By Genevieve Carpio, author of Collisions at the Crossroads: How Place and Mobility Make Race

Since the resignation of Kirstjen Nielson as the Secretary of Homeland Security in early April, many have speculated as to whether the department would resume the policy of large-scale family separations at the U.S.-Mexico border. Nielson and Trump were reportedly at odds over reinstating the controversial practice, in which an unknown number of children (estimated in the thousands) have been separated from their families, without a tracking system, and without an effective means for reunification.

The urgency of family separation at the U.S.-Mexico border—heightened by issues of youth detention, sexual abuse, and the long-term psychological effects on migrant children—is part of a longer history in which state agents have criminalized and confined youth of color by policing their spatial mobility, often far from national borders.

As a scholar who examines a century of racial entanglements over movement in Southern California, I have found strong connections between settler colonialism, anti-immigrant sentiment, and the policing of everyday mobilities. A historical perspective reveals that rather than an exception, youth of color’s mobility has continually been met by State forces across the 20th century. At the turn of the century, the federal government began investing in the active removal of American Indian children by sending them to boarding schools far-distanced from their families, including the Sherman Institute. Relocated to Riverside, California in 1903, children who protested their displacement by running away were returned by local authorities for reprimand and further displacement, such as enrollment in punitive institutions like the Preston School of Industry. In the 1910s, Japanese immigrants—largely boys and young men—were arrested at inflated rates for bicycling infractions, including everyday behaviors like speeding or riding at night without a light, particularly in town centers where restrictions were the tightest. Those cited for three or more violations could find themselves imprisoned for up to six months. Likewise, if we jump ahead to the 1930s, you would find that Latino boys were sent to state reform schools at more than twice the rate of their peers for Motor Vehicle Act violations. Specifically, they were arrested for joyriding, an infraction in which it is the driver who is suspect, not the driving. In California, Latinx youth continue to be arrested at significantly higher rates for vehicle related crimes, across gender, than the population at large. Where the exact tools of separation have varied over time and impacted diverse groups in specific ways, the logic that instills State forces with the power to manage how nonwhite youth move (both permissions and prohibitions) has been steadfast.

What is happening at the border is deeply tragic. It is also part of a long historical trajectory of State control over the movement of nonwhite youth.

As we look to the border and its far-reaching mechanisms of carcerality, let it be a reminder of the multiple ways children and young adults continue to live under the watchful eye of the State, one that has found a fruitful means to manage youth’s bodies by policing their movements, both near and far in final destination. Youth of color, migrant and otherwise, continue to face the imminent threats of separation and incarceration. Rather than fall into a false sense of security by White House reports claiming that family separation will not be reinstated, let us remember the multiple ways mobility continues to be an effective avenue for criminalizing young people, particularly youth of color, a form of policing that is unlikely to change regardless of who is appointed in the permanent role of DHS Secretary.

The following passage highlights the intertangled ways that settler colonialism, anti-immigrant sentiment, and the criminalization of everyday ways of moving permeated Greater Los Angeles during the Depression era.

Excerpt from Chapter 4: “Del Fotingo Que Era Mio”: Mexican and Dust Bowl Drivers in Depression-Era Metropolitan Los Angeles

Police oversight of the ethnic Mexican population between 1900 and 1920 had been primarily concerned with labor activity, such as breaking strikes and quelling unionization. But by the 1930s, the LAPD came into increasing conflict with resident Mexicans over questions of criminality, reflecting popular alarm over population change, the certitudes of the typological school of psychiatrics that linked crime to race, and statistical evidence of racially discriminatory enforcement by police of nonviolent crimes, such as insobriety and vagrancy infractions.[1] Whereas Mexican adults were largely arrested on public order charges or were immigrants awaiting federal deportation, Mexican youth were most commonly arrested for joyriding. The 1930s and 1940s saw the rise of state institutions aimed at punishing youth of color, who were disproportionately identified as feeble-minded and sent to military- style penitentiaries where they were subject to harsh punishments and sterilization. This was one stop in a long line of institutions separating Latino boys from their families, who were credited with sowing the seeds of their children’s delinquency. Among these establishments was the Sherman Institute in Riverside. Mechanisms originally designed to separate and discipline Native youth were now routinely applied to Mexican and Puerto Rican boys, who found themselves wards at this off-reservation boarding school.[2] This reorientation underscores that tools designed to manage the movements of one racialized group could easily be adapted to manage another.[3] Conversely, enrollment records for the Boy’s Republic in Chino shows that Latino boys were rarely sent to reform schools, which sought rehabilitation through self-government and vocational training.[4] Widely circulated accounts of deviant drivers were met with municipal police efforts targeting young drivers to undercut nonwhite mobility.

[1] Edward J. Escobar, Race, Police, and the Making of a Political Identity: Mexican Americans and the Los Angeles Police Department, 1900–1945 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999).

[2] Miroslava Chávez-García, States of Delinquency: Race and Science in the Making of California’s Juvenile Justice System (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012).

[3] Natalia Molina, How Race Is Made in America: Immigration, Citizenship, and the Historical Power of Racial Scripts (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014).

[4] Based on author’s analysis of original enrollment records, which show only 38 Spanish surnamed boys enrolled between 1908 and 1941. Full records are available for 1929–1939, with partial records for 1908–1928 and 1941. Boy’s Republic, “California Junior Republic Application for Enrollment,” Institutional Records, Chino, 1908–1941.