State Violence at the Border and Beyond

The blog has been on a small hiatus recently because I’ve wanted to write less about getting writing done and more about some other stuff that I really care about. I wrote a bunch of posts, deleted them, rewrote them, and then deleted them again. 

And then the kidnapping started. 

I am, of course, referring to the separation of immigrant families at the U.S. border, an inhumane policy cooked up by the worst of the Trump administration. As of June 21, Trump renounced his own policy when he realized that many people [there are, of course, people who think this policy is entirely appropriate and necessary] wouldn’t support legal government kidnapping and the incarceration of children. Yesterday, news outlets reported that 500 children had been reunited with their families, which leaves around 1800 children still somewhere in the state system unequipped to deal with a humanitarian crisis of this magnitude.

Everything I’d written suddenly seemed absolutely meaningless and like so much navel gazing in comparison to the violence taking place at the border.

Although the official policy of separating families at the border ended last week, horrific damage has already been done. Separating children from their parents for any reason causes trauma that lasts a lifetime. I fear that many of the border kids will never be reunited with their families. Some parents have been deported already without their children, who remain in custody. News stories have surfaced about how deportation and adoption work together to separate families permanently. Family reunification efforts may take years, if not decades.

In the meantime, I worry about what will happen to those kids whose parents aren’t able to be located. Adoption agencies have already gotten involved; I hope the kids don’t become paid products for the adoption-industrial complex. [As someone pointed out to me, adoption agencies also facilitate refugee resettlement and placing foster kids, not just brokering adoption deals. I can’t help but feel skeptical. Which one pays more?] People want to help the border kids in whatever way possible. But make no mistake: if [and we haven’t seen any evidence that this is happening yet, so I’m just theorizing] those kids end up adopted by well-meaning people who want to help, fairy-tale rage-to-riches narratives absolutely will not undo the trauma, damage, and violence that’s been done to those kids. IF [I don’t want to spread false rumors and conspiracy theories are not a good look, so please remember that I’m just speculating] this happens, expect lots of heartwarming news stories about their “better lives” and how what’s happened to them is in “the child’s best interest” [read: a solution to adult problems]. We’re all desperate for a feel good moment in this absolutely monstrous situation and most people see adoption as a win-win-win.

This is the basic narrative of almost all adoption stories because no one wants to talk about trauma, loss, violence, and grief. Made for TV stories of fairy tale endings in which children are whisked from poor parents to more affluent ones which erases the violence required to transfer child from one set of parents to another. Parents and children are not interchangeable. The border kids don’t really need a bunch of well-meaning [likely white and middle-class] strangers to love and care for them. They need their parents, no matter how poor [or Latinx] those parents might be.

I created a Twitter thread this week about how international adoption from Guatemala morphed into legal child trafficking in the 2000s because of the massive amount of money to be made. One out of 100 babies in Guatemala was adopted out, largely to the United States. Rumors spread across the highlands about women who sought out vulnerable pregnant women and offered them a little money for their babies. The Marriott hotel in the capital overflowed with brown Guatemalan babies and their new white adoptive parents. Every flight I took out of Guatemala during my Peace Corps service had at least three Guatemalan babies on board. On every flight I took back, childless couples waited at the gate with all the baby equipment, but no baby. The Guatemalan adoption program closed in 2007, amid international concerns about child trafficking the guise of legal adoption. [Other countries stepped in to become popular sending countries because of their lax regulations and the ease of obtaining adoptable children, including Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.]

The plight of the border kids have dragged the repressive and violent machinery of the state into broad daylight right before our eyes. It’s horrifying, but we can’t look away. Nevertheless, state violence towards poor families doesn’t only take place at the border and often happens in silence without public condemnation. States enact violence in millions of tiny and often mundane moments, including in courtrooms across the country when family courts separate children from their parents for punitive reasons unconnected to actual child welfare. We don’t see this kind of violence because it’s not televised; magazines don’t publish glossy cover photos of those wailing toddlers. Instead, those families meet hidden violence, couched in sanitary language of ‘removal’ and safety plans and often arbitrary assessments of whether poor parents meet middle-class standards of appropriate parental behavior. States enact violence towards citizens when courts terminate parental rights and when private entities engage in coercive tactics in the privacy of crisis pregnancy centers and “brave love” pro-adoption campaigns.

We’re all complicit in creating the conditions under which states direct terrible violence towards children. In our current neoliberal state, state violence is carried out not only directly by the government, but also a host of private actors, most notably NGOs, private citizens, and private prison corporations. We enforce state violence through assumptions about which kinds of families are acceptable and which aren’t, carried out in everyday acts of racism, sexism, classism, annd assumptions about other people’s identities, bodies, and abilities.

I’ve been thinking this week about the fact that so many of the border kids are Guatemalan and how the disappearance of the border kids fit into that country’s history of violent state repression. Guatemalans know all about desaparecidos. Some 45,000 people disappeared during the armed conflict. Everyone I met in Guatemala had some kind of horrible story about family members who simply disappeared one day. For many people, not knowing the fate of their family members caused an ambiguous grief that could never be resolved. How do people grieve for the disappeared when no evidence exists of their fate and no public rituals can be held to acknowledge an uncertain end? So many of the 30,000 kids adopted to families outside Guatemala in the 1990s and 2000s are also all but disappeared to their families. And now the border kids, who may become the latest wave of desaparecidos. If they aren’t reunited with their families, they’re all but disappeared and there’s another gaping hole punched in an already damaged social fabric.

In Central America, both Guatemala and El Salvador have forensic organizations to exhume mass graves and to reunite the disappeared with their families to provide people justice, dignity, and closure. They know about all about the importance of family reunification. Reuniting the border kids with their families, even if it takes months, years, or decades, is the only moral option now.