In July 1942, French police, acting at the behest of their Nazi masters, rounded up over 13,000 Jews, herding them into the Winter Velodrome where they were confined for days virtually without food, water or sanitary facilities. The stadium, however, was merely a transit point before they were shipped off to Auschwitz. Most of those rounded up were not French citizens but refugees who had fled the Nazi march across Europe. Vichy minister Pierre Laval considered them “dregs.” Among the victims were more than 4,000 children. As a humanitarian gesture, Laval ordained that families should be kept together, a fiction since most of the parents had already been sent East where the children would be “reunited” with them. The youngest child sent to Auschwitz was 18 months old.
Laval’s gambit brings to mind the beneficence of the Trump administration as it scrambles to limit the self-inflicted political damage of the President’s immigration edict that separated 2,000 children from parents who had attempted to cross the US border or sought asylum here. Since a 1997 ruling known as the Flores Settlement prohibits the Government from detaining minors for more than 20 days, the Justice Department has gone to court to relax this law so that whole families can be detained together indefinitely. To be sure, the 2,000 children in US internment camps will never suffer the fate of the innocents who were sent away by Vichy. Nevertheless, they share some things in common: The callousness of their jailers, the indifference to their suffering, the dehumanization of their people, the use of legalisms to justify their incarceration, the regime’s denial of their plight, and the distancing of the government’s apologists from the victims: “They’re not our kids.”
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, one of the guiding spirits of Trump’s immigration policies, deflected charges that the Government was taking a page out of Hitler’s playbook by asserting that the Nazis wanted to prevent the Jews from leaving whereas the Justice Department merely seeks to keep unwanted immigrants out. However, the appropriate analogy is not with the Germans but with Sessions’s Nativist predecessors in our own country who imposed racial quotas in the 20’s on immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe and enforced them in the 30’s. Exclusion amounted to a death sentence for Jewish refugees seeking asylum. This policy was couched in legalistic sophistry abetted by bureaucratic impediments of the same nature that today keep children in cages and their despairing parents ignorant of their whereabouts.
The minions of the Department of Homeland Security were so zealous in wrenching children from their parents that they neglected to keep a record of where they were sending them, incompetence tinctured with malice. As has been well pointed out, even jailed criminals have a record of their personal belongings and would certainly know where their children are. These people were guilty of no more than improper entry misdemeanors, some of them were asylum seekers, but they suffered worse than many convicted felons at the hands of a regime that criminalized them for fleeing the real predators who preyed on them in their native lands.
The Justice Department has insisted that the immigrants are lawbreakers and it has no recourse but to carry out the law. It is a rationale contradicted by the President himself when, after a public outcry, he reversed his ukase that imprisoned asylum seekers wrenching their children away and placing them thousands of miles apart. As critics have pointed out there were other alternatives such as a case-management program that allowed families to remain intact through the use of ankle bracelet monitors and global positioning devices while their appeals wended their way through the courts. Complying with the law, approximately 99 percent of immigrant families appeared for their hearings. Trump shut the program down.
For the first time in more than a century we have a president who is using the bully pulpit of the White House to actively discriminate against people whose skins are not white. We are beyond dog whistles. In throwing his base red meat and keeping his campaign promises to stifle immigration, Trump is pursuing a policy that goes well beyond the measures of his predecessors in its vindictiveness. His mean-spirited epithets denigrating Mexicans as “rapists,” black-majority countries as “shit holes” and whole categories of immigrants as “animals” have been effective in mobilizing his constituency because his rancor is genuine.
Untroubled by fact, immune to truth, impervious to reality, Trump inveighs against immigrant lawlessness when data shows that crime is at record lows and that immigrant communities have lower rates than elsewhere; he rails against immigrants taking American jobs when the US is now at high employment and the jobs that many immigrants take are ones that most Americans shun; he talks about America being overrun by foreign hordes when studies show that immigration helps grow the economy, that immigrants create jobs and that with an aging white population that is not reproducing itself, the best hope for a robust work force in the coming years is a strong influx of immigration. Instead of welcoming this opportunity, Trump disparages it with a mindset that looks to a hoary past rather than a viable future. He invents straw men such “open borders” — which virtually no one advocates — to frighten the public and denigrate his critics, deflecting from the real issue of constructing a rationale, secure and humane immigration system. He has succeeded in turning a legitimate debate about the nature, pace and extent of immigration into a rabble-rousing exercise animated by bigotry, amplified by fear and manifested by a mean-spirited animus made even crueler by its sanctimony. In invoking Romans to justify obedience to the law, Jeff Sessions might have thought about whether this would apply to the Nuremberg Laws. He might also consider the admonition from Deuteronomy that “You shall not subvert the rights of the stranger, or the fatherless.”
The Latino immigrants fleeing anarchy in their own countries are not the criminals evoked in the fever dreams of Trump’s imagination but are, for the most part, hard-working, family oriented and religious. What they lack for acceptance as “real Americans” is white skin. In attacking them, Trump has tapped into a rich vein of bigotry in America’s past. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was followed within a decade by the Jim Crow laws suppressing black rights in the South. Both codified norms that were already enforced through vigilante terror and intimidation against nonwhite minorities. The first half of the 20th century saw a recrudescence of the Ku Klux Klan, racialist immigration laws and separate but unequal patterns of segregation. It was only in the postwar era with the enactment of the 1965 immigration law uniting families that the climate changed. But this itself led to the unintended consequences of swelling immigration, not from Europe but rather Latin America, Asia and Africa. In the foreseeable future, the US would no longer be a white man’s country. It was only a matter of time before a demagogue like Trump would arise to inflame people’s passions on this sea change.
The US was the first country created not on an ethnic or religious basis but on a Constitution that professed to make all people equal whatever their background or belief. Although often betrayed in the past, as attested above, it is a work in progress that we have been struggling toward for more than 200 years. The massive protest against Trump’s malign neglect in holding children hostages to a warped immigration policy is part of that struggle. America has been tormented by its demons; it has also been uplifted through its better angels. Let us hope that in this latest struggle, the latter will prevail.
Jack Schwartz was a former book editor of Newsday.