The idea that belonging to a family is what makes people human has long been prominent in American politics. When the state recognizes certain types of families as families—as when same-sex marriage became the law of the land—it is a significant moment of enfranchisement for the people affected. But other families are denied recognition because they are too unconventional, too poor, or deemed not good enough at creating the right kind of family; often, these families are denied the possibility of staying together. But the “Families Belong Together” slogan of the demonstrations seemed suspended outside this political context. The protests were fuelled by the raw heartbreak of watching children separated from their parents. The demand that families be kept intact would appear to be one that everyone–even President Trump himself—can support.
A good slogan is essential to protest. But what is the purpose of protest? One of its functions is, certainly, to mobilize people, to draw the maximum number into the streets both to see like-minded individuals and to send a message to those who may think differently. The messages may vary. They may be visions. They may be demands. In the case of the Families Belong Together marches, they were less a demand than a reminder. By the time people marched, Trump had already signed his executive order ending family separation at the border. Surely, with a President who lies all the time, it is useful for tens of thousands of people to remind him of their expectations. It is also essential to demand that children who remain separated from their parents be reunited with them. But asking for something that has already been promised seems like a waste of the potential of massive protest.
The news stations reported the marches largely as protests against Trump’s immigration policies. Tweets and Facebook posts by participants, on the other hand, reported that they were “marching for families.” Speaking in Washington, D.C., Lin-Manuel Miranda explained, “We are here because there are parents right now who can’t sing lullabies to their kids.” He then sang a lullaby. But what the news coverage inadvertently pointed out—and what the protests themselves largely obscured—is that the protests happened because the American government is waging a war on immigrants. It is portraying them as enemies, animals, criminals, and pests. It is deporting them, detaining them, and interning them. The separation of children and parents is the most emotionally affecting tip of the terrifying, inhumane iceberg of American immigration policy.
The separation policy was so egregious that it managed to mobilize a depressed civil society in a way that mass deportations and even the Supreme Court’s approval of Trump’s travel ban did not. But it seems like a moral mistake to frame the protests in terms of a small part of a problem that is redefining American politics. It is also a tactical mistake. For the question is likely to arise soon: Where do these families belong, together—perhaps in indefinite detention, internment camps, or deportation proceedings?