By far the biggest story in national headlines this week was the Trump Administration’s policy of splitting up families crossing the southern border without authorization. Following a zero-tolerance policy enacted in April by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, detained parents have been sent to one facility and their children have been sent to another. Photos and videos of those children – confused, crying, and locked in cages – drew intense domestic and international condemnation. United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, said, “The thought that any state would seek to deter parents by inflicting such abuse on children is unconscionable.”
So far, we know of some 3,700 children who have been separated from their parents, according to The Intercept. While their parents await trial, the kids are held in what are, essentially, concentration camps; toddlers and babies are held in so-called “tender age” facilities. One lawsuit claims that agents forcibly sedate hysterical children. There is virtually no system in place to reunite children with their parents once the legal process is over, meaning some kids may be orphaned forever.
We are witnessing the kind of state-sanctioned crime we like to pretend is in our past – crimes like chattel slavery, Indian genocide, Jim Crow, and Japanese internment. The scale is obviously smaller, but the category is the same: dehumanization, criminalization, and widespread abuse of an already victimized group of people. None of it could be accomplished without the systematic dehumanization and trivialization of the victims in far-right propaganda.
The front page of Breitbart puts this in action daily as headlines blare out warnings about “illegals,” a term designed to reduce migrants to a criminal status. On FOX News, Laura Ingraham compared the child prisons to “summer camps” and Trish Regan called the family separation policy “tough love.” Ann Coulter, who has complained about the “browning of America,” accused the crying children of being child actors. Former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski responded to a story that border agents separated a 10-year-old girl with Down syndrome from her parents with, “Womp, womp.”
President Trump himself is one of the most vicious dehumanizers in the Republican Party. He launched his presidential campaign on the premise that most people migrating to the US from the south are rapists and drug dealers. In May, Trump referred ambiguously to Mexican immigrants and/or MS-13 as “animals,” and later rallied a crowd to chant the word. On Tuesday he tweeted that Democrats “want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our Country.”
It’s not at all clear whether the far-right draws any distinction between the migrants fleeing cartel violence and the cartels themselves. Iowa Representative Steve King, likely the most openly white supremacist member of Congress, believes that for every decent immigrant, there are 100 drug smugglers. Their hatred is racially motivated, and the further Trump emboldens them, the more nakedly they display it.
Steve Bannon, under whose leadership Breitbart became “the platform for the alt-right,” recently told a far-right audience, “Let them call you racists. Let them call you xenophobes. Let them call you nativists. Wear it as a badge of honor.” Comments on Breitbart – which offer a candid glimpse at the alt-right fanatics who frequent the site – are even more rabid. One top-ranked comment on a recent article read, “I just don’t care anymore. Kids, elderly, crying, oh well. Send them ALL home. I’ve had it with these damn people.”
For the right, dehumanization is a go-to weapon against their enemies, whether political, racial, economic, or sexual. Last year, Eric Trump said the Democrats fighting his father’s agenda were “not even people.” Homophobic Republicans regularly invoke bestiality to argue against gay marriage and LGBTQ rights. Slurs like “libtard” allow the right to dehumanize and dismiss progressives, and “liberalism is a mental disorder” is now a common refrain, taken from the title of a book by ultra-right radio host Michael Savage.
Public outcry over the family separation policy has already pressured Trump into a quasi-reversal. Not all Americans were appalled at the crime taking place in their name, though; Breitbart accused Trump of buckling and caving to “left-wing hate.” Trump’s executive order ending the policy, signed on Wednesday, actually sets up something potentially even more catastrophic. He is challenging a 2016 ruling that requires the Department of Homeland Security to released detained migrant children after 20 days. If the ruling remains in place, children may still be separated from their parents. If it is overturned, Trump will be able to detain entire families of migrants indefinitely.
Family separation is just one prong in an ongoing offensive against migrants. This week, Sessions decided the US would not grant asylum to those fleeing gang or domestic violence. The administration still plans to expand its program of border detentions. Last week, McClatchy reported on Trump’s desire to construct more “tent cities,” much like the one in which Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio – a criminal Trump ally whom the president pardoned last year – committed racist abuses.
Under President Obama, our immigration system was also rife with abuse, including the release of some detained children into the custody of human traffickers. Right-wing commentators have raised this point in an attempt to discredit the left’s criticism of Trump. They’re not wrong, but they are disingenuous. Even as the right argues that Democrats want to “infest” the country with immigrants, they seek to depict Obama as harder on immigrants than Trump. True activists for migrant rights have fought for reform across every administration.
Our immigration crisis is not new. What is new is Trump’s deliberate destruction of migrant families, as well as the dehumanizing propaganda pushed by his media allies. Comparisons to Nazi death camps are hyperbolic, but every atrocity starts somewhere. The Holocaust happened over more than a decade of sustained political, policing, and propaganda campaigns. It’s essential that Americans recognize these troubling early stages and not become complacent. As he lashes out against his enemies, Trump becomes more dangerous by the day. Activists, journalists, and decent Americans must remain vigilant in opposing his dehumanizing rhetoric and inhumane policies.