As recently as last year, Republican Congressman Steve King was considered an outlier when he opined that “we can’t restore our civilization with someone else’s babies.” Now the Trump administration has endorsed this politics of blood and soil, full bore.
“They’re not innocent,” says our president of children torn from their parents at the border. “These aren’t people” is how he describes adolescents about whom he knows nothing but their nationality. Immigrants “are animals, and we’re taking them out of the country at a level and a rate that’s never happened before,” Trump adds. Their children will be put in “foster care or whatever,” according to the White House chief of staff, Gen. John Kelly.
Those children may come from abroad, but they are our babies. They represent the legacy of American policies that go back decades. After all, it was the United States that financed the infamous US Army School of the Americas and trained genocidal warlords, such as Efraín Ríos Montt, who went on to destabilize all of Central America. If countries like Guatemala and Honduras have fallen into chaos since the 1980s, it’s partly because those wars took a toll on their social structures: the trauma of families wiped out and entire villages disappeared. The refugees at our southern border are part of the blowback from the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people still seeking safety from US-financed violence.
War is one way to kill children; putting them in concentration camps is another. “Casa Padre” is where some of these children have been taken. Once a Walmart in Brownsville, Texas, the building has been converted to house nearly 1,500 boys under the age of 18. In the hallway is a huge graffito of Donald Trump’s head, oddly disembodied, looming larger than a minuscule image of the White House, above which he floats, godlike, in the sky. The mural includes a quote from The Art of the Deal: “Sometimes by losing a battle you find a new way to win the war.”
Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III has tried to wrap this barbarity in the sheep’s clothing of not just law but God’s law, invoking the Pauline Epistle of Romans 13. Sessions, whose very name summons two of the most notorious slaveholders of the Confederacy, uses a feint common in the antebellum South: It is God’s law, divine will, the “natural” order of things—not a policy dreamed up by President Trump and enacted at his command—that compels US government agents to treat immigrants like inventory.
Over decades, slavery hardened Americans to the tears, pleas, terror, and grief of a trade that put human beings on the auction block, took babies from their mothers and sold them to strangers. That system relied on rationalizations we encounter still: Certain classes of human beings are not “really” human; they do not feel pain to the same degree as “more civilized” classes; these “others” are incorrigibly predisposed to prevarication (or “acting,” as Ann Coulter recently dismissed the images of bereft toddlers). Above all, “they” are always kept at a distance. This “they”-making obliterates due process, equal protection, and individual justice. It justifies racial and ethnic profiling, and punishes people in the plural.