Arsenal of Marxism

America’s Dirty War on Immigrant Children

By Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco and Nancy Scheper-Hughes

“These aren’t people. These are animals.” —Donald Trump, May 17, 2018

President Trump is right about one thing: there is an emergency; indeed we would call it a humanitarian catastrophe at the U.S. Southern Border.1 It is also a demographic, political and moral catastrophe. However, the chaotic “solutions” devised by former Attorney General Sessions and embraced by ICE and Homeland Security has brought us ever deeper into the unthinkable, Primo Levi’s “Grey Zone.” Nine months after a federal judge ordered the Trump administration to reunite thousands of immigrant children taken from their parents at the border, the whereabouts of thousands of children remains unresolved. Some 15,000 migrant children are in government detention. That figure is growing by the day as the number of migrant families crossing the southern border reached an 11-year high this February with “unauthorized entries nearly double what they were a year ago.”2 The most recent Border Patrol data shows that 76,103 migrants were apprehended at the border—two thirds more than during the prior month.3 More than 40,000 were families travelling together. Children and newborns continue to be taken from their parents even as the Administration claims to have rescinded the order to forcibly separate migrant families.4

America’s littlest desaparecidos (the disappeared,) some of them still in diapers, crying inconsolably, begging and screaming for their mothers, wetting their beds, became so traumatized that they stopped speaking to their government-supplied caretakers. These motherless children began to give up and move inside their little selves, eventually accommodating to a cruel new world, bereft of tenderness and abandoned to caretaker strangers who were not allowed to touch them, lest they be accused of physical or sexual assault. Months later we have learned that many of these missing children will never be reunited with their parents. It is possible that some of these separated children will fill the emptiness of kindly American families seeking to foster or to adopt them. States have different laws on foster care and on adoption, and the judges who will decide the outcome often do so by sealing the case.

The chaos of parent-child separations, the missing records, missing parents, and missing children echoes other historical traumas in the history of childhood in the United States: African slavery, for one, U.S. government Indian boarding schools for another. The underlying rationale behind these government policies is that white, wealthy and middle class parents are deemed as more able, more intelligent and more worthy than the migrant children’s parents who risked their lives to protect their children. Here lies the foundation for a dirty war against Latino migrants fleeing from violence and extreme poverty to risk their lives to save their children.

Argentina’s dirty war comparison

These events bring to mind aspects of Argentina’s Dirty War during the military dictatorship when parents and their children, including infants, were confiscated from suspected “radicals” who were arrested and interrogated (sometimes to the death) as alien enemies to the neo-fascist order. During the Dirty War (1976-1983) some 500 infants and children were separated from their parents and given to right wing military families and their friends who could raise them as good Christian fascists. When democracy returned to the country in 1984 the biological grandmothers, led by the famous Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, in Buenos Aires sought the help of Professor Mary-Clare King, a UC Berkeley geneticist (now at the University of Washington, Seattle) to set up a Grandparents Index and applying DNA matching to reunite them with their grandchildren.

The use of DNA to identify the Argentine children who had been separated many years earlier by Argentina’s state-sponsored terror and returned to their natural parents and grandparents is reminiscent of the Trump administration’s scrambled attempt to meet a federal judge’s order to reunite thousands of children and parents who had been forcibly separated after crossing the border in search of asylum. The administration was forced to admit it had no records to link several hundred children who had been separated from their parents. Alex Azar, the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, proposed to use DNA to match separated children to their parents. But by this time the parents of some 200 separated children had already been deported to Central America. The DNA detour was a diversion that led to nothing more than the “Wow!” exclaimed by Dr. Azar in response to the many ordinary Americans who had signed up to help in the DNA reunifications.5

The Argentine dirty war is an extreme example, but it began with a declaration of a state of emergency by Mrs. Perón in November 1974 who was leading a civilian government that was besieged by rampant inflation, corruption and violence by university students, unions and leftist organizations. She gave the military a free hand and General Videla responded with his Proceso, that dissidents renamed as the dirty war. The majority of people who were disappeared and killed by the military state, were young people. The Dirty War was primarily a war against youth and young adults who were dissidents and activists who were not seen as citizens but rather as dangerous “aliens.” The word “animals” was also applied to them.

While the United States is in no imminent danger of becoming a dictatorship, the totalitarian tendencies of an increasingly authoritarian President is worrisome. The U.S. dirty war is not a war against internal aliens, as in Argentina, but a dirty war against migrants and refugees seeking asylum in the United States. The President’s attempt to declare a U.S. state of emergency at the Southern U.S. border is politically and morally perverse.

So yes, the real emergency is from the other side of the Southern borderland, the mass migrations of desperate asylum seekers coming mostly from the Northern Triangle—El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—are fleeing astronomical homicide rates, political and economic instability that did not arise in a vacuum. It is the legacy of decades of U.S. intervention and exploitation of what used to be called the banana republics, run by ruthless dictators, supported by U.S. foreign policies since the mid 20th century. The result was revolutions, massacres, and ethnocides, “small wars and invisible genocides.”6

The real emergency is the miserable deaths in the desert of thousands of Latino migrants forced to take extreme risks to escape poverty, violence, and terror at home. Some migrants sent their older children alone praying that the United States is still the land of open arms but the arms that greeted them carried automatic military rifles at the borderlands. At the southern border, an archeology of misery and death is been excavated.

Left behind are the remnants of backpacks, fragments of letters, photos, Bibles. Human remains are scattered across the divide. Next to sunbaked human bones are bits and pieces of clothing, a soiled pair of shorts, a T-shirts in shreds, a sandal, discovered and collected by forensic anthropologists. Thanks to their ghastly work we know the so-called terrorists and rapists of Trump’s imagination died of thirst, of heat stroke, of hypothermia, of rattlesnake bites, with vultures preying on moribund bodies.

The desolate and silent deaths at the border are manufactured by an immigration policy of deterrence by death, a barbaric approach that purposefully channels ever more desperate migrants to cross the most forbidden areas of extreme danger and high risk. For two decades this policy has turned the rugged terrain of southern Arizona and Texas into a killing field. It is an early 21st Century adaptation of the Roman damnatio ad bestias (“condemnation to beasts,”) a form of capital punishment in which the condemned was executed by wild animals. The U.S. “deterrence strategy” to make the border impassable was first outlined in a July 1994 planning document: “Border Patrol Strategic Plan: 1994 and Beyond.”7 These documents are heartbreaking and constitute what the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) would declare a crime against humanity.

A longer wall at the southern border with Mexico is yesterday’s answer to yesterday’s problem. By 2017 the undocumented population from Mexico fell by 400,000 for the first time in the last half-century. Mexican migrants constitute less than half of all undocumented immigrants in the United States.8 Over the last seven years more undocumented people have entered the United States—by a ratio of nearly two to one—via airplane and other legitimate ports of entry, than as “entries without inspection,” or crossing undetected via the border.

As cross border migration from Mexico declined in 2012, Central Americans began their exodus to the United States. From 2016 to 2018, the number of families from Honduras and Guatemala apprehended at the southern border almost doubled, rising from 23,067 to 50,401 for family units from Guatemala and from 20,226 to 39,439 for Honduras during the same period. Migration from El Salvador tripled between 2013 and 2016, with more than 27,000 family units and 17,500 unaccompanied children apprehended at the U.S. Southern Border in 2016. Overall the number of families seeking refuge shot up again with Border Patrol agents detaining 136,150 children and parents during the first five months of this fiscal year “compared with 107,212 during all of fiscal 2018.”9

Reasons for the increase of migration

There are many reasons for the rapid kinetic expansion of migrants fleeing from the northern triangle of Central America—Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. In Guatemala, the source of most recent border crossers, environmental malfeasance and land tenure clashes in the Western highlands, engenders violence. Furthermore, depressed prices in global markets for Guatemalan commodities are pushing farmers up north. Climate change and severe drought in El Salvador has resulted in food insecurity for millions, while deforestation has left Honduras more vulnerable to hurricanes. Hurricane Mitch left more than 11,000 dead and displaced more than 2.5 million Hondurans in 1998 before governments or the media understood the dangers of global warming. According to a study by Brown University School of Medicine nearly a half-million adults age fifteen or older living in Honduras experienced post-traumatic stress disorder in the wake of Hurricane Mitch. It was then that Hondurans first migrated in significant numbers to the United States. But above all, war and terror are behind the humanitarian catastrophe.10

The United States has a long history of involvement in the so-called dirty wars south of the border. John Chatsworth’s research enumerates 41 occasions of United States-led regime change in Latin America and the Caribbean between 1898 and 2004. As Jeffrey Sachs has noted “violent, extra-constitutional overthrows of Latin American governments by the United States through a variety of means, including wars, coups, assassinations, electoral manipulation, acts of provocation” has led to a giant humanitarian crisis.11

State terrorism in Central America killed more than 200,000 civilians in Guatemala and more than 75,000 in El Salvador in recent decades. Likewise what is driving the most recent cycle of Honduran migrants across the U.S. border is the residue of the violent military coup in 2009 that overthrew Honduras’ democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya. The coup was financially supported by the U.S. Department of State.12

In each of these countries the institutions of society—including schooling, healthcare and the rule of law—has been decimated. Nothing about the so-called push-pull causes of Central American migrations competes with the decades of unending civil wars, drug wars, death squads, and military coups—initiated or supported by the United States.

As a young man from Central America put it, “we are here because you were there.”

The administration’s fabricated hysteria about brown terrorists, gangsters, rapists, and drug addicts using small children as human shields is cynical theatre. In the coliseum of sadism our immigration policy has become, desperate migrants are thrown to the lions for the insatiable rapaciousness of the professional haters.

Trump is right—there is a crisis but it is a humanitarian crisis at the border. Medieval walls and cages are inimical to a humanitarian response.

Zero tolerance/zero competence/zero transparency

As families continue to arrive at the southern border seeking mercy and shelter, they find chaos, cruelty, and incompetence in the name of the administration’s policy of “Zero Tolerance.” In fact, there was no blueprint, no action plan, and no thought given to implementing the administration’s decision. Zero Tolerance was the brainchild of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, famously dubbed a “Dumb Southerner” by his boss, President Donald Trump. Both men are avid practitioners of race baiting, but Trump envisions himself as a self-made, sophisticated global corporate capitalist, whereas Jeff Sessions is nothing more than a “white cracker,” a cantankerous Southerner, who still grieves the “night they drove old Dixie down.”

Sessions described Brown brothers and sisters arriving from across the border as inhuman aliens, a position that echoes his lifelong fury at the civil rights movement for our African American citizens. Sessions’ dedication to racial supremacy goes back to his years as Alabama’s attorney general when he was known for demeaning his Black associates as “boys” and his deep hostility to civil rights workers. He perfected the art of harassing Black voters and oversaw the executions of mentally and cognitively disabled people. In a move of Pharaohic cruelty, Sessions claimed that parents who fled to the U.S. with their children, “were scarcely better than human smugglers secreting contraband. ‘If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you,’ he said. ‘That child will be separated from you as required by law.’”

But Sessions was likely more a two-bit player—he wanted to prove his stuff by suggesting a plan, if not a coherent policy that he knew would resonate deeply in the reptilian brain of his boss. The President’s atavistic war cries—animals invading the country—struck a powerful cord with his adoring jingoistic followers. In dehumanizing the poorest and most vulnerable among us the President revealed a total gap in compassion, once a core American value (“There but by the grace of God go I.”) The administration’s Zero Compassion was in plain sight again in the sinister semiotics “I REALLY DON’T CARE. DO U?” logo scribbled on the First Lady’s jacket—no matter to whom it was addressed: to the President, the news media, or to the confiscated and caged children. Her attempts at conversation with the children were robotic and banal. “I’m here to learn about your facility,” Melania Trump said as she received a briefing about the work of Upbringing the New Hope Children’s Shelter. She asked the directors how she could “help these children be reunited with their families as quickly as possible.” Rogelio De La Cerda Jr., the shelter’s program director, told the First Lady not to worry as the separated children were “in a safe environment, free from abuse.”13 We have heard nothing more on the topic from the First Lady who soon after left for an African safari—effortlessly transitioning from petting caged children to petting caged animals.

Last summer a New York Times headline announced that “Four Military Bases Prepare to Hold 20,000 Children.” This is the ghost yet to come. The new military bases were for a new generation of child migrants not for the “lost generation” of children who may never be reunited with their parents and are being kept in a hodge-podge of detention centers, abandoned buildings, and tent cities furnished with cages but no books for children. Trump’s voice, Fox news, referred to cages as if they were a normal way to house children. The right-wing media suggested that “hygiene” was the most important concern, and cages allowed the custodians to uses hoses to clean them. Meanwhile dozens of adult migrants and young children faced acute medical emergencies. For millions of Americans the hullabaloo about containing Brown migrant children and youth in cages was much ado about nothing. It was a simple case of their President fulfilling his promises to his anti-immigration white constituency.

Soon enough the children in cages begin to smell like all caged animals: proof that “shit-hole” nations to the South of the border were sending their garbage, their refuse. Meanwhile, Trump the famed germ-phobic President washed his hands of any responsibility. He declared “Any deaths of children or others at the Border are strictly the fault of the Democrats and their pathetic immigration policies that allow people to make the long trek thinking they can enter our country illegally. They can’t. If we had a Wall, they wouldn’t even try!”

Words can kill. The confiscation of children, babies and toddlers is necessary, the administration claims, for their own safety. The primal cries of babies and toddlers begging for their mamas and their papas has kept a great many Americans awake at night, even as professional haters like Anne Coulter warn the President Trump not to be fooled by child actors. Instead we are told that these children are being cared for in “tender age” shelters before being transferred to foster care homes and from there, to upright families eager to re-socialize them into real Americans.

With Zero Transparency the devil-in-the-details are coming out in slow, harrowing detail. In the immigrant camps rape and sexual abuse was rampant. Children and youth were handcuffed, assaulted and drugged with powerful antipsychotics and sedatives. According to data from the Department of Health and Human Services, “178 of the complaints were against staff at the shelters—in particular, youth-care workers who escort the children everywhere they go. The complaints range from inappropriate romantic relationships between children and adults, to touching genitals, to watching children shower.”

The purposeful use of children to punish the parents is not new. Violently separating children from the parents, caging children, abusing them, mocking them, placing them with families sympathetic to the “regime” are all signature moves of dirty wars past and present.

While the specter of fascism—“Jews will not replace us,” [the chant of neo-Nazi white supremists in Charlottesville] spikes in hate crimes, the return of anti-Semitism to broad daylight, has been rightly registered, it is the tactics of state terrorism perfected in dirty wars South of the Border that most resemble the current dirty war on immigrant children. The danger we are facing in America today is not a Holocaust, but rather a dirty war such as Argentina, Brazil, and Chile experienced in the 1970s-1980s. We know, because President Trump has told us so many times, that he admires strength and power, especially leaders who are strong macho men. We could laugh this off, but it would be a terrible mistake. What is happening in front of our eyes is a vulnerable democracy entering stage-four cancer as we incrementally move toward a dictatorship by election rather than by a coup d’état.

Terror tactics of the state

At our southern border we are veering at a dizzying speed into the terrorist tactics of the Argentine Dirty War. On November 24, 1976, eight months after a military junta took power in Argentina, launching the Dirty War introduced the term los desaparecidos to the rest of the world. During the Process of National Reorganization—the junta’s grandiose name for the period of its rule, from 1976 to 1983—as many as thirty thousand people, mostly young Argentines, were separated from their families, kept in detention camps, tortured and disappeared.

The government justified its tactics as part of a war against a revolutionary insurrection waged by “subversive terrorists,” though the junta’s first leader, General Jorge Rafael Videla, defined a “terrorist” as “a person whose ideas are contrary to Western, Christian civilization.”

Approximately thirty percent of the disappeared were women. Some were abducted with their small children. In perhaps three percent of the abductions women were pregnant, or became so while in detention, usually through rape by guards and torturers. Pregnant prisoners were kept alive until they’d given birth. “The regime’s depravity reached its outer limit with pregnant detainees,” Marguerite Feitlowitz, then a Harvard professor, wrote in her groundbreaking study of the Argentine nightmare, The Lexicon of Terror. One former detainee told Feitlowitz, “Our bodies were a source of special fascination. They said my swollen nipples invited the ‘prod’”—the electric cattle prod, which was used in torture. “They presented a truly sickening combination—the curiosity of little boys, the intense arousal of twisted men.” Sometimes the mothers were able to nurse their newborns, at least sporadically, for a few days, or even weeks, before the babies were taken from them and the mothers were “transferred”—sent to their deaths, in the Dirty War’s notorious nomenclature.

Baby thefts arose partly from the military’s collusion with retrograde sectors of the Catholic Church, which gave its blessing to the transfers of “terrorists” but not to the murder of unborn babies or young children. Children—whether in the dirty war or our detention camps, always inspire totalitarian fantasies of molding the citizens of the future. The junta wanted to define and create “authentic Argentines.” The children of “terrorists” were seen, Feitlowitz explained, as “seeds of the tree of evil.” Perhaps through adoption, those seeds could be replanted in healthy soil. Baby-theft cases provided one small loophole to the amnesty laws: parents who were judged in court to be guilty of having adopted—or “appropriated”—the children of the disappeared while knowing the truth about their origins could be prosecuted.

Until his death General Videla defended the kidnapping of young dissidents and the confiscation of their infants and young children. He explained: “There was no other alternative [to the disappearances]…It was necessary to eliminate a large group of people who could not be brought to justice nor [openly] shot either.” “The women giving birth, who I respect as mothers, were militants who were active in the machine of terror…Many used their unborn children as human shields.”

The very same rhetoric against adult migrants using their children “as human shields” has been used by the Trump administration echoing the words of a Latin American terrorist dictator who was finally convicted of grave human rights abuses and crimes against humanity.

President Trump was eventually forced by the courts to replace the separation of parents and children with a policy of detaining entire families together. But alas the legal time limits on the detention of minors led to thousands of children still being kept in tents, cages, and even in old Wal-Mart stores run by a mix of government and private agencies. Chaos remains the shiny coin of the current regime. Mayor Bill De Blasio of New York City announced that he had no idea how many children have been taken (by train, bus, and plane) to New York City shelters run by Christian charities sympathetic to the regime. In a moment of moral clarity three airlines outright refused to host the travel of separated children accompanied by U.S. federal agents. American Airlines took an especially strong position.

Historical parallels

The progressive American media has noted parallels between what is happening today with political refugees and traumatized migrants with the Holocaust. Letters to the New York Times by survivors of the Holocaust who are re-traumatized by the current events articulate the horrific parallels. One of these letters to the editor from a child Holocaust survivor shared her memory of screaming as she was put on a train to England to escape the Nazis making the point that any child ripped from the family under any circumstances will certainly be traumatized for life. We found uncanny parallels to the Argentine dirty war.

Zero Tolerance is based on the confiscation and separation of migrant children while their parents are either detained or sent back to Central America. Private charities have been implicated in the adoption of taken children by respectable White Christian families tasked with turning child immigrant “animals” into real Americans. The current dirty war on immigrant children is not a new story but part of the history of childhood in the American South under slavery, and to this day among poor Black tenant farmers who had their children removed or recycled through foster homes. There are yet other parallels in the history of Native Americans who have had their children confiscated from their families and sent to U.S. government boarding schools where they were forcibly “socialized” to adapt to Anglo and White America.

Our history is rift with hidden tortures and violent separations of families that were later described by sociologists as “broken.” Today’s torture is the separation of children from their parents, too many of which will be permanent. We are being made complicit in this political and moral catastrophe.

Marcelo Suárez-Orozco is a psychological anthropologist. His most recent book, Humanitarianism and Mass Migration: Confronting the World Crisis was published last month by the University of California Press. 

Nancy Scheper-Hughes is Chancellor’s Professor Emerita, Medical Anthropology, UC Berkeley. She is the author of award winning ethnographies, Death Without Weeping (UC Press), Saints, Scholars and Schizophrenics (UC Press, 3rd edition), and several edited volumes including Commodifying Bodies (UK Sage) with Loic Wacquant, Violence in War and Peace (Wiley-Blackwell) with Philippe Bourgois, and, Violence at the Urban Margins (2015), Oxford University Press), with J. Auyero and P. Bourgois.

CounterPunch, April 1, 2019

1 Suárez-Orozco, Marcelo M., ed. Humanitarianism and Mass Migration: Confronting the World Crisis. University of California Press, 2019.

2 Dickerson, Caitlin. “Border at ‘Breaking Point’ as More Than 76,000 Unauthorized Migrants Cross in a Month.” The New York Times, March 5, 2019.

3 Jordan, Miriam and Caitlin Dickerson. “U.S. Continues to Separate Migrant Families Despite Rollback of Policy.” The New York Times. March 9, 2019.

4 Ibid.

5 CBS News. “DNA testing used to reunite undocumented parents and children, HHS secretary says.” July 5, 2018.

6 Scheper-Hughes, Nancy, and Carolyn F. Sargent, eds. Small wars: The cultural politics of childhood. University of California Press, 1998.

7 Shivone, Gabe. “Death as ‘Deterrence’: the Desert as a Weapon.” Alliance For Global Justice

8 Warren, Robert. “U.S. Undocumented Population Continued to Fall from 2016 to 2017, and Visa Overstays Significantly Exceeded Illegal Crossings for the Seventh Consecutive Year.” Center for Migration Studies

9 Jordan, Miriam. “More Migrants Are Crossing the Border This Year. What’s Changed?” The New York Times. March 5, 2019.

10 Suárez-Orozco, Marcelo M., ed. Humanitarianism and Mass Migration: Confronting the World Crisis. University of California Press, 2019.

11 Sachs, Jeffrey D. “Ending America’s War of Choice in the Middle East.” Horizons. Center for International Relations and Sustainable Development. Spring 2018 issue.

12 Noriega, David. “The U.S. is propping up a dictatorship in Honduras.” Vice News. February 9, 2018. ttps://

13 Gearan, Anne. “First lady Melania Trump visits a Texas child detention center as administration backtracks on harsh policy.” Washington Post. June 21, 2018.