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This Has All Happened Before: The Separation of Immigrant Children and the Criminal Tribes Act

Tigerlily Theo Hopson

August 19th, 2018


When my great grandpa, Papa Joe, was twelve years old living in Mexico, his parents said their last goodbyes and put him on a train alone to escape being drafted into Pancho Villa's army. He never saw his parents again.


Five hundred and fifty-nine children like my Papa Joe still lay in makeshift beds, crying themselves to sleep with one thought in their minds, Where are Mama and Papa? This is not an issue of immigration, it is an issue of discrimination.


America is treating immigrants, some who come to this country seeking asylum from violence, as the enemy and as monsters, and the question many may wonder is: Why? Why are immigrants with brown skin, even children, seen as inhuman and as “alien?” The answer is that America is repeating history. This has all happened before.


In 1871, during the British Raj in India, the British passed the first Criminal Tribes Act condemning Indians in North India as “born criminals.” Whole Indian communities were put under police surveillance, people were labeled as “criminals” and “savage,” and the British government began to restrict Indian movement. Children were often separated from their parents and put in rough reformatory schools that the British reasoned would take the “criminal” out of the children. Over the years, harsh amendments were made to the Criminal Tribes Act, applying it to the whole of India, labeling all Indians as traitors and uncivilized.


Trump may claim he is saving immigrant children from their criminal parents, but this is an excuse to maintain power. The cruel and inhumane “shelters” where immigrant children are forced to live show that the President views these children as dangerous. After visiting a camp for immigrant children on June 13th, NBC news correspondent Jacob Soboroff posted on twitter, “I have been inside a federal prison and county jails. This place is called a shelter but these kids are incarcerated.” In the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center detained immigrants as young as fourteen have reported horrific attacks of being beaten, harassed, stripped of their clothes, and forced to put bags over their heads. If the President is trying to help these children, why does he allow such abuse to go on? It seems he thinks these children are criminals, too, and that since these children are Hispanic, they must be part of the MS-13.


The MS-13 is an international crime gang with a majority of members from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. The MS-13 originated in Los Angeles, yet Trump blames immigrants for something started in America. Donald Trump tweeted on June 19, 2018, “Democrats are the problem. They don’t care about crime and want illegal immigrants no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our country like MS-13. They can’t win on their terrible policies, so they view them as potential voters.” This tweet is highly offensive, and the use of the word “infest” compares immigrants to insects or rodents. It is dehumanizing and altogether untrue. There are 56.6 million Hispanic people in the world, and approximately 30,000 people worldwide in the MS-13. If it is assumed that all MS-13 members are Hispanic, only 0.05 percent of the Hispanic population would be in the MS-13. So, why is every Hispanic immigrant treated like a criminal? It is unlikely that a four-year-old child screaming for her mama is in the MS-13.


This relates to the Criminal Tribes Act that was passed in part to hold a violent gang called the “Thuggees” accountable. Thuggees made up a miniscule portion of the massive Indian population, and yet all Indians, even children, were accused of being part of the gang. Later amendments forced boys from ages four to eighteen to go to seperate “reformatory” settlements away from their parents. There was fear and ignorance behind the amendments, as well as the continued desire for control over all Indians, even young children. In India, and now in America, government leaders distill fear and put forth the false idea that populations of color need to be controlled, allowing the detainment and separation of children to happen both in 1871 and today.


Propaganda, social media, and the news help create social constructs. In 1871, the British gained public support when the press portrayed the British as victims and the Indians as violent gang members. President Trump uses the same strategy and stereotypes. Sources like Fox News search for stories with a Hispanic perpetrator. When I went to the Fox News website, the first story that popped up had the words “Brutal Crime” beneath the face of a Latino man, with the headline, “Illegal Immigrant Accused of Raping, Impregnating Non-Verbal 13-Year-Old Girl.” The story ran on June 25th, 2018, but the man had been accused and arrested for this crime in April. Despite the brutality of the headline, it seems they made an effort to dig up a story with an illegal immigrant as the alleged criminal.


Headlines indoctrinate Americans to believe the rise of immigrants brings a rise in crime, but this is false. In fact, according to the New American Economy Research Fund nine out of ten communities become considerably safer with the arrival of refugees. This includes places like Southfield, Michigan, where by 2015, an influx of 4,478 refugees (16 percent of the city’s population), corresponded with a drop in violent crime of 77.1 percent. The public sees stories of “savage” immigrants robbing and raping on the front page, while people with power continue to convey the message that immigrants are criminal. On June 25th, 2018, American citizen Esteban Guzman, released a video of a woman verbally attacking him because of his Mexican ancestry. She called him a “rapist,” a “drug dealer,” and an “animal,” and she yelled, “even the President says your a rapist.” No matter the statistics and the truth, people can internalize this political agenda to the point where when they see a Latinx they cross over to the other side of the street, and hold their children close.


At the end of June, President Trump “honored” Americans, whom he referred to as “Angel Families,” who were killed by undocumented immigrants. He held signed copies of the murdered American’s photos, and told the crowd “These are the American citizens permanently separated from their loved ones. That word ‘permanently’ being the word that you have to think about. Permanently. They are not separated for a day or two days. Permanently separated… because they were killed by criminal illegal aliens.” The President used these murder victims as propaganda, and used this event as another way to indoctrinate his followers with the idea that he and I.C.E. are protecting Americans against the big bad “aliens.” Trump argues that these victims killed by illegal immigrants are proof that immigrants are often murderers. How about all the white American citizens who have murdered and raped? Does that mean all white citizens are criminals and dangerous?


It might seem like the separation of immigrant families crisis is over, but really there is a long way to go. This fight will not be over until all five hundred and fifty-nine children are cuddled next to their parents; until families who come to this country seeking asylum, can find asylum; until it is not forgotten that immigrants are the ones who built this country with their own two hands.


Let’s not repeat history. Great Britain mistreated Indians, and Americans are mistreating immigrants of color. These two stories, one about immigration, one about colonization, are very much the same. Underneath, is a massive web of racism and history that traps five hundred and fifty-nine children in jail-like shelters, whispering Where are Mama and Papa?

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