Donald Trump’s presidency is a never-ending assault on marginalized communities, but one of his targets who we don’t talk about enough is children.
There is obviously outcry when children become the victims of Trump’s policies. Last summer, for instance, much of the nation was devastated and outraged over Trump’s family separation policy. Yet his administration—and the broader conservative movement—has demonstrated that children are not simply collateral damage, but are subjected to specific pain and suffering.
The culmination of Trump’s strategy and policies, and the far-right and fascist contingents he emboldens, has amounted to a full-blown assault on the most marginalized children. There is ample precedent for this; the history of fascist regimes such as Nazi Germany, as well as of black slavery in the U.S., reveals that children have always been targeted by right-wing authoritarian regimes.
Immigration is the most obvious area where children have been targeted.
“[E]very [immigration] policy that has been put into place by this administration endangers children,” Dr. Alan J. Shapiro, a pediatrician and co-founder of Terra Firma, a NYC-based non-profit that helps migrant children access medical and mental health care as well as legal services, told Splinter.. “It seems to me that it’s the vulnerability and the helplessness of children that allows the Trump administration to enact the policies that they do.”
Shapiro noted that the Trump administration has repeatedly used migrant children as “bargaining chips.” During early negotiations over funding for an expanded southern border wall, Trump and the GOP employed this tactic by repeatedly threatening to end DACA.
The Department of Homeland Security has not provided accurate figures on how many migrant children ICE and CBP are detaining, but a recent Guardian report analyzing media estimates and figures given to Congress indicates there may be currently around 15,000 migrant children in U.S. custody. When it executed the family separation policy at the southern border, the DHS did not take any measures to record family connections between separated children or their parents, and “lost track” of more than 1,000 migrant kids. In addition, a new report from the Office of the Inspector General at the Department of Health and Human Services revealed that there were thousands more separated children than originally reported. The recent deaths of 7-year-old Jakelin Caal Maquin and 8-year-old Felipe Alonzo-Gomez—both of whom died while in CBP custody—also revived attention to the issue of how the Trump administration treats immigrant children.
Some children who have been separated from their parents have been placed in youth detention camps such as the tent camp in Tornillo, TX, which was closed on January 11, but others have been sent to private, government-contracted foster and adoption agencies such as Bethany Christian Services in Michigan, which has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding from Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and her family. The Intercept reported in July that immigration and child welfare advocates are gravely concerned that the Trump administration will permit and facilitate the permanent adoption of migrant children whose parents have been deported by the US government.
It would be negligent not to call attention to the policies of Barack Obama’s administration, which many immigration rights activists, journalists, and academics partially credit for ramped-up anti-migrant policies that the Trump administration has only been too happy to expand upon and exacerbate. (It’s further been observed that Obama himself inherited more anti-immigrant policy and tools from Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.) As harmful as Obama’s immigration policies were, Shapiro said that he “never could have imagined the policies that have been put into place or proposed by the Trump administration.”
The far-right war on children is being felt at all levels of government, whether at the federal or the state level.
Anti-gay and anti-trans discrimination in the child welfare system, for instance, impacts both families seeking to adopt as well as LGTBQ kids. “So many [LGBTQ youth] are in foster care in the first place because of family rejection or violence based on their sexuality or gender identity,” Leslie Cooper, the Deputy Director of the ACLU’s LGBT and HIV Project, told Splinter. “Then they’re in an agency that says to them, ‘your kind are not suitable parents.’”
In Michigan, the ACLU is representing a same-sex couple in Dumont v. Lyon, a case against Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services and the Michigan Children’s Services Agency for allowing state-funded religious foster and adoption agencies to discriminate against gay parents. The ACLU is also representing two non-profits, Support Center for Child Advocates and Philadelphia Family Pride, in Fulton v. Philadelphia. Philadelphia currently forbids government-funded private agencies from discriminating against same-sex couples, but Catholic Social Services has sued the state, saying the policy violates their “religious freedom.” According to ACLU communications strategist Tyler Richard, “This case is poised to go to the U.S. Supreme Court in the next couple years.”
Some of these cases predate the Trump administration, but the government’s abhorrent position on “religious freedom” gives far-right forces their best chance in years to further enshrine discrimination. Recently, for example, the Intercept reported that the Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families granted a waiver requested by South Carolina governor Henry McMaster that exempts the state from federal anti-discrimination laws and allows religious nonprofit Miracle Hill and other government-funded, private agencies in South Carolina to discriminate against Muslim, Jewish, and Catholic parents who seek to use their services or work as mentors with kids.
Given this position, and that the Supreme Court now skews more conservative than it has in generations, it’s possible (if not likely) that the Trump administration will lend a hand to reactionaries in Michigan and Philadelphia as well.
Conservatives have also been attempting to further militarize public schools, especially in the wake of the Parkland massacre. In the immediate aftermath of that shooting, some Republican politicians—including Trump—and voters called for teachers to be armed at school and for more police officers to be assigned to schools, even as students around the country demanded their schools be demilitarized.
Black students are the most at risk from these policies. Nearly a third of all students arrested in schools are black, and black students are more than twice as likely to be referred to law enforcement officers than their white counterparts, according to figures from the Department of Education and ACLU, respectively. Black students are also disproportionately targeted for punishments (ranging from detention to expulsion to arrest) than their white peers despite a total lack of evidence that black students tend to behave differently or worse than white students.
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ influence is also worsening conditions for marginalized students. Data analysis conducted by ProPublica in June 2018 revealed that DeVos had already sunk 1,200 civil rights probes that were opened during the Obama administration. She has also repeatedly rolled back civil rights protections (which cover incidents of racism, sexual and gender-based harassment, and disability rights violations) for students.
Schools have participated in active shooter drills for years. Still, Evelyn Rebollar, a high school teacher in the Bronx, told Splinter that the Trump presidency has markedly increased her students’ fears of being targeted by a mass shooter. Rebollar said that one day, a few of her students expressed that they had a “real fear” of being killed. “I had to stop instruction to address the safety precautions we do and don’t have at the school in such a case,” she said. “It was heartbreaking to hear my students give hypothetical reactions to a mass shooting. In the end, we decided that if a shooter broke into the classroom, the best plan of action would be to grab the closest item and throw it at them.”
While ICE agents are technically not allowed to raid schools, which the agency considers a “sensitive location,” one teacher, Joe Gondolfi, told Splinter that the Chicago high school where he works has begun drills just in case that changes. Gondolfi, who has taught English for six years in a mostly-Latinx public Chicago high school, said, “Our [school’s] active shooter drill and our ICE raid drill are identical for students,” who are supposed to get into a classroom, remain quiet, stay away from the door, and listen for instructions. The drills for ICE raids, which began when Trump took office, are performed about four times a year, Gondolfi says.
The threat of ICE agents raiding schools to arrest undocumented kids lingered well before Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos began escalating matters in 2017. Some school districts, including the Los Angeles Unified School District in California, committed to forbidding ICE agents from raiding their schools in 2016, before Trump had even won the election.
Gondolfi said that the administration and staff at the high school where he works are supportive of undocumented students, but the Trump administration has been clear about where it stands. In May 2018, DeVos said that schools can decide whether or not to report undocumented students to ICE. The Secretary publicly walked back her position on school staff informing on students after they were condemned by civil rights advocates and educators, but her initial position still speaks to the heartless manner in which the administration deals with vulnerable kids.
None of these attacks on vulnerable children are without precedent. As historians and civil rights advocates have noted, the U.S. government has forcibly separated children from their parents for centuries. Black children were kidnapped, raped, and killed during slavery. Slavers also viewed children as valuable financial assets capable of growing their profits, and frequently auctioned them off away from their families.
Under Hitler’s rule in Nazi Germany, Jewish children were kidnapped, sent to work and death camps, experimented on, and tortured, just as Jewish adults were. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum writes that “Children were especially vulnerable to Nazi persecution,” noting, “The Nazis did not single out children specifically because they were children, but because of their alleged membership in dangerous racial, biological, or political groups.” The same could be said of the Trump administration’s assault on children of color and immigrant children.
The U.S. also has a history of removing Native American children from their homes. Thousands of Native American kids were taken from reservations and forced to attend abusive boarding schools in the 1800s and 1900s. In 1959, the federal government granted a contract to the Child Welfare League of America to launch the Indian Adoption Project, which was maintained until 1967. Hundreds of Native children were again snatched from their homes in droves—this time to be adopted to white families who took on the task of forcing children to assimilate to white Christianity.
But it is not just Trump administration officials and other adults in power who are advancing this agenda. Other kids are participating as well. White children have always key figures in white nationalists’ own warped rationalizations for their genocidal levels of bigotry. There’s a reason that the infamous neo-Nazi “14 words” phrase ends with “white children.”
Trump’s rise and his activities in office have emboldened white supremacist attacks and abuses among adults and children alike. In March 2016, months before the presidential election, students from Andrean High School in Merriville, IN, chanted “Build the wall” at Latinx students and held a large cut-out of Donald Trump’s face during a student basketball game. In 2017, a similar scene played out when a group of students from Canton High School in Connecticut chanted “Trump” at black and Latinx students, also at a basketball game.
These are not isolated incidents. Since the 2016 presidential election, there have been many reports of racist, anti-Semitic, and misogynist bullying in schools; an apparent increase in these incidents is a phenomenon that the Southern Poverty Law Center and other observers have dubbed the “Trump effect.”
Trump has, at times, delighted in attempting to insinuate himself into conservative children’s organizations—such as the notorious Boy Scouts event in 2017 which he turned into a political rally, eliciting boos towards Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and the media, urging “loyalty,” and leading the crowd of children in chants of “USA! USA!” (The Scouts later apologized for the event.)
Young students have also invoked Trumpian slogans when abusing adults. The annual anti-abortion “March For Life” was held in Washington D.C. on January 18, bringing adults and students from across the right-wing spectrum together under the banner of anti-feminism. The same day, a hoard of students (almost all of them white boys) from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky who were in town for the march were filmed encircling and jeering at a group of Native American people, including elders, who were in D.C. for the Indigenous Peoples March. Many of the students were wearing “Make America Great Again” hats.
Students have also begun using Nazi imagery in their racist bullying. Administrators for the Matilija Junior High School in Ojai, CA, alerted parents via a letter in mid-December after it was discovered that nine students at the middle school formed themselves into the shape of a swastika in a field and participated in a racist, misogynist group chat, according to the Los Angeles Times. In November, the leadership of Baraboo High School and the local school district in Wisconsin came under fire after a photo of dozens of students giving a Nazi salute before prom went viral on social media. These are only two recent examples of many that have been reported since Trump ascended to the national political stage.
Fascist regimes, including the Nazis and Italian fascists under Mussolini, indoctrinated and trained white children. By 1939, membership in the Hitler Youth was mandatory for German boys and girls between the ages of 10 and 17, swelling membership to the millions. According to the USHMM, more than 765,000 white German youth held leadership positions in the Hitler Youth. It was also common for white children during slavery to participate in physically and verbally abusing enslaved black children, even if they weren’t politically organized into military-style groups.
Today in the United States, young white boys, in particular, are being recruited by various fascist organizations across the country, from the Ku Klux Klan to racist skinhead gangs, using a range of both online and analogue recruiting tactics.
White supremacist and fascist regimes spare no one, not even children. As the Trump administration continues its hostile war against some of the world’s most vulnerable people, we must bear in mind that assaults on children are not an afterthought, but a core part of a series of brutal, calculated decisions.