Donald Trump and his nasty administration are anything but unique. In fact, whether they know it or not, they are repeating U.S. history in more ways than one.
Here, in McAllen, Texas, indigenous people fleeing violence and seeking asylum are, right now, locked in chain-link cages and lying on concrete floors, where the sound of frightened, crying kids and mothers and fathers fearing for their children is eerily audible if you just listen closely.
I know because, on Saturday, I joined a caravan of fellow Native Americans who traveled to McAllen from as far away as Los Angeles and Denver and New York City to protest and call for the immediate end to these camps of loss and anguish.
As Native Americans, we have a unique perspective on such cruel American government policies that rip brown babies from their mothers’ arms and, in some cases, turn them over to white families to raise in the white way.
That has already happened to at least one woman locked in the fangs of this immigration crisis, Encarnacion Bail Romero. A judge gave her baby to a white family, and they immediately changed his name to Jamison. But the boy already had a name; his name is Carlitos.
Even the Trump administration’s former director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, Scott Lloyd, admitted in a deposition to trying to connect a pregnant minor in his agency’s care — who wanted an abortion — with a couple that had written the agency interested in adopting babies to which the American government might have access, as though they were some child repository for white folks.
This is a frightening thing for these brown, immigrant families because only after their child is taken from them do they learn U.S. law allows the government to terminate parental rights of any child in foster care for 15 of the last 22 months — and the same groups handling many of the foster care arrangements for separated children are well known in the mostly-discredited international adoption community.
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But this type of evil behavior — separating families and stealing children — is nothing new, says Juan Mancias, the tribal chairman of the Carrizo Comecrudo Tribe of Texas. “They’ve been doing [this] for 500 years,” he said. McAllen is on Mancias’s ancestral territory.
“When [the white people] came we didn’t consider any of them illegal,” he said. “We were open to them. They were two-legged; we knew they were relatives.” But it didn’t take long, he said, before “they began taking our women and children and killing our men. Then we got an idea of who they really were.”
Chrissie Castro, the organizer of the protest and chair person of the Los Angeles City and County Native American Indian Commission, said Native peoples have migrated freely across this continent since time immemorial, and now they’re being demonized for crossing an imaginary border. “The false narrative that our relatives are somehow foreign to these lands is inaccurate and hateful,” she said. “We’re not going to sit by and let this cruelty and injustice happen again.”
At the demonstration, indigenous folks lined the street holding banners reading, “We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us!” and “Ban ICE” and “Can’t call my folks illegal if yours crossed the sea!” and “No ban on stolen land!”
At one point, an elder, Emma Ortega, of San Antonio, Texas, who is of the Carrizo Comecrudo and Lipan Apache tribes, took the microphone and denounced a colonial government who’d dare call this “their land.” “This is free land. This is our land!” she bellowed. “And it will always be our land, no matter what they say!”
This is all part of a larger movement: All across the nation, people of all stripes and creeds are protesting America’s latest concentration camps. Catholic priests and Jewish rabbis, peace activists and parents who have never even carried a sign are turning out and even getting arrested in protest of the Trump administration’s family separations, the cruelty of ICE, the foul treatment of children in their care and the ongoing, forcible separation of brown families seeking safety.
But this is America being what America has always been — racist, vicious and vile to indigenous people, whilst standing on a soapbox of morality as a beacon for the world. There’s no decency in this country because there never was any, not from day one when Columbus and the rapists he towed with him blundered onto our shores.
And that’s what we saw at McAllen on Saturday — the same racism with a different name in a different century, and many of the descendants of the very same people brutalized by Columbus and those who followed in his footsteps locked in new chains.
We’ve seen this type of raw racism when Native babies were ripped from the loving embrace of moms and dads, stolen away to Christian boarding schools in the east where they were flogged with Bible passages and pierced with sewing needles through the tongue if they dared speak their language.
For more than 500 years, this country has viewed the original inhabitants as nothing more than animals. They’ve called us “savages” and “uncivilized,” and in places like North Dakota and Washington, D.C., they still do. Even prison inmates and dogs are treated more humanely than the indigenous peoples in these concentration camps, one congresswoman said.
“Prisoners in the United States in my estimation are treated better than migrants,” House Representative Jackie Speier, Democratic representative from California’s 14th Congressional District, wrote after visiting the McAllen. “If dogs were kenneled in the overcrowded, unhealthy conditions we observed at the Border Patrol Station, the Humane Society would immediately shut it down,” she added.
And this is just one of many of the new concentration camps sprawled across this morally bankrupt nation. But it’s nearly as old a concept as separating indigenous babies from indigenous parents.
Today, the president is resurrecting that kind of good ol’ American racist fear with his wretched propaganda, and he has convinced millions of Americans that caging these children is part of making American great again. But this is a lie. This country was never great; it was always the opposite of great, because it has always had this capacity for cruelty, and it has, more often than not, acted on that capacity with the flag in one hand and the Bible in the other.
If this capacity for cruelty is what we deem great, it’s a great testament to our depravity as a nation, and as humans, because there’s nothing as perverse and disturbing as a country that voluntarily separates families and tortures and traumatizes innocent children.
There were no walls or borders or prison camps until the white man came. Now they’re everywhere — and that’s not patriotism, that’s hate.