On June 20, President Trump signed an executive order that ended his administration’s migrant family separation policy. The order stated: “It is … the policy of this Administration to maintain family unity, including by detaining alien families together where appropriate and consistent with law and available resources.”
Although a moratorium on forcibly separating migrant children from their parents is good news, it is way too little, too late. To begin with, it is unclear if and how the Trump administration plans to reunite the 2,300 migrant children who have already been separated from their families. Additionally, the Trump administration will continue to enforce a “zero tolerance” policy against undocumented immigrants. That is, migrant parents and children will continue to be detained without genuine due process — they just won’t be detained separately.
More broadly, the profound moral and sociopolitical harm that has already been done by the Trump administration’s family separation scheme is irreparable.
The United States can no longer hide behind the veil of supposed moral supremacy to justify its actions. Family separation institutionally legitimized authoritarian, state-sanctioned cruelty against undocumented migrants — including migrant babies. Consequently, the policy set a dangerous precedent that future administrations could possibly employ to justify their inhumane treatment of migrants — or other marginalized populations, for that matter.
In fact, family separation mirrored the introductory stages of the Nazi Holocaust against European Jews and others deemed undesirable. There is, of course, an important distinction between the Holocaust and Trump’s family separation policy. The Holocaust was a systematic genocide, while family separation was a non-murderous form of state terror. But the notion that comparing, to any extent, family separation to Holocaust-like state cruelty “goes too far” is intellectually suppressive, a cowardly conversation-stopper, and simply wrong.
Migrants have not been intentionally slaughtered by the U.S. government, but the state-sanctioned family separation and incarceration of migrant families and the racist dehumanization of migrants is terrifyingly similar to the institutional and ideological framework of the Holocaust.
What has always fascinated and horrified me about the Nazis’ genocidal terror is that people like me, solely due to our Jewish heritage (my father was Jewish until he converted to Christianity several years ago), were able to be so dehumanized that the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau seemed like a logical and just mechanism for our liquidation.
In other words, by stripping European Jews of their very humanity, it became a lot easier to justify their annihilation.
The rhetoric Trump has utilized to describe migrants is eerily comparable to how Nazis characterized Jews. On June 19, Trump tweeted that members of the Democratic Party wanted undocumented migrants to “infest our Country.” That is, Trump asserted that migrants had the potential to “infest” life as we know it in the United States. Likewise, Hitler and the Nazis alleged that Jews were vermin infesting Germany, painting them as parasites and rats.
The notion of infestation that Trump and Hitler employed is a central, systematized vehicle of dehumanization. Repellant insects or “third-world” diseases like Ebola infest, and (“true”) humans are victimized by such infestation — until, of course, they subjugate or eradicate the source.
Accordingly, when Trump uses the language of Nazi fascism to strip Latin American migrants of their humanity, non-undocumented Americans are allowed to claim a disingenuous victimhood: (White) America is being “invaded” by a parasitic, subhuman population, ultra-conservatives claim.
If migrant children are conceptualized as infesters rather than young, innocent, and beautiful human beings, they become easier to incarcerate in cages without due process — just like European Jews became easier to gas to death when the Nazis claimed they were parasitic animals sucking the socioeconomic and racial lifeblood out of Aryan-German society.
Further, another important component of fascist dehumanization is the apathy and complicity of ordinary citizens. A substantial number of Gentile German civilians were aware of the Holocaust and did nothing to stop the slaughter of Jews. (Of course, other European populations, as well as the U.S. government, were also contemporaneously aware of the genocide).
Worse still, millions of ordinary Germans actively participated in the Holocaust: they served as bureaucrats and as military officials who transported Jews to death camps and thereafter gas chambers. Many of these participants following the Second World War infamously claimed they were “just following orders,” as if they had no alternative but to facilitate the annihilation of 12 million people (including 6 million European Jews).
While the majority of U.S. voters oppose family separation, most of them — much like ordinary Germans during the Holocaust — have not done anything substantive to combat the state terror committed in their name. Sure, some U.S. residents, from a distance, have expressed vague moral outrage, but most of us have not cared enough to relentlessly protest this evil on the ground.
Unsurprisingly, about 70 percent of Americans are exhausted by the endless political news cycle of the Trump era. But exhaustion, of course, is no excuse. It is just another word for political apathy in this context, and apathy is surely complicity. Worse, some of us are more than apathetic. Law enforcement officials — such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents — who have viciously separated children from their parents and detained such children are directly complicit in this state terror. Yet they will most likely claim that they, like those Germans involved in death-camp operations, were just following governmental orders, which is a weak, pathetic defense.
Ironically, Trump’s executive order will reinforce many Americans’ faith in this country’s supposed democratic institutions. They will claim that while family separation was a mistake, Trump and the U.S. government ultimately did the right thing — and therefore, the crisis proved that the United States could never descend to the level of Nazi Germany or other totalitarian states.
But such a sentiment is embarrassingly naïve, as family separation has left an indelible scar on the moral fabric of U.S. society. That is, the state terror leveled against migrant families has proved and further institutionalized America’s capacity for systematic cruelty.
A country that rips crying babies from the arms of their mothers and fathers and incarcerates such children for no reason other than their undocumented status is not a country whose righteousness is enduring and inevitable. While family separation is not equivalent to the Holocaust, and Trumpism is not Nazism, the fact that such comparisons are now, to some extent, historically reasonable should shake Americans to their very core.
The United States, despite its potential to be a force for good and the democratic leader of 21st-century life, has self-sabotaged and delegitimized itself tenfold since the election of Trump. As President Abraham Lincoln once claimed, “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”
Lincoln’s warning has never been more pertinent.
Samuel Aftel is a junior from East Northport, N.Y. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.