Splitting Up Kids From their Parents is Nothing New in This Country

Editor's Note:

With the national outrage over the inhumane practice of separating children from parents at our borders, Public Defender Sajid Khan reminds us that this is not new, but a fundamental part of the mass incarceration of people of color.

Splitting up kids from their parents is nothing new in this country. ‬

‪Don’t forget that we’ve separated and broken families for decades through our continued, unapologetic, dehumanizing use of mass incarceration as our means of criminal justice, inflicting irreparable, generational harm and trauma, particularly on communities of color. ‬

I close my eyes and relive my shackled 20 year old client Oscar, having just been sentenced to nearly two decades in state prison, hugging his toddler daughter in a courtroom before being whisked off by a sheriff’s deputy into a holding cell.

I hear my client Stephen recount a childhood apart from his father, Mike, who spent Stephen’s formative years locked away in a distant California state prison.  

I remember my client Edward, pending trial on felony charges that were ultimately dismissed, forced to meet his newborn son for the first time through county jail glass.

I visualize the countless teenagers - Jonah, Arthur, Victor, Fernando, Evelyn, among so many others - in juvenile courtrooms gripping their mothers, only to be yanked by probation officers back into juvenile hall.  

I recall the scores of black and brown boys charged and prosecuted as adults, torn from their families and sentenced to lengthy if not life prison sentences, caged in faraway penitentiaries.  

I see the fathers stuck in our jails pending trial, ripped from their children because they are too poor to afford bail.

I think of the thousands of fathers locked away in our country’s remote prisons on disproportionate sentences trying to raise their children by mail, grossly overpriced collect calls and sporadic visits.

‪This callousness, inhumanity and willingness (and preference) to shred family bonds is who we are and have been. The separation of children from their parents at our borders is merely the most recent manifestation of our ingrained, pervasive culture of mass incarceration, a culture premised upon reducing people of color to subhuman.  

Let’s look in the mirror, be brutally self-critical and recognize our complicity in these horrid practices. Let’s resolve to make change, starting with a recognition and affirmation of the humanity of black and brown people who commit crimes or attempt to enter this country without documentation. Only when we see these individuals as our fellow human beings can we honor their fundamental rights and dignities, including their rights to family and freedom from cages.

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