21/06/2018 17:33 BST | Updated 22/06/2018 09:35 BST

The Punishment Of ‘Undesirables’ Has Always Been A Feature Of American History

Indigenous people, Japanese Americans and African Americans have all had to endure the anguish of having their children ripped from their arms

Scott Olson via Getty Images

Donald Trump capitulated on Wednesday to the global outcry demanding he stop separating families or detaining children in cages at the Texan border. Multiple images were being circulated across mainstream and social media showing distressed children from Central America huddled in small iron enclosures, crying out for their parents or relatives. As brutal as it is, this is an old spectacle being reinvented for the 21st Century. 

In the 1870s America’s post-civil war economy had started to decline resulting in a rise of anti-Chinese sentiment as migrants were continuously blamed for low wages and other economic defects. As a result, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882 prohibiting anyone from China entry to the US and by 1907 this had extended to include the Japanese too.  On June 30, 1924 the Immigration Act of 1924 (or the Johnson-Lodge Act) was signed into law by President Calvin Coolidge who declared “America must be kept American”. Pioneered by lead eugenicist and fanatic racist Madison Grant and Representative Johnson, the 1924 act sought to limit immigrants from various countries to a quota equivalent to the proportion of migrants from each such country living in the US in 1890. Those who the 1924 act aimed to target were predominately eastern and southern Europeans, as well as non-white immigrants identified in the Naturalisation Act of 1790 which stretched to include people from the Philippines, Indonesia, Burma, Korea, Laos, Siam, India and Sri Lanka.   

It’s important to remember amid harrowing footage depicting separated indigenous children huddled in cages at the Texan border, that America has always had a profoundly disturbing history when it comes to the business of excluding and persecuting those who it deems ‘undesirable’. Much of the reasoning for this can be traced back to the very invention of the idea of race, along with the subsequent xenophobia that often accompanies it. Ideas which during the 18th century were underpinned by Enlightenment philosophers or polygenists such as David Hume and Immanuel Kant, and later picked up and developed by influential eugenicists such as Charles Davenport, Madison Grant and other ‘race biologists’. These men conspired to consecrate the great lie that the white race were living in perpetual danger of being exposed to those who they regarded as being of a lesser race, whose genetic makeup (beauty, intelligence, modes of worship, cultural practices and historical legacy) lacked the urbanity of theirs, and thus sought to design and effectuate a system aimed at halting various migration flows into the US.

It’s unclear how many eastern and southern Europeans died during World War II as a result of the 1924 Immigration Act. Some scholars estimate that around 190,000 to 200,000 Jews could have been saved had they been allowed entry into the US during the height of Hitler’s reign. America’s role, both physically and ideologically (Hitler was inspired hugely by Madison Grant), in catalysing the deaths of those it regarded as dysgenic should be a regular feature in the history books we use in schools and a more prominent aspect in mainstream discourse. 

When Donald Trump who is often spouting hereditarian rhetoric aimed at poor Mexicans  and African Americans set out his ‘zero tolerance policy’, he wasn’t really doing anything new. American immigration policy has always been incredibly inhumane, deleterious and exclusionary. For a nation populated artificially, premised on division, exploitation, the forced incarceration of native peoples, mass genocide, abuse of labour, preordained hierarchies and an avarice that comes close to being pathological, it’s easy to see how.   

Yet to assume the Trump administration is a throwback, an anomaly even, is to forget the Obama administration’s privately-run family detention centres set up in Texas and Pennsylvania. In 2015 a district judge ruled the administration was violating a 1997 court-ordered settlement called the Flores agreement, that governs the treatment of underage migrants who seek asylum or enter the country illegally. It’s equally interesting to note that between 2009 and 2016 Obama deported more than 2.7million people – more than any other president in US history.

There have been significant economic shifts since the mid to late 20th  Century causing indigenous peoples from Central America to turn up at US borders in such numbers. Deepening poverty as a consequence of increasingly austere neoliberal economic policies has meant families are forced to flee unemployment, violence and destitution. Women and children caught up in fighting between various political factions are looking to seek refuge, however neither the Obama administration nor its successor see this as a humanitarian crisis, but rather an enforcement issue. Furthermore, it’s important to highlight how certain groups are arriving at the southern borders due to being forcibly displaced by American expansionism such as the Waorani in eastern Ecuador who National Geographic recently reported on. As their land is further expropriated for minerals and resources by American contractors, their only options and chance for survival would be to move north into the US.

Trump’s hardline policy on immigration was hatched largely by one of his senior advisors, Stephen Miller, who back in 2013 fought against a bipartisan immigration reform bill. In an interview published in The Atlantic, Miller openly declares that this is what Trump always promised, that America was warned of tougher immigration policies, and with the midterm elections coming up now is the perfect time to up the ante and show he means business. Trump is playing into the warped fantasies of his embarrassing white electorate. Seeing non-white children and families separated and wailing while being detained with no real representation, is exactly the kind of thing that is set to win him points. Republicans have no problem bandying around the tired rhetoric common among 18th Century white supremacists, claiming dysfunctional and irresponsible parenting are the reasons why these children deserve to be put into Trump-camps. And in return the racist arm of white America has appropriated nativism, putting themselves at the fore, as the unfortunate victims of a looming takeover, as if the indigenous peoples onto whose land they came all those centuries ago to plunder and draw their borders on, are non-existent, subhuman, or mere political pawns to ridicule, traumatise and permanently remove the moment they see fit.

This cruel method of forcibly separating parents from their children has been a constant feature in American history – indigenous people have had to endure the anguish of having their children removed as they are taken to be detained into separate reservations. So too did the parents of Japanese American children who were put into internment camps during World War II. And so too did African Americans who suffered for centuries as their progeny were repeatedly ripped from their arms and sold for American profit. If history has taught us anything it’s that it can at times take perverse pleasure in seeking out enablers who will help reinvent its most sinister periods, and perhaps that very cold and very blunt fact is the most chilling of them all. 

Anthony Anaxagorou is a writer of poetry, fiction and prose. Artistic director of Out-Spoken and publisher at Out-Spoken Press