Separating children from their families is more American than you think

Angelina Phebus
Jun 20, 2018 · 4 min read
Children held at the Carlisle Indian School (1900). Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

In the last week, we’ve been inundated by reports about children being held in facilities while their parents navigate the immigration system in the US. The resounding echo from those who oppose this internment is, “This behavior is so un-American.”

Wrongfully imprisoning groups of people and separating children from families is nothing new. Some astute individuals have brought up an American South built on the backs of slaves or the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II as examples of this sort of behavior.

I wish I could say these were the only instances in which we’d collectively do something future generations would find shameful. As a displaced Choctaw living in 2018, I know better. My Choctaw relatives, along with my American Indian relatives from many nations, were subjected to the forces of relocation, incarceration, and assimilation.

Anyone remember boarding schools?

The practice of ripping American Indian children from their families was widely condoned beginning in the 1870s and ending within living memory. American Indian children were subjected to horrors including sexual violence and abuse. They were kept in terrible conditions and beaten if they dared to speak their mother tongue or maintain their cultural practices.

School staff cut their hair and forced them to dress and talk like the dominant culture. “Kill the Indian, save the man,” was the refrain that kept Carlisle Indian School and around 100 other facilities like it operational.

The damage is far-reaching

Families were never sure if and when kids would come home from boarding schools. These facilities were usually far from home, and they didn’t exactly tout the open communication policy that reputable schools have today.

American Indian children who returned from boarding schools — if they returned — were not the same. Sometimes, they were beaten so ferociously in school that they could no longer remember their language or their Indian name when they got home.

The effects could be more subtle, too. How much knowledge was lost when children were not able to talk with their relatives? How many times have the hands of progress strangled languages to sleep and traditions into obsolescence?

Where will all this lead?

As I hear about these children interred at the border, I wonder what the long-term effects of such policies will be. We can’t be sure what it’s actually like to live inside a converted Walmart and absorb an education that may have some value, but may also be a means to indoctrination. I’m not saying that there are no compassionate people on the inside — I’m saying I just don’t know.

While I am hopeful that the conditions within these holding facilities for immigrant children today are not as abhorrent as those found in places like Carlisle, the similarity in terms of physical separation from family and familiarity is jarring.

The trauma of being forced away from family on its own is enough to have a lasting impact. Couple that with a “no touch” policy that prevents other children and staff from comforting crying children, and we can see that barbarism takes many forms.

What will happen to the generations that follow this one? How will the children of these children be impacted what’s going on today? The effects of these traumatic experiences etch themselves onto our DNA, and even though this terrible moment in their lives doesn’t have to be the thing that defines who these kids will become, we’re kidding ourselves if we think we aren’t leaving a mark.

Why do people keep trying to cross the border?

Some of the people who read this will undoubtedly question why so many families are coming to a border that is clearly not hospitable. In fact, our administration has made it clear that this separation of families is supposed to serve as a deterrent. What could make this risk worth it?

I think about the Native parents that had to send their children away to boarding school. Many of them were threatened with physical violence, or their food rations were withheld until they gave up their kids. (These commodities were necessary, since many groups were prevented from procuring food in the ways in which they were accustomed.) They felt like they didn’t have a choice. Today, desperation is pushing people to take the risk. That’s something we have to think about too.

We have to own our history to move forward

We have to acknowledge that history is repeating itself in converted big box stores and tent cities right now. As shameful as it is, we can’t just condemn what’s happening as un-American. Unfair — yes. Unjust — yes. Un-American? Unfortunately, we have a track record. We have a beautiful set of ideals, but our actions often diverge from them.

It doesn’t have to be this way, though. We don’t have to inflict pain that will reverberate through the generations. We don’t have to do things so terrible that we must later manipulate history to try to make these atrocities disappear.

I feel so blessed to live in America every day, but I have to admit that our collective has made a lot of shameful mistakes. If we’re going to create positive change, we have to start by owning what we’ve done. We have to hold our representatives responsible for pushing forward the change we want to see. We vote with our voices, ballots, and wallets.

This story about immigrant children isn’t the sepia-toned tale of something someone else did to some group of people a long time ago. This is the story of now, and it can be a predictor for what’s to come. My hope is that this policy of internment will be overturned sooner rather than later, and that these children will show the same resiliency that my relatives have had in the face of horrors committed against them.

May all beings be happy and free.

Angelina Phebus

Written by

Freelance writer, yogini, and military spouse. Follow me on Twitter (@AngelinaPhebus) or visit my website:

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade