Undocumented Immigrants and Slaves: A Connection Through U.S. History


By Erica Copeland

The recent surge in separations of undocumented parents from their children is ominously reminiscent of the systematic break up of families during this country’s slavery era.

From the 1600s to 1863 when slavery was legalized and then abolished, Africans who forcibly migrated to this country, were often torn apart from their relatives at the whims of their slave owners.

The practice was quite commonplace in the U.S. South. On the plantation, slave mothers and fathers lived in fear each day that, one day, the slave master would find it more economical or expedient to sell off one of their children for profit. For the Southern slave owners, the transaction of buying and selling slaves without regard to their family ties was simply a matter of convenience or doing “good business.”

But the practice wreaked havoc on the social ties between black Americans then and the ripples of that era has left a legacy where Blacks must live with large gaps of knowledge in their family ancestry and lineage. Gaps in culture exist as well since much of African culture was oral. When families separate, parents and grandparents cannot pass down traditions and memories of the past.

Sadly, the connection between family separations during slavery and the forced separations that are happening today is not one that African Americans, or those of other races who are more than second or third generation immigrants, will easily draw.

Those whose grandparents or great-great grandparents were U.S. born, do not necessarily extend the idea of separating families during slavery to the forced separations of contemporary immigrant families that are occurring under the policies of the Trump administration and current session of Congress.

They may see these two phenomena as polar opposites rather than as fraternal twins. Although the social, political, and economic circumstances surrounding both issues are different, at a basic human rights level, the same principle applies.

The United Nation’s Declaration of Human Rights has various articles that are being violated through the practice of immigrant family separations. Article 6 guarantees the “Right to be Recognized as a Person” and Article 3, the “Right to Life, Liberty, Personal Security.”

No rocket scientist has to figure out the harm in tearing families apart. This practice has long-lasting negative effects that create a legacy of trauma, resentment, and disempowerment within that family and the community in which they lived.

For those of us who have remained indifferent bystanders and observed the events on the news from the sidelines, now is the time where we must choose a side. Choosing to stay silent is a choice to affirm the current administration’s actions.

In the words of Martin Luther King, “Silence is the approval that allows dark deeds to exist in the world.”

So if this issue bothers you at all, do something about it. Your action does not have to be a grand show of support at a rally or protest. It can simply be signing a petition online.

For example, politicians like Representative Karen Bass of California’s 37th Congressional district has an online petition to sign to pressure those in the President’s administration to change the current policy of deportation.

Decide on which side you stand. Will you support human rights or continue to allow this country to repeat its dark history once again?