not. The Obama administration did not have a policy of separating children from their parents. Telling history’s story is a way to define it, to put limits on the infinite range of things that might have happened.

Part of the reason this theater of cruelty at the border worked was precisely because of its history. But that is also why it faltered, in the sense that it generated passionate and angry denunciations of, for example, immigrant child detention centers as “concentration camps.” We are primed by memory — by bits of stories handed down across generations, conversations, things read and half-remembered, formal histories, activists’ words and actions, and lies and distortions — to react in certain ways to events in the present. It is not that the histories of child taking repeat or that one set of events parallels another; it is that the past is brought to life in the present. William Faulkner famously evoked this sense of history when he wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Yet for all the anger the policy engendered, the demand for it to end also failed. The administration found a work-around that continued to separate children from their kin and caregivers. Instead of saying that children were being taken because parents were applying for asylum, the Trump administration began saying that it was because they were “neglectful” or dangerous to their children, often with the flimsiest of evidence — a diaper not changed quickly enough, a past criminalized disruption that caused $5 in damage. This, too, was about a failure of historical memory, as opponents failed to mobilize sufficient opposition to the ugly history of the use of “child neglect” to take the children of insurgent communities of color. The administration was reprising a tactic used against welfare mothers, who faced a definition of “child neglect” in the 1950s and ’60s that included having a common-law marriage, a boyfriend sleep over, or an “illegitimate” child. The Trump administration also used the Obama-era tactic of detaining immigrant children with their parents. It called parents criminal — either through a (failed) strategy of naming crossing outside regular border checkpoints to apply for asylum a crime, which courts repeatedly said it was not, or through the more successful efforts to call acts felonies that would be trivial administrative matters if people weren’t migrants, like giving a wrong name to the police. Other immigrants and asylum seekers in fact had criminal records. In the absence of a strong movement to protect the parental rights of those who are or were incarcerated in the United States — immigrants or not — the administration’s work-around, too, served to demobilize the movement to reunite refugee and immigrant children with those who cared for them. Opponents of the policy failed to understand the deep history of the criminalization of parents of color, the way foster care had become a state program of child-taking, and to realize how easily refugee parents could be transformed from harmed innocents to dangerous criminals. 

While international and US law make much of the difference between immigrants and refugees, the Trump administration sought to collapse that distinction. Asylum for refugees was a product of the post-World War II response to German concentration camps, and states don’t like it much. Unlike regular immigration, which can to some degree be metered according to the labor needs of a nation or an economy — changing laws to allow more immigrants when more workers are needed, fewer when they aren’t — asylum is understood in international law as a right that follows from being persecuted for one’s ethnicity, race, or political view. The model is Jews under the Nazis, and it was extended to groups like the Hmong in Laos, who were forced to flee because of their aid to the Americans in the war in Southeast Asia. The international asylum system, however, has never worked well in the United States (or a great many other places), and Cold War refugees from politically unpopular left-wing governments, like those from Castro’s Cuba, have been massively favored over refugees from right-wing governments, like those who fled El Salvador in the 1980s. In the eighties and nineties, activists argued that race was a factor as well, with Reagan and the first Bush administration refusing Haitian refugees while accepting largely white Cubans. (Ironically, by 2019, many of the refugees sitting in Mexican shelters awaiting asylum hearings were Cuban. The favoritism did not last.) Bill Clinton campaigned against the distinction that allowed Cubans but not Haitians to petition for asylum in US courts, arguing that everyone had a right to go before a judge to make their case. As soon as he was elected, however, he too began to insist that Haitians couldn’t apply for asylum because they had not reached the land border of the United States, sending them instead to Guantánamo Bay, the US naval base in Cuba. Indeed, Clinton made a mockery of the entire notion of asylum, signing legislation that allowed “expedited” review of such claims, which ensured that people did not set foot in front of a judge but, rather, made their case to an INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service, later ICE) official whose expertise was enforcement, not the finer points of the law.16 George W. Bush and Obama steadily expanded the use of expedited removal, to the point where, by 2013, it accounted for 44 percent of all deportations, compared with only 17 percent that went before a judge.                                                         

Taking Children is a book about how we got here. It tells the stories of the detention of children at the US-Mexico border since the presidency of Ronald Reagan, and it also explores four other contexts in the past four centuries where the US state has either taken children as a tactic of terror or tacitly encouraged it. The first is the taking of Black children, beginning with the centuries of racial chattel slavery. Chapter 1 examines slavery and its aftermath through the decades after World War II, when white supremacists sought to dull the moral force of demands for the end of segregation by drawing attention to families and households they tried to paint as pathological: single mothers and their so-called illegitimate children relying on welfare. With the cooperation of the federal government, Southern cities and states put Black children in foster care as punishment for Black adults’ activism against segregation. Chapter 2 investigates the taking of Native children, beginning in the closing decade of the Indian Wars, designed to quiet further revolt. Child taking continued through the emergence of movements for sovereignty and against tribal termination in the middle of the twentieth century. Again, states responded with an aggressive discourse about welfare and illegitimacy, resulting in removal of one in three Native kids from their homes. In response, from 1969 to 1978, tribal councils, the Association on American Indian Affairs, and Native newspapers, newsletters, and radio shows began a campaign for an Indian Child Welfare Act, calling the taking of children the latest episode in centuries of settler colonialism — and they won.

The third episode of children being ripped from their parents and communities I examine in the pages ahead unfolded in the anti-Communist wars in Latin America and their aftershocks. After reprising the better-known cases of disappeared children in Argentina and the Southern Cone, chapter 3 tells the story of Central America: how governments in Guatemala and El Salvador took the children of suspected Communists and placed them for adoption or in institutions to an extent that is still being unearthed. In Honduras, the Reagan administration backed the Contras, a mercenary force seeking to overthrow the government of Nicaragua that happened also to be working with cocaine and marijuana traffickers from Colombia and Mexico, which set in motion much that followed. Within the United States, it sparked the “crack” epidemic, the subject of chapter 4. Crack cocaine justified the launching of a new campaign of harassment of drug users, not just dealers, including massive testing of Black pregnant women and taking their children into foster care in the name of protecting “crack babies.” Native women were caught in a parallel “crisis” that sent them to jail for drinking during pregnancy and sent their children to foster care.            

The expansion of cocaine consumption also vastly empowered and armed drug cartels, launching the events that would end in the waves of refugees and asylum seekers that arrived at the borders of the United States in significant numbers beginning in 2013, as we will see in chapter 5. Central America’s Northern Triangle — Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador — had became increasingly unlivable for impoverished people, particularly youth, as the cartels and gangs claimed their neighbors in an ever-accelerating spiral of extortion, kidnapping, violence, and murder.

Taking Children is about a long history in the Americas of interrupting relations of care, kinship, and intimacy, and about how disrupted reproduction produces new regimes of racialized rightlessness. Child taking is, I am arguing, a counterinsurgency tactic has been used to respond to demands for rights, refuge, and respect by communities of color and impoverished communities, an effort to induce hopelessness, despair, grief, and shame.

This is not the whole story, however. There is also a fierce tradition of protesting this practice by the targeted communities and by those who acted in solidarity with them. Many people have found these policies repulsive and abhorrent, and activists, lawyers, and policy makers have sought to reform them. When we forget about the ways that governments have taken children, we also lose a powerful history of communities standing up against that practice, one that has often been quite successful, and provides resources for how to imagine doing it even now. Walter Benjamin wrote urgently about understanding the power of history in this way: “To articulate the past historically does not mean torecognize it ‘the way it really was.’ It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.” Benjamin’s point was that we will never see the past as those who lived it saw it, never grasp it whole, but we don’t have to be troubled by this partial vision. In his view, we need memory — history — for something else, for the way it is useful in the present, in a crisis (he was thinking of fascism).

This work is inspired by social movements’ responses to crisis, including one that Black feminists in the United States have started calling reproductive justice. In recent years, we have seen new protest movements coalesce around missing children — sparked by the mothers (especially, but also fathers and grandparents) of unarmed Black and Latinx youth shot by police or vigilantes — Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Jessie Hernández, Tamir Rice, Rekia Boyd, Antwon Rose, and so many others. In Mexico, a nationwide movement to end state- and police-sanctioned killing by criminal organizations coalesced around the demand by the parents of the young adults disappeared from the Ayotzinapa teacher-training school that they be returned alive. For forty years, some of the most effective opposition to the political right in Latin America has come from family members of the “disappeared,” those arrested or kidnapped by police and para military forces. While most opposition to right-wing governments was dismissed as the work of Communists and “terrorists,” groups like the Comité de Madres Monsignor Romero (Comadres; Committee of Mothers) in El Salvador claimed moral authority by speaking on behalf of disappeared sons and daughters literally in the name of Archbishop (now Saint) Óscar Romero, who was killed by the military while celebrating mass in 1980. In the 1990s, despite Central America’s truth commissions initially refusing to believe that disappeared children and infants were not dead, parents’ groups like Pro Búsqueda began searching for, and sometimes finding, children who had been taken to orphanages and boarding schools — and sometimes adopted abroad. These parents, kin, and caregivers cast the war and the taking of children in a new light, while continuing to fight for a full reckoning for the crimes committed in the name of anti-Communism. 

This is the legacy that we carried into the twenty-first century. In the United States, both Democratic and Republican administrations have sought to deter those who lawfully sought asylum by punishing parents as parents and their children. The US government sought to terrify people into not asking for a review of their asylum cases by putting their children in camps, even as it enacted policies that ensured they would come in ever greater numbers. In the pages that follow, this book builds out these stories about how taking children came to seem reasonable, a kind of pain that kept the peace or maintained the status quo, and how people again and again stood up to that violence. Taking children may be as American as a Constitution founded in slavery and the denial of basic citizenship rights to Native people, African Americans, and all women, but activists in every generation have also stood up and said it did not have to be. 

Laura Briggs is 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 Transracial and Transnational Adoption, and Reproducing Empire: Race, Sex, Science, and U.S. Imperialism in Puerto Rico.

Excerpted from Taking Children: A History of American Terror by Laura Briggs, published by the University of California Press. © 2020.

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