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Precedent for the Present: Further Reading

Now we witness undocumented migrants detained and deported en masse on US soil; we witness vulnerable humans turned back from our shores and borders; we witness children – babies in diapers even – taken from their parents on US soil by government agencies without a clear path to reunification. I want to say it’s unprecedented, but of course, our time falls (and I do mean falls) into a shameful, painful pattern of our country’s history. The simple equation is as follows:

“group that can be labeled ‘other’ by a white Christian majority (and those who don’t want to jeopardize their livelihoods or advantages granted by that majority)”


“majority fears of losing or not having fill-in-the-blank: usually publicly pitched as lofty ‘life’ or ‘liberty’… but scratch the surface to find ‘money,’ ‘jobs,’ ‘land,’ ‘supremacy,’ ‘majority,’ ‘advantage,’ and ‘power'”


situation in which those in power can discard our purported ideals, values, and even laws at the expense of that ‘other’

Enslaved black families split up and sold away from each other at will; indigenous parents forced by authorities to relinquish their children to boarding schools at which their language, traditions, and beliefs were outlawed; children at the beginning of the last century removed from their parents and placed in orphanages for no crime other than poverty; people of Japanese ancestry in the United States (including tens of thousands of children) forced into prison camps during World War II.

Some books on the practices, policies, and people whose lives were shaped by the state-sanctioned traumas above: Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery by Heather Andrea Williams, To Remain an Indian: Lessons in Democracy from a Century of Native American Educaton by K. Tsianina Lomawaima and Teresa L. McCarty and Boarding School Seasons: American Indian Families 1900-1940 by Brenda J. Child, Looking After Minidoka: An American Memoir by Neil Nakadate and Looking Like the Enemy: My Story of Imprisonment in Japanese American Internment Camps by Mary Matsuda Gruenewald.

Our era isn’t even the first time Latinx people, specifically, have been systematically deported from the USA. In the 1930s, somewhere between 500,000 and 1 million Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans (blamed as scapegoats for the Great Depression) were “repatriated” back to Mexico. Some families brought their children (citizens born in the United States); some hid their children rather than see them deported to a country they had never even seen. Some of these families were never reunited. Read Decade of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s by Francisco E. Balderrama and Raymond Rodríguez for a fuller picture.

Many of these immigrants seeking a better life are asylum seekers, fleeing the threat of violence. But that didn’t stop the United States from turning the SS St. Louis, a ship of 900 German Jewish refugees, away from its shores and back to Europe in 1939. Read more about the SS St. Louis in Refuge Denied: The St Louis Passengers and the Holocaust. The Holocaust Museum has some information summarized online in their Holocaust Encyclopedia that gives a clear picture of America’s policies and climate at that moment – and it’s a picture of fearful isolationism and xenophobia.

I mostly write about poetry here, so I’ll recommend some poetry for our moment, in addition to the nonfiction and memoir above. I’m looking forward to Mia Ayumi Malhotra’s debut collection from Alice James, Isako Isako, a poetry collection that brings together the historical and the personal in exploring generations touched by the experience of internment. Some other salient poetry debuts: Marcelo Hernandez Castillo’s Cenzontle, Erika L. Sánchez’s Lessons on Expulsion, Javier Zamora’s Unaccompanied, Layli Long Soldier’s WHEREAS.

Join Families Belong Together for June 30th protests across the country, volunteer for or donate to legal aid services and organizations that protect human rights and civil liberties like Texas Civil Rights Project, RAICES, and the ACLU. Keep telling your elected officials where your values (and your votes) stand.