“See, too, that girl of thirteen, weeping, yes! weeping, as she thinks of the mother from whom she has been torn!” —Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” 1852
People do not belong in cages. Youth do not belong in cages. Children do not belong in cages. Babies do not belong in cages. Families do not belong in cages. The current debate around family separation and incarceration, immigration policies and enforcement should begin with this premise.
Years of research demonstrates the detrimental impact incarceration has on the physical and mental health of youth and adults, the financial toll placed on families and the long-term collateral consequences that impact one’s ability to continue education, gain employment and earn a living. Then there’s the perpetual stigma, often reinforced in policies and behavior that lets you know that despite “doing your time” you don’t belong and deserve to be punished. Advocates in the juvenile and criminal justice community have long called for addressing these compounding negative consequences.
There is general consensus — on both sides of the aisle and across political spectrums — that U.S. incarceration policies and practices are inhumane and unjust, too costly and economically unfeasible, for the most part do more harm than good and do not focus enough on rehabilitation and restoration. There is also recognition of the devastating impact the war on drugs of the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s had on the ballooning of incarceration rates in this nation and the unchecked mass incarceration of people of color, in particular African Americans.
Criminal justice reform movements are underway across the states from raise the age — moving youth under age 18 out of the criminal justice system — to investing in recidivism reduction programs, community-based diversion, prevention programs and community policing. These things are happening even as the U.S. is the world leader in incarceration — one in four of the world’s prisoners is in an American prison or jail.
In these times, shortly after July 4, I am reminded of Frederick Douglass’ “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” His poignant words, written more than 100 years ago, should hit all of us to the core. They should sting. But they should also remind us of our shared struggle, collective pain, resiliency and hopefulness as a nation.
“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.”
The 13th Amendment to the Constitution formally abolished slavery in the United States of America. Added to the Constitution in 1865, it stated, "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction." Historians and activists are quick to note, however, that while slavery and involuntary servitude are no longer constitutional in America, both are quite real for people who are under the jurisdiction of the criminal justice system.
The 13th Amendment’s “except as a punishment for crime” clause is also known as the slavery “loophole.” This loophole is and has been an ever-constant lever that gives cover for our unacceptable mass incarceration problem and the growing detention of immigrants that has occurred across several presidential administrations.
In April, the Trump administration began imposing zero tolerance policies — criminal penalties designed to deter immigrant families from coming to our country seeking asylum. A consequence of these policies is separating children from their parents. Countless advocates, physicians, mental health professionals have spoken out against the policies and about the harm separation does to children.
With rising pressure from the public, the Trump administration claims that it has now shifted the policy to family detention. To be clear, family detention is still incarceration and extremely harmful to immigrant families. Detention of immigrants are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. prison system. The incarceration of immigrant youth and families is antithetical to the movement for criminal justice reform.
“Three score years and ten is the allotted time for individual men; but nations number their years by thousands. According to this fact, you are, even now, only in the beginning of your national career, still lingering in the period of childhood. I repeat, I am glad this is so. There is hope in the thought, and hope is much needed, under the dark clouds which lower above the horizon. The eye of the reformer is met with angry flashes, portending disastrous times; but his heart may well beat lighter at the thought that America is young, and that she is still in the impressible stage of her existence. May he not hope that high lessons of wisdom, of justice and of truth, will yet give direction to her destiny?”
America is still young. By no means are we a perfect country. We have yet to fully atone for government-sanctioned policies that permitted the displacement and genocide of indigenous peoples, slavery, Jim Crow, the relocation and incarceration of Japanese Americans, the deportation of millions of immigrants and the mass disenfranchisement of communities of color.
Nevertheless, we continue to evolve. Let us all be reminded of the thousands of families — men, women and youth — who are separated and incarcerated, whether they be along the U.S.-Mexico border, in detention centers or in prisons and jails across the nation. Let us also be courageous youth advocates and leaders — vocalize our disgust, protect and support young people and their families in our programs and communities, and join those who continue to push for justice and insist on an America that believes in words and deeds that people do not belong in cages. For information on how you can help, please visit https://www.familiesbelongtogether.org.
Kisha Bird is director of youth policy at the Center for Law and Social Policy and project director for the Campaign for Youth, a national coalition chaired by CLASP. Focusing on local and federal policy solutions, she works to expand access to education, employment and support services for low-income and opportunity youth, with a focus on young men and women of color.