Summer Camps, Boarding Schools and the Ideology of Family Separation in the U.S.
Family separation is part of American history
For many American parents gearing up for sleepaway camp season, the usual jitters are accompanied by a guilty unease: it’s hard to be anything but horrified by the profound difference between the experiences of affluent kids heading off for a summer of campfires and canoeing and those of the more than two thousand children forcibly separated from their poor, immigrant parents and confined to cages or a converted Walmart.
This uncomfortable juxtaposition was mostly expressed in whispered conversations and text messages, but on Monday night conservative media personality Laura Ingraham brushed off criticism of the Trump administration’s family separation policy precisely by likening the detainment facilities to summer camps. Pushback came fast and furious, and Ingraham quickly backpedaled to say the holding facilities were “basically” like “boarding schools.”
Modern summer camps and boarding schools of course have little in common with detainment facilities — primarily because parents choose to send children to these places for education and enrichment. Yet even in the wake of an executive order ending the policy the Trump administration had just touted, it is important to remember that this family separation policy is of a piece with a troubling American tradition of using both boarding schools and summer camps to drive a wedge between minority children and their families. Moreover, in doing so without even paying lip service to a regard for child welfare, this policy signaled a newly callous form of state-sponsored cruelty.
At the turn of the twentieth century, the federal government funded American Indian boarding schools as the preferred way to “kill the Indian and save the man” through forced assimilation. Native American children who were taken from their families to these institutions had their names changed, their long hair shorn, and were forbidden from speaking native languages. Lest these Native American children resist “civilization” to go “back to the blanket,” an outcome that was considered a failure by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, communication home was limited, which prevented reporting the poor conditions and abuse that historians have uncovered.
In the same era, southern and eastern European immigrants poured into growing cities, and politicians and reformers worried about the immoral and unhealthy influences of dense urban environments and backwards, foreign parents on this new generation of children, especially boys, at risk of “dying of indoor-ness.” A stint at summer camp — surrounded by nature and engaged in hard work and healthy play, all under the guidance of white, American counselors who modeled moral uprightness — was considered an ideal solution. Not nearly as coercive as Native American boarding schools, early summer camps emerged from an undeniably similar impulse: separating children from their nonwhite, outsider parents was the children’s best bet to become assimilated Americans, even if their race, accent, or ethnicity meant they would likely never transcend second-class status.
And there’s where the Trump policy of family separation — which appears to be ending — diverges most disgracefully from the efforts of a century ago. Then, Native American boarding schools and summer camps aimed at ethnic immigrants were predicated on a philosophy of child wellbeing, wrongheaded as it is in hindsight, that assumed that children’s moral, physical, and civic health as Americans was better served in such institutions than with their families. This is utterly unlike the punitive rationale underlying the Trump policy and practice enacted at the border — and which has been condemned as child abuse by the American Academy of Pediatrics — in which separating immigrant children from their families is unabashed retribution for daring to seek refuge in the United States.
Moral outrage is appropriate, but not because family separation isn’t part of American history. Rather, because in 2018 we should have long ago learned from it.
Natalia Mehlman Petrzela is an associate professor of History at The New School for Social Research. She also is co-creator of the Past Present Podcast and co-editor of the Past Present vertical on Public Seminar.