Family  /  Book Review

America’s Long War on Children and Families

Trump’s family separation policy belongs to a much longer history of U.S. government forces taking children from families that don't match the American ideal.

Given the innumerable failures and humiliations that have marked Donald Trump’s presidency, one might be forgiven for forgetting the administration’s unconscionable “zero tolerance” immigration enforcement policy. First “piloted” in 2017 before its formal launch in the spring of 2018, the program required the prosecution of all migrants crossing the border with Mexico without authorization—including asylum seekers—and ordered U.S. authorities to split up migrant families apprehended at the border.

According to the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, officials separated 2,342 children from 2,206 adults between May 5 and June 9, 2018, and placed these minors in Office of Refugee Resettlement shelters and other facilities peppered throughout the country. The conditions at one of these facilities, an old warehouse in McAllen, Texas, generated particularly intense scorn, as news media outlets spotlighted the cages in which Border Patrol authorities held children as young as two years old. One migrant rights advocate with the Women’s Refugee Commission, after touring the McAllen facility, told the Associated Press that she spoke with a sixteen-year-old who had tended to a young girl for three days. “She had to teach other kids in the cell to change her diaper,” the advocate reported in dismay.

The sordid saga of Trump’s family separation policy lays the foundation for gender and sexuality studies scholar Laura Briggs’s new book Taking Children: A History of American Terror, which provides a genealogy of “taking children” in the American past. Rather than a historical aberration, Briggs argues, Trump’s policy built upon earlier acts of dispossession directed at black, Native, Latin American, refugee, and other historically subjugated children and families. “There is in this hemisphere a powerful racialized haunting,” Briggs writes, “generation upon generation of children who have lost parents, and parents, children.” To prove this claim (and she does), Briggs takes a sweeping approach, looking at contexts in which taking children has served as a “tactic of terror.” She travels from the slaveocracy of the American South to Indian boarding schools, and from (U.S.-backed) regimes of torture and kidnapping in Argentina, El Salvador, and Guatemala to the daunting deportation machinery developed by Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and now, Trump. Across the vast expanse of U.S. history and with stunning frequency, Briggs shows, U.S. government forces—alongside state and local entities—have stolen children from mothers, fathers, families, and communities deemed deviant and inimical to the idealized American family form.

This is a formidable book, one that cuts against the Trump exceptionalism that suffuses much mainstream liberal discourse. With its focus on children and the normative dual-parent, pronatal family long prized by the U.S. government, Taking Children also adds a new wrinkle to recent ...