When news broke in May of 2018 of the Trump administration's plans to separate children from parents at the border, then send them to detention centers and "tender age shelters" for babies and toddlers, it sparked outrage across the United States. While immigration remains one of the most important political issues in the country, many see the policy as racially motivated and a critical civil rights issue.
However, Trump's zero-tolerance policy is only one in a long history of cruel American policies toward children and families. The US government has a dark history of mistreating non-white children, often on flimsy pretenses. Dating back to the racist claim that enslaved women weren't capable of mourning the loss of their children, the government has actively supported horrific policies resulting in tearing apart families. And these policies, like forcing Black children into inferior schools or rounding up Japanese Americans in internment camps, share a disturbing similarity: they nearly always target people of color.
From stealing Native American children to the "kill the Indian" philosophy to shipping American citizens to Mexico during the Depression, these are the most reprehensible official US government policies affecting families.
For over a century, the US government separated Native American children from their families and forced them to attend Indian boarding schools. The passing of the Civilization Fund Act of 1819 encouraged missionaries to educate Native American children in the ways of the white man, setting the stage for eventual forced removal of children from their parents. In 1879, Captain Richard Henry Pratt opened the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, the purpose of which he said was to "kill the Indian, and save the man."
The schools mistreated the children. Scholar Margaret Archuleta explained, "Not only were children removed from their parents, often forcibly, but they had their mouths washed out with lye soap when they spoke their Native languages." A 1902 government order even argued long hair and other traditional customs slowed "the advancement they are making in civilization."
These boarding schools continued until 1978, when Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act, which also addressed the practice of forcible adoption of Native American children.
In 1924, Virginia passed the Eugenical Sterilization Act, giving the government the power to forcibly sterilize threats to the purity of the "American race." More than 30 states passed similar laws, and in the 1927 Supreme Court case of Buck v. Bell, the highest court in the land ruled the government could legally sterilize its citizens. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. claimed the “welfare of society” allowed the state to sterilize “defective persons who, if now discharged, would become a menace.”
The ruling upheld the forced sterilization of Carrie Buck, whose foster parents sent her to a mental institution after a traumatic rape led her to bear an illegitimate child. From 1934 to 1945 alone, over 300,000 individuals received sterilization, the overwhelming majority of them disabled and/or members of a disadvantaged minority group. In the '60s and '70s, the government sterilized an estimated 25% to 50% of Native American women, a practice with lasting repercussions.
Legal sterilization continued until 1979, on the flimsy argument about certain people burdening society. As the United Nations Commission on Human Rights states, "Historically, involuntary sterilization, as a means of achieving genetic ‘strength’ and implementing population control policies, has involved serious human rights violations."
At any moment, enslaved parents could see their children ripped away from them and sold. Mothers pleaded with slave traders not to take their children, reports professor Heather Williams. However, children separated from their parents could do nothing but cry.
Adding to the horror, white slave owners saw no problem with taking children from their parents. Thomas Jefferson justified the horrific practice by claiming, “Their griefs are transient." Jefferson argued that when Black parents lost their children, it was "less felt, and sooner forgotten with them."
When slavery ended after the Civil War, freed Blacks took out thousands of ads searching for lost family members. In many cases, families never reunited.
During World War II, the US government forced around 120,000 Japanese Americans into internment camps. Under the pretext of national security, the US declared Japanese Americans an "enemy race," even though most of the targeted people were American citizens.
In the internment camps, children and families lived behind barbed wire, guarded by armed men. At the Santa Anita Assembly Center, just outside Los Angeles, CA, 8,500 people lived in stables. In Portland, OR, 3,000 more resided in livestock pens. The horrific conditions, including food shortages and poor sanitation, placed people's lives at risk, with little justification other than bigotry.