“This is not my America,” is a statement I’ve heard so many people say recently, as they watched children being ripped from their parents at the U.S. border. While I wish that statement were true, it is far from it.

This is exactly what America is, and what it has been since its inception. I think that before we can move forward from this absolutely disgraceful place that we find ourselves in, we have to take an honest look at the past.

As early as 1879, Richard Henry Pratt founded the first Native American boarding school. Children were placed there after being forcibly separated from their parents. The “educational” program that these children received is now largely considered to be a form of cultural genocide. Reports of children being sexually abused, beaten, malnourished and forced into heavy labor are well documented.

These boarding schools were used not just to wipe out the cultural knowledge of children, but also as a tool of war against Native populations. Native nations that were considered to be hostile were especially targeted by the schools and the children of tribal leaders were held hostage to keep resistant tribes pacified.

The separation of children from parents was also common practice in the American system of slavery. Children as young as 3 years old were routinely separated from their parents at the auction block. An archive entitled “The Legacy of Slavery in Maryland” depicts one of these cruel scenes:

“My mother then turned to him and cried, ‘Oh, master, do not take me from my child!’ Without making any reply, he gave her two or three heavy blows on the shoulders with his rawhide, snatched me from her arms, and seizing her by one arm, dragged her back towards the place of sale.”

Every policy separating families of color continues this horrific legacy that began with colonization and slavery. To take someone’s children from them is part of a larger process of dehumanization. By routinely saying that immigrants are criminals, animals and rapists “infesting” our country, Trump is drawing on this legacy of dehumanization.

Too many times in our own history, and in the history of other nations, we have seen how this sort of dehumanization can escalate into state-sponsored discrimination and even genocide. Often times the excuse for these campaigns of violence is that someone “broke the law.”

The truth is that there is no law or federal policy that stipulates the cruelty and injustice taking place. There is no law that states children must be separated from their parents at the border, no matter their method of entry. But even if there was, it would be unjustifiable.

Donald Trump continued to blame the Democratic Party and Democratic lawmakers for the separation taking place at the border, but he failed to admit that the increase in detention and family separation is a direct result of the “zero tolerance” policy announced by his administration in May 2018.

In refusing the basic humanity of immigrants, Trump refuses our whole country its humanity, and continues to perpetuate an ugly and vicious — but truly American — legacy.

This is our America, and it will be until we change it.

Amy Dominguez

Amy Dominguez is a first generation American, born to immigrant parents. She is the vice president to local grassroots organization Unidad Inmigrante, a pro-immigrants rights group in Salt Lake City, Utah.