No Trump administration policy received more public outrage than its “zero tolerance” policy at the border, which forcibly separated asylum seekers from their children. As the Biden administration works to reverse former president Donald Trump’s cruelest policies — and those that preceded him, including those of former president Barack Obama — this bill, and efforts to reunify families torn apart by immigration policies, would represent a significant step forward.
The absence of a pathway to citizenship for undocumented people is the ultimate family separation policy. About 17 million people share a household with at least one person who is undocumented, 6 million of them children.
This is not the first time that the United States has separated parents and children, or relied on questions of race or citizenship to produce labor exploitation built on terror. Nor is it the first time that activists have led with family separation to force the country to confront the inhumanity of its policies. In the 19th century, mothers and children were also forcibly separated and sold apart during slavery. Abolitionists publicized images capturing this horror and grief in broadsides, pamphlets, woodcuts and books to shock the conscience of the nation and force it to confront the crimes of enslavers.
Antislavery activists also put forward prescriptions for repair and healing. They articulated a clear and compelling vision of what was possible in the United States in the aftermath of a grievous wrong. If the past four years have sometimes felt like a rerun of the worst injustices of the aftermath of slavery, including armed White mobs rising up to overthrow the results of elections, it is worth seeing the vision of justice of that era, too.
For generations before the Civil War, the separation of children was an emblem of slavery’s fundamental cruelty. Formerly enslaved people and abolitionists spoke and wrote about the threat of losing children, or as children, losing their mother, constantly. Alongside images of the auction block, witnesses like Silas Stone wrote in 1801 about “the most agonizing sobs and cries” from children and mothers sold away from each other. Frederick Douglass begins his autobiography with his separation from his mother, Harriet Bailey, “before I knew her as my mother.” Sojourner Truth is said to have told a women’s rights convention that she had “borne 13 children, and seen most all sold off to slavery.” In 1828, she even successfully sued a former enslaver for selling her son, Peter, to Alabama, in violation of a New York law requiring all children born after 1799 to be freed.
Truth is also an example of how African Americans fought for their freedom and for their families. In the decades before the Civil War, free Black people used the courts to demand rights, as their everyday existence was criminalized. They were prohibited from voting, becoming citizens, traveling outside the country or even within it, owning property, testifying in court and receiving a public education. They were routinely threatened not only with deportation to Africa, but also with arrest and detention as runaways from slavery — regardless of their status. This problem only intensified after 1850, when the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act meant people could be detained and returned or sold as human chattel everywhere south of the Canadian border.
During the Civil War, enslaved people demanded their freedom, with force if necessary. Harriet Tubman led 300 Black Union soldiers up the Combahee River during the Civil War and liberated enslaved people, torching and pillaging the homes of enslavers as they went. Other enslaved people acted on hope, forming great caravans and walking together to safety behind the Union lines.
After the war and constitutional amendments outlawing slavery, antislavery activists pushed for what W.E.B. Du Bois called “abolition democracy”: freedom for the enslaved, civil rights, freedom from threats of deportation, state responsibility for reuniting families and reparations to give people the means for a new way of life.
Personnel with the federal Freedmen’s Bureau took on this task of family reunification, poring through the letters of people looking for their children, siblings, husbands and wives. They worked to bring kin, caregivers and dependents back together. The bureau also worked to provide education, medical care, housing, legal assistance and, for some, land and the tools to work it.
Suffrage, the right of the formerly enslaved to vote, was central, and so too were due process, equal protection, representation in Congress and the Senate, punishing those who had engaged in insurrection and denying them compensation for enslaved people’s emancipation.
This vision of justice and repair that antislavery activists put forward was robust and profound. It is also still deeply important. And like immigration activists today, while they led with the question of children separated from their parents, they knew that repairing that wrong required upending a whole unjust system of labor, profit and reproduction.
Not all that abolitionists demanded came to be, and some was taken away again. Much of the land given to freed African Americans after the war belonged to Native peoples. White property owners wrested back the labor and freedom of Black people — and poor Whites as well, whom the Freedmen’s Bureau also served — enmeshing them in a system of sharecropping, debt peonage, poverty, segregated schooling and terrorizing those who sought to vote, at least until the middle of the 20th century, and even still.
But finally pursuing the model of abolitionist democracy they put forth can guide us in how to respond to the harm inflicted by the Trump administration on immigrants — who were hardly well-treated under any administration in the past half-century.
Biden has appointed a family reunification task force to address the families torn apart by Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy at the border. The kinds of restitution envisioned thus far include the readmission of deported parents, access to mental health services, possibly permanent legal residency for the 5,000 families disrupted by “zero tolerance,” and finding the nearly 550 parents who were separated from their children and never reunited.
While this is certainly appropriate, no repair would be complete without including the vast majority of parents separated from their children because of U.S. immigration policies, including through immigrant detention and deportation, that predate Trump and that survive after his presidency has ended.
And this is how we should understand Biden’s proposed immigration bill. If we are serious about keeping families together, above all, all immigrants need a path to citizenship — with all its 14th Amendment guarantees. This is something Black Americans fought for during and after slavery, and are still fighting for today as Black families continue to be torn apart by incarceration, family separation through foster care and the hypercriminalization of maternal drug use, particularly when the mother or pregnant person is Black. Then and now, images of children and mothers suffering forced separations tug at people’s heartstrings. What matters most is what happens after we are moved by this horror, and what we are willing to do to make families whole and center justice in our policies.