Americans have a bad habit of dancing around moral issues involving the United States. However, the reaction to the Trump administration policy of separating parents from their children at the border has drawn condemnation from across the political spectrum. The question is whether this will lead to changes in this policy. Let’s make this crystal clear. The policy is not just wrong, but it is not American law. Not just that, but it is a violation of many treaties we have signed over the last seventy years, and the United Nations already warned the administration that it is illegal to separate children from their parents under International law.
This zero tolerance policy at the border is a choice. It is the brain child of Stephen Miller, an aide to President Donald Trump who ironically is the son of immigrants. He is also Jewish and similar policies were imposed under the Nazi Regime, affecting millions of Jews. Miller’s actions have echoes to that past, which many Americans have rightfully identified. However, this policy of family separation has a history in the United States. We not only separated children from their parents, when families were sold to different owners during slavery. We also removed thousands of first peoples children from reservations to be raised away from their parents by Christian missionaries. If anything, Nazi Germany took many of our programs and enacted them during the Holocaust.
The fact remains, American authorities are separating children from their parents, mostly mothers, many of whom are seeking asylum in the United States. Asylum seekers are doing what they have been told to do for many years. They are surrendering themselves to American authorities at the border, with the intent to make fear statements. It is a protected activity under American law. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has also declared that these fear statement will no longer cover gangs or credible domestic abuse claims. This contravenes what the United Nations has found, where non state actors have been declared a clear and present danger to many of these people since their home governments cannot offer protection or relocation. This is a test of American institutions, and of values. It is also a test of democracy and our stated belief in law and order. After all, this policy is a violation of International and national norms. Some of these norms came to be after the Holocaust, because we as a country turned away thousands who were sent back to their deaths in Europe.
Ethnic cleansing is defined as follows: “The mass expulsion or killing of members of an unwanted ethnic or religious group in society.” We have two excellent examples of this practice. The Indian wars of the 19th century, or the far less known Operation Wetback when 1.1 million Mexicans and Mexican Americans were expelled from the country fit the definition in precise ways. Lets examine Operation Wetback, which is not well known outside specialist circles, however it should. It was carried out in 1954, after World War and the horrors of the death camps. President Dwight D Eisenhower ordered it, which is ironic since he was Supreme Allied Commander Europe during World War Two. It was under his orders that German citizens were forced to go to places like Bergen Belsen to confront what their government had done in their name. Yet, what was done by the United States government was just as horrific, even if nobody was killed, as far as records show. It happened nine years after victory in Europe.
This is a salient fact. Ike witnessed the horrors of the camps. He was instrumental in the prosecution of those who carried out the deadliest campaign of ethnic cleansing in recent memory. Yet, once president he ordered an operation that had echoes to what happened in Europe, or the United States in the 19th century with events like the Trail of Tears. During this operations even American citizens, born in the United States, were expelled to a country they did not know, nor were citizens off. It was done to clean up the southern border and was part of what was colloquially known as the Juan Crow laws. They ran in parallel to the better known Jim Crow laws of the American south. These days they are back in fashion with the hysteria over immigration, which has been portrayed as an invasion. It is a form of control.
Why separating children from their parents could be seen as a test of American Values
No campaign of ethnic cleansing starts with gas chambers, machetes or ovens. It starts with creating the other, and classifying targets. We know the process because it has been extensively studied after the Holocaust. It also starts with the implementation of policies affecting the weakest, least able to defend themselves, among us. What is happening at the border is a test for all of us, one that if we do not collectively rise against, will expand. In time it will affect you, or those you are close to if you do not object now. This has been the pattern every time. Cowering in fear, or thinking this cannot happen to me is precisely what those behind these polices desire you to do. These horrific policies are popular among some. Those who desire the ethnic cleansing want to do things like make the country a safe place for whites. Or if they could, just create a white ethno-state where they can keep all these people out. This is the view of Richard Spencer and others in the neo fascist right. They have made no bones about it. Spencer is a white supremacist, who believes whites are superior to others. We should not be blind this to this reality. It is the true context of this policy.
Immigrants from Honduras and El Salvador are outsiders in the United States. They are easy to classify with the other, and lump with the symbolic Mexican. Make no bones about it. Many in the United States believe Mexicans are invading the country. They are not, in fact Mexicans are leaving the United States in greater numbers than coming in. They are also portrayed by right wing media as a relentless enemy that seeks to destroy the United States from within.. Ergo all who speak Spanish are the other, the catholic and the brown. They are, in short, less than human. President Donald Trump has referred to immigrants already in this way. He called many immigrants animals and tried to play it down as just referring to MS13. When a man tells you repeatedly that he is joking when it comes to racist speech, believe him, and take him at his original word.
When the President engaged in that speech he crossed an important marker towards genocide and ethnic cleansing, which we cannot afford to ignore. When humans are referred to as animals, the pump is primed for elimination. This is a well known process that we have seen many times. Then we have American high government officials drinking from a familiar, yet hideous well. It is one dressed in religious language.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions revealed his southern heritage when he used the same exact quote from Paul that was used to justify slavery before the civil war. This passage was used to justify a tyrannical government, just like Sessions is doing right now. The AG is also threading in dangerous water since we are a secular country, with a clear separation of church and state, and as a high ranking government official he is putting religion ahead of secularism.
According to CBS he said the following:
“Persons who violate the law of our nation are subject to prosecution … 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 the government for his purposes,” Sessions said. “Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves … and protect the weak and it protects the lawful.”
He’s been slammed by evangelicals and the Catholic Church for this. He also should be criticized for using religious text to justify a horrific policy, which is not even law.
Incidentally, when Sarah Huckabee Sanders cites the Bible from the White House podium that should also be chilling. The genius of the founders was that separation of church and state ensconced in the First Amendment. Using the Bible to justify this is precisely where tyrants operate from, not democratic leaders.
What it tells us about the United States
There are echoes in history to what is happening right now. Our history is full of violence, genocide and ethnic cleansing, However, no nation is a slave to its past. But to liberate oneself from the ghosts of the past, one has to learn of these ghosts, which is not easy to do. The country is especially good at teaching myth but ignoring history. We are so good that genocide, and ethnic cleansing is not part of the curricula. And when we do teach some, such as the mission Indians in California, it is not taught in depth. It is done to expand on a mythic past, not the ugly reality of it. However, that is changing. If we are to overcome our history, we I have to give up many national myths, and change some myths. In short, we need to learn history, not mythology. We have to internalize that history, and make sure that we do not repeat tit.
As a country we are frozen in time. Partly because we teach ourselves things that never were. This national idea that we are special, or exceptional is false, for example. We are not different from other nations. We have engaged in ethnic cleansing, and wars of conquest. We have tried to impose our ways on others, just like every other country in the world. However, we could become that shining city on the hill if we decided to learn from that history and avoid the same mistakes.
To be clear, the rise of populist leaders and nationalism that we are seeing is not uniquely American. It is part of a global process that we are all living though, and one that can be explained by forces that have changed how the global economy behaves and who it benefits. If we understand this, and how to resist it, we could become exceptional. We could resist historic forces that are leading to camps where we are housing children that we are separating from their parents. We could resist treating other human beings as vermin.
The first thing we need to face is that we live in a society that is in crisis. Part of that is economic, and it involves the transformation of norms into something without recent precedent. Neoliberalism means that opportunities to improve our social class by hard work have gone down over the decades. Everything has become a commodity, includingreligion. There is a sense of deep malaise running though American and global society as what once was is now gone. There is a need to blame others for this, except those who enacted the programes.
College is expensive, and becoming more so with every passing year. Education is becoming a commodity. Health care is unaffordable. People need multiple jobs to maintain what they have. Then there is a collective memory of a past when all this was affordable, and people had it better. This was especially the case if you were white and male.
We can ask whether that past was better, or not. Admittedly for some it was not, especially women and minorities, but the fact remains that it is held as an example of what once was, and how better opportunities were. In particular the 1950s are held as that model, but aspects of that time are not emphasized, including strong unions and a different social contract. We live in an age of increasing poverty, and insecurity.. This has led to the eternal game of blaming others for the problems that we have. However, most Americans are not denouncing political leaders whoare skillful at transferring their responsibility to the other who is maligned for stealing jobs, and creating trouble. This is the migrant and this is not limited to the United States. Globally immigrants a have become an easy target
Donald Trump admires authoritarian rulers everywhere, and would love the kind of adulation that North Koreans give their dear leader, Kim Jun Un. Do not make a mistake and believe that Trump does not know the reasons why they adore their leader. Those who believe otherwise are underestimating Trump. This is why the separation of children from their parents is a real test for Americans and our tolerance for authoritarian measures. If we do not fight back, more measures will be taken that we will not like as a country. In time they will expand and affect all of us. This is how police states are created, slowly and with purpose.
Make no mistake, there are those who accept these draconian measures as necessary They adhere to Trump’s dark vision of the world. They would prefer the end of Democratic norms, and a strong leader. This is not just the president, who has said that he would like Americans to stand at attention when he speaks, like North Koreans do when Kim Jun Un speaks. However, it is important to understand what is driving this.
There are many surface reasons why this is happening. Among them that Trump followers, or those who follow other populist leaders around the world, are racist, or nationalists. These are facile explanations t. However, Trump is part of a much larger trend that is global. The rise of neo-fascism is not limited to the United Stats and it is high time we try to understand why it is happening, if we are going to confront it in an effective manner.
So what is driving this? There are a few things that are interconnected and are leading to this environment of fear globally. None of this is a single explanation, but all are part of a connective tissue that matters.
Status Loss: Those who are going to become minorities or losing their place in society fear change. They do not like what is going on and pine for a past that was comfortable and familiar.
Demography: Specific to the United States, we are becoming a majority-minority country. Those who once were in the majority and will no longer be fear this change. They are not comfortable with people they kept under their thumb gaining any real or symbolic power. Perhaps they fear a similar treatment to what they gave to others. They speak in terms of how diversity is a threat to the country, and how we need to make this a white country. In some ways racism is part of it.
Globalization: This has brought important changes to the world order and economy. It is hardly a meritocracy that is rising, but a mass of people in precarious conditions that do not expect the future to be brighter than the past. There is a backlash against it.
Fear of the other: This is essential and at the heart of what is happening globally. Why migration is problematic across developed economies and populist leaders are using this to mobilize the masses.
As a country we are facing a test. We can live to our highest ideals and myth, or we can repeat history. What is happening at the border is also a test that if we fail, it is in my view the first step towards ethnic cleansing. However, we have resisted these forces in the past. Most Americans do not realize that after 911 there were plans to build internment camps for Arab Americans. And if you doubt such a program existed, this link from Politico will fill you in. It goes back to the 1980s and Ronald Reagan. We resisted that siren call. At that moment we were that shining city on the hill, that exceptional nation that we believe we are. We can be again, but we need to resist this, and we also need to learn from our history, not just the myths we like to tell each other.
Full disclosure: I am the daughter of a holocaust survivor. While it would be easiest for me to use Nazi Germany as a model for what is currently happening in the United States, I prefer to use American history. To learn history that is hardly pleasant is to internalize the lesson of the Holocaust, never again.
In Germany children learn of the Holocaust and memory projects are part of the national identity. We need to do something similar in order to avoid repeating, almost like clockwork, the worst parts of American history. Operation Wetback is a blemish in American history, but most Americans have never heard of it. I hope this piece helps some readers to become curious about it, and other less pleasant aspects of American history.
The American project is not just a myth. The founders were not saints, or heroes, they were fallible men who came up with a new way of self government, one that was brilliant in many respects. One of the most important innovations was that we had no kings and should hold our government accountable. However, this system of self government only works when citizens are engaged and when we learn from history. It is time we step away from myths, learn from our history and stop what is going on right now. Never again is a promise we made after the Holocaust, but it will only happen when we resist the worst impulses of human nature.
Several times, like Rwanda, we have said we did not intervene in time. Others, like Bosnia, we sort of did. This is a test for Americans, and a moment when we have to stand up to our government and call it for what it is doing. This is a choice and if we do not, these draconian policies will spread. Soon it will be you, or those you love.