A common refrain after each new outrage in Donald Trump’s United States is simple, “This is not the United States I know.”
Yet, as so many commenters point out, the increased incidents of racism, growing bellicosity in foreign policy and frequently expressed disdain for the “other” are hardly foreign to this land we love. No, these actions are the acknowledged but shameful parts of our complicated history, beginning with the attempted genocide and removal of Native people from their lands to enslavement of Africans to internment of Japanese Americans during World War II because of their heritage.
The United States, truth be told, has failed to live up to its founding principles and ideals of liberty, equality and justice for all. Just look at what is happening now, as the Trump administration continues to pursue policies on the border that defy our professed values of justice and decency. Our country is separating migrant families, setting up detention camps rife with inhumane conditions and detaining children in camps where they are mistreated.
These policies should shame us now and will be a blot on our history in decades to come.
The latest outrage? The Office of Refugee Resettlement announced this week that unaccompanied minors will be taken to Fort Sill in Oklahoma, where they will be kept for the time being. Detaining children is horrific enough, but the choice of this location should trouble all Americans.
Immediately, national news sources pointed out that Fort Sill had served to intern Japanese Americans and Japanese immigrants during World War II. Some 350 Japanese nationals living in the U.S. were sent there, to try and survive in harsh conditions and endure life in tents.
The federal government’s establishment of these mandatory detention camps for people — simply because of heritage — are a blight on our nation’s human rights records. (Santa Fe was the site of one such camp; a granite boulder in Frank S. Ortiz Park overlooks the site, what is now the Casa Solana neighborhood.)
Even before the internment camps of World War II, however, Fort Sill was a holding place for prisoners. Established in 1869 as a base for U.S. soldiers fighting Native tribes, Fort Sill became the prison for famed Apache leader Geronimo. He was transferred there in 1894, eight years after his surrender. Eventually, some 400 other Apaches, including women and children, joined him there.
Despite being able to move around in the area — some were allowed to leave and perform in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show — the Apaches at Fort Sill essentially remained prisoners of war. Geronimo died at Fort Sill in 1909 and was buried there in the Apache Prisoner of War Cemetery. Not until 1914 were the remaining prisoners let go.
The forced removal of Apaches has repercussions that reverberate into this century. In recent decades, the Fort Sill Apaches have staked their claim to ancestral lands in New Mexico, with the state Supreme Court agreeing in 2014 that Fort Sill could be a recognized New Mexico tribe.
Now migrant children will be imprisoned at Fort Sill. Who knows what they will do? The Trump administration has cut funding for such activities as recreational programs, legal help and English classes. There’s just not enough money, the administration says, because of the crush of children being detained.
Fort Sill, a prison in the past and evidently, soon to be a prison of the present. Because in the United States, there is a precedent for detaining people, including children, and placing them behind barbed wire fences. It is what we do.