It was hard to fathom the utter cruelty required to rip toddlers away from their mothers at the Mexican border and then ship the children to locations as far-away as New York. This was the horrific "zero tolerance" strategy of President Trump and now former Attorney General Jeff Sessions this past summer to dissuade undocumented immigrants from entering the country.  Over 2,300 children were snatched away, and poor record-keeping made it difficult later to know where a child had been sent.

After a public outcry and the GOP's fear that this could be an explosive mid-term election issue, the vast majority of these children has been reunited with their parents, but not all of them.  Several hundred are still living as lonely orphans, some perhaps permanently.


Such callous and inhumane behavior is not unrivaled in our history.  In October, I saw a wrenching exhibit on Indian schools at the Heard Museum of Native American culture in Phoenix, Arizona.  In 1879, the federal government decided on a policy to “assimilate, acculturate and Americanize” Indians. This was based on a chilling calculation. Policymakers estimated that it cost nearly $1 million to kill an Indian in warfare versus $1,200 to give an Indian child eight years of schooling.

Consequently, armed soldiers forcibly removed children — from teenagers to 4-year-olds — from reservations in the Western states and shipped them to distant Indian schools. The first was in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and famed Native American Olympic star Jim Thorpe of Oklahoma was one of these children. In Carlisle, the paternalistic philosophy stressed the need to "kill the Indian in him and save the man."

After very long bus or train rides, the first order of business for the kids was to shear off their long hair.  This was especially devastating for males because their braids were a sign of masculinity and future warrior status. One of the museum's most poignant exhibits featured a barber chair from an Indian school, the floor around it littered with lustrous black locks. The acculturation process then included the assignment of Christian first names, a ban on using any language but English and on practicing any religion but Christianity, forced dressing in contemporary clothes, and years of training in manual skills — from carpentry and metal work for the boys to domestic chores and typing for the girls.

Rosemary Christiansen, a former director of the National Indian Education Association, called acculturation “the Hiroshima of Indian education, because it basically destroyed the fiber of our family life.” Some children never saw their parents again. The really unfortunate ones died of disease and were buried far from their ancestral homes beneath small white tombstones bearing their often poetic last names.

As we learned from Nazi Germany, mankind is periodically capable of carrying out such barbarous measures without conscience, whether the victims are Jews, Native Americans or Mexicans.  The key is to relegate victims to the status of the "other."  

Estelle Reel, Superintendent of Indian schools (1898-1910), told a newspaper reporter, "Allowing for exceptional cases, the Indian child is of lower physical organization than a white child of corresponding age.  His hands are smaller and his fingers and hands less flexible; the very structure of his bones and muscles will not permit so wide a variety of manual movements as are customary among Caucasian children and his very instincts and modes of thought are adjusted to the imperfect manual development.  In like manner his face seems stolid because it is without free expression.”

Racist ideology like Reel's kept blacks in figurative chains until 1964's Civil Rights Act, and it blooms again when Mexican and Central American people are facilely mixed with rapists and drug smugglers.  In case you miss the point, our great divider-in-chief has also recently thrown "people from the Middle East" into this guilt by association mix of the “other.”

I don't believe in open borders and think immigrants should be documented via applications through their respective embassies or given amnesty if a forced return endangers their lives. The president's attempt to sow hysteria before the November election with the so-called caravan of Central American migrants was nothing less than fear-mongering and raw racism to bolster GOP voter turn-out.

Since conspiracies are the order of the day for this president, I half-seriously speculate about the origins of a caravan that conveniently appeared just before the election. Which party did it benefit — the one that stressed safeguarding health care or the one that trumpeted the dangers of unbridled immigration? Think about it.

Frank Batavick writes from Westminster. His column appears Fridays. Email him at fjbatavick@gmail.com.