America tried everything to keep the migrants out. Men and women were arrested at the border. Children were separated from parents. People got thrown in jail for violating random rules that nobody knew or understood. Kids went missing and the white nationalist president blamed his political opponents and the victims at the border.
As much as this may sound like an opening monologue from a CNN pundit talking about Donald Trump’s zero tolerance immigration policy in 2018, the scenarios described actually date back 100 years.
They all happened in America during the Great Migration of 1915, except the border wasn’t the U.S.-Mexico boundary in Texas—it was the border between Kentucky and Ohio; the white nationalist president at the time was Woodrow Wilson; and the people fleeing violence and seeking asylum were African Americans.
Unfortunately, America has a tendency to repeat itself, and if the past is any indicator, the current chaos at the border is going to get much, much worse.
Most decent Americans think that Trump and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ policy of separating families at the border (and subsequently losing thousands of kids) is barbaric. The need for context in public debate has led to media and political leaders comparing this administration’s policies to the Japanese internment era of World War II, or chattel slavery, or even Native American “boarding schools.”
Unless your history textbooks were all printed in Texas, it’s not that hard to find examples of America’s horrible treatment of nonwhite people, but most comparisons miss a crucial element of what is happening today and how it connects with the Great Migration of the past: asylum.
The Great Migration, which ran from right after World War I until the early 1960s, has always been misnamed. Calling the almost 500,000 black folks who made their way from the Deep South to the North “migrants” is like calling the Cherokee on the Trail of Tears speed walkers.
Black folks weren’t migrating; they were fleeing Southern terrorism. They were asylum seekers in every single way except name. Post-Reconstruction Southern states routinely terrorized the black population: The convict-lease system put more than 200,000 men and women into a prison slavery system; arbitrary “vagrancy” laws were used as an excuse to imprison men, women and children and steal land. This was on top of the systematic rape and torture of black women and children and the subsequent lynchings of black folks every year directly by, or with the tactic consent of, the police.
History books would have you believe that the Great Migration was mostly about finding nice jobs in Chicago and escaping a drought, just like how Sessions wants Americans today to believe that the people being rounded up at the U.S.-Mexico border are just trying to steal apple-picking jobs from hardworking Americans.
Both are lies. These people today are fleeing terror, just as black folks were 100 years ago.
I’m sure some of you are putting on your Corey Lewandowski thinking caps and saying: “Nice try, you liberal tool—but the Great Migration was black citizens traveling in their own country; that’s totally different from these foreigners at the border—whose shithole countries are not our problem, by the way! #MAGA!”
These are the kinds of thoughts that go through the minds of people who learn all of their American history from Bill O’Reilly’s books.
First, in the early 20th century, Southern black folks were citizens in name only, and barely that. They couldn’t vote, their property rights were seldom enforced and their human rights were routinely violated. Despite paying taxes, they received no protection from the government. They were treated like undocumented aliens in a nation they’d built for free.
The same can be said for the thousands of men, women and children at the U.S. border today, who are victims of drug cartels, corrupt government and relative anarchy in many of their countries. They aren’t enjoying much citizenship, either.
As for the idea that the conditions asylum seekers face today aren’t really America’s problem, unlike those of Jim Crow refugees, that’s just patently untrue.
The rampant violence that leads people to seek asylum from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador can be directly traced to America sticking its nose into the affairs of those countries. Starting in the 1960s and still active today, the U.S.-funded U.S. Army School of the Americas (now renamed the generic Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation) has trained more than 60,000 soldiers and officers who have always seemed to end up back in South America to overthrow democratically elected governments. School of the Americas alumni have destabilized Guatemala, El Salvador and dozens of other countries. The Honduran coup in 2009 was led by an SOA graduate and had Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama’s fingerprints all over it.
Like black folks a century ago, these people are forced to seek asylum from the very nations that disrupted their lives to begin with.
So what happens with all of this Trump-manufactured chaos at the border? History tells us that we have a lot of violence coming.
As most public schools skip out on all black history between slavery and the civil rights movement, most people have never learned about the “white-lash” to the Great Migration.
During the Red Summer of 1919 (celebrating 100 years of racial violence next year!), white mobs attacked black communities and businesses in Arizona, Arkansas, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Norfolk, Va., and dozens of other places across the country, leaving hundreds dead and thousands of lives ruined.
Within the next year, it’s not hard to imagine terror attacks on so-called sanctuary cities and migrant internment camps, to go along with the rising number of white nationalist and hate crime attacks across the country since Trump and Sessions got into office.
We’ve seen this story before, played out in the same country, with just a different set of nonwhite people, and we already know it doesn’t end well.