The Trauma Inflicted Upon Migrant Children Today Mirrors The Experiences Of Korean Adoptees
Shared and ongoing histories of war and exploitation necessitate us to fight alongside not only migrant families, but all people engaged in struggle for collective liberation.
CW: This essay mentions suicide and r/pe.
By Elizabeth Niarhos
Increased family separation and child abuse and neglect by the United States government against immigrant families have prompted thought-provoking articles and statements by Korean adoptees who are connecting the trauma of separation from one’s biological family to the trauma being inflicted upon children at the border today. As Korean adoptees via the U.S., however, our kinship to these families and children extends beyond the trauma of family separation. Shared and ongoing histories of war and exploitation necessitate us to fight alongside not only migrant families, but all people engaged in struggle for collective liberation.
“Borders are set up to define the places that are safe and unsafe, to distinguish us from them. A border is a dividing line, a narrow strip along a steep edge. A borderland is a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary. It is in a constant state of transition. The prohibited and forbidden are its inhabitants.” -Gloria Anzaldúa
In 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the Mexican-American War, ceding half of Mexico’s territory to the United States. The 100,000 indigenous and Mexican people living on the ceded lands were given the opportunity to “repatriate” to Mexico’s remaining territory, or stay and be given US citizenship. Not wanting to leave their homeland, most opted to stay, but were treated as second-class citizens and largely dispossessed of their land and rights. Many did not receive citizenship for decades.
Almost 100 years after the signing of the Treaty, in 1945, the U.S. War Department drew another border, effectively dividing the Korean peninsula into two countries and precipitating the outbreak of The Korean War in 1950. The war created a new generation of mixed-race children borne by American soldiers and Korean women. In a similar manner to how the “new Americans” created by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo were viewed as deviant from the institutionally-desired image of a white America, these biracial children were viewed by the South Korean president, Syngman Rhee, as subversive to his image of a pure Korean race. They were thus shipped overseas, making up the first wave of many intercountry adoptions from South Korea. While intercountry adoption was meant to be a short-term solution to the “orphan problem,” its lucrative prospects, as well as ongoing geopolitical conditions, encouraged its expansion into today’s multi-million dollar industry.
Through its involvement in the Korean War, the United States established itself as a leading global power, setting precedent for subsequent military interventions into Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and the list goes on. Despite having its imperial eye already set on other countries, the U.S. continued its domestic reign of terror as well. In 1954, a year after an armistice declared the Korean War a stalemate, the U.S. government implemented a military-style campaign against Mexican immigrants within its borders called “Operation Wetback,” borrowing its name from the racist slur. Within its first year, the program violently deported over one million people, including many Mexican-American citizens of the U.S. The program was a response to the failures of the Bracero Program, an attempt by the U.S. and Mexican governments to police the movement of migrants in a way that both governments could maximally benefit from their productive labor. During his 2015 presidential campaign, Donald Trump praised “Operation Wetback” for “[moving] them way South. They never came back.” Today, Trump’s approach to foreign relations continues the imperialist nature of U.S. relations with Central and South American countries that begat the conditions of violence and economic decline immigrants are fleeing today.
Since 1956, over 100,000 South Korean children and babies have been adopted into the United States. By exporting its undesirable children, South Korea has been able to forego spending on a more robust social welfare program. Meanwhile, in one year alone, during the fiscal year 2018, the Trump administration deported 256,085 people. In regards to the millions of undocumented immigrants that remain, the United States has similarly avoided responsibilities of social welfare for the sake of economic profit by withholding social services from an entire class of immigrant workers that nevertheless contribute to the economy.
“There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” -Audre Lorde
Incidences and legacies of violence are unexceptional and constitute the very fabric of the U.S. nation-state, yet are often concealed by unquestioned ideologies and misleading narratives that divide, obscure, and pacify.
In the adoption industry, “assimilability” renders Asian babies more “desirable” than Black babies. Meanwhile, myths of the “model minority,” position Korean adoptees in the United States with greater access to whiteness and upward class mobility, even more so for those of us adopted into white middle-class families. But assimilability did not protect Adam Crasper, adopted at the age of three. Abandoned by his first adoptive parents and abused by his second, neither of which ever filed the necessary papers for citizenship, Crasper was deported to South Korea in 2016 at 41 years old, leaving a wife and daughter behind. Model minority status neither protected 42-year-old adoptee Philip Clay, who jumped to his death a year later in Seoul. Clay had been adopted in 1983 to the U.S. from South Korea at the age of eight and deported back again in 2012.
Just as adoption didn’t save Crasper or Clay, the American Dream won’t save immigrant families and children. Increased attention and protests around deportation and border abuse encourage a more critical analysis of the status quo. People are recognizing that the inhumane conditions in detention centers resemble those of U.S. prisons, opening up more criticism and protest of the Prison Industrial Complex, the multi-million dollar industry existing as a form of modern slavery and backed by Republicans and Democrats alike. Meanwhile, calls to #abolishICE mirror the ongoing campaign for prison abolition. People are also recognizing the family separation that occurs within U.S. borders, implicating the Prison Industrial Complex and the Child Welfare System, both of which are notorious for separating primarily Black, Brown, and Indigenous families.
The most basic demand, to #KeepFamiliesTogether, requires an interrogation of the historical institutionalization of the nuclear family. In his book on the Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, Friederich Engels describes pre-class societies in which human beings arranged themselves into kinship networks that looked vastly different from today’s patriarchal, monogamous, nuclear family. The advent of agriculture created a new possibility of surplus, which gave rise to private property and class society, creating unprecedented inequalities between men and women. As the child became more associated with productive labor and inheritance, adult-child relationships transformed from collective care into the legal construction of “custody” as defined by the state. Today, the family functions as the basic economic unit of society, tasked with maintaining the current class of workers and reproducing the next generation. Under the prevailing neoliberal agenda, the family is rendered responsible for costs of childcare and healthcare, even while the affordable housing crisis rages on and the Trump administration continues its attacks on social services.
“We are going to continue to be a nightmare to this president, because his policies are a nightmare to us. We are not deterred, we are not frightened, we are ready.” -Ilhan Omar
Calls to “send her back,” ICE raids, and a non-stop bombardment of new policies from attacking asylum-seekers (since blocked in federal court) to fast-tracking deportations, are what “Make America Great Again” according to the white nationalist, neo-Nazi, and alt-right troll. Often, these people are our family, neighbors, and peers, sucking us into heated debates and asking us, “What’s your solution?” Often, we don’t have a solid answer other than to condemn the status quo. We are in desperate need of a strong Left, the power of which we have not seen in the U.S. since the social movements of the 60s and before that the labor movement of the 30s.
We therefore cannot stop at moral solidarity, which often misdirects us into perceiving humanitarian crises as flaws in an otherwise functional and even democratic system. We must ground what we are witnessing in front of us and what we are feeling in our hearts, in critical and historical analysis of the systems that perpetuate our exploitation and demand our collective struggle to dismantle them. Korean adoptees are just one among the many groups that are beginning to make connections across oppressions and engage in action, from acts of civil disobedience and statements made by survivors of the Holocaust and Japanese internment, to walkouts by workers at companies funding detention centers.
In her 1981 book Women, Race, and Class, Angela Davis described rape as “the face of sexism, an essential crutch for capitalism,” and argued that therefore the anti-rape movement must situate itself within “a strategic context which envisages the ultimate defeat of monopoly capitalism.” But the campaign never developed into a larger social movement, and today, a rapist, white supremacist is President of the United States of America, most certainly not the first. As we engage in struggle and develop our understanding of intersecting oppressions, from white nationalism to foreign intervention to climate crisis, let us commit to developing the critical, long-term strategy and practice upon which Davis called, grounding ourselves in the ultimate goal of destroying the profit-motivated system and transforming our society into a world where everyone’s basic needs are met, from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs.
Elizabeth Niarhos first became politically activated through the Movement4BlackLives and efforts to understand her identity as a transnational Korean adoptee in relationship to anti-Black racism and solidarity organizing. Her political praxis has since traversed direct action, transformative justice, issue-based organizing, and Marxist theory. In 2018, Elizabeth presented a paper at the Alliance for the Study of Adoption and Culture Conference titled “A Dialectical Framing of Korean Adoptee Activism in the Bay Area and Beyond.”
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