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Opinion: A Black historical lens should inform compassionate immigration and family

By Gregory Meeks

The history books will judge the Trump Administration’s policy of family separation as another stain on a particularly soiled presidency. And if those history books are honest, they will convey that forced family separation was not new to Trump, but rather the rearing of a public policy as old as Black history in America. 

A public policy Americans of good conscience must reverse, repudiate and seek to remedy for the sake of America’s highest ideals. 

Consider the story of an enslaved African-American boy, Charles Ball, who at four years old heard the voice of his mother last in the form of tears. 

When the Ball family’s Maryland “owner” died, the Ball family’s ties were reduced to a transaction and severed on an auction block where each member was sold to different bidders. 

Charles explains the traumatic last experience with his family when he stated, “My poor mother, when she saw me leaving her for the last time, ran after me, took me down from the horse, clasped me in her arms and wept loudly and bitterly over me.” 

In his autobiography, Charles further recounted decades later that “young as I was, the horrors of that day sank deeply into my heart, and even at this time, though a half century has elapsed, the terrors of the scene return with painful vividness upon my memory”.  

There are obvious differences between the forced family separation of enslaved African-Americans in our history and forced separations caused by Trump’s cruel border policies or zero-tolerance immigration enforcement. However, the trauma experienced by children and families are similar. 

The government sanction of such separations is comparably abhorrent. And, as we reflect on Black Americans’ resilience despite historic disregard for Black life and the Black family, we must combat today’s challenges with a deep understanding of that historical context as to not repeat the past.  

It’s through that historical lens, my House Democratic colleagues and I are working vigorously to repair what has been broken under the Trump Administration.  

Our nation’s reputation on human rights must be put back together, and we must put back together the countless families with mixed immigration statuses that saw their loved ones taken away for minor, sometimes decades old long, non-violent legal offenses. 

With the Biden Administration’s announced 100-day moratorium on deportations, House Democrats and the White House will explore a more compassionate deportation policy that will consider the trauma that tearing up families pose and will consider healthier alternatives, especially in cases dealing with otherwise law-abiding or asylum-seeking immigrants. 

Furthermore, House Democrats are doing what they can to support the current President’s difficult task of reuniting hundreds of children with their families expeditiously. 

As we commemorate the history of Black people in America, let’s never forget the dogged spirit of the many enslaved who saw their families dissolved by government sanctioned policies.  Let’s celebrate their resilience, and their tendency to make lemonade out of lemons — particularly those Black Americans who took out costly newspaper ads after emancipation to reunify with their families.  

Or even those, today, that search through documents and genealogy tests to identify lost ancestry. But also, let’s never forget the trauma of those experiences that we carry with us today through our family histories.  

And let’s use that Black history as a lens to inform public policy that America can be proud of in the future. 

U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks is the first Black member of Congress to chair the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Read More: Opinion: A Black historical lens should inform compassionate immigration and family

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