In her new book, Suffer the Little Children: Child Migration and the Geopolitics of Compassion in the United States, UCI professor Anita Casavantes Bradford takes a critical look at U.S. response to unaccompanied child migrants from before World War II to the present. Using archival sources spanning decades of policies, practices and programs, the Chicano/Latino studies scholar and historian details a persistent theme in which American foreign policy and domestic political objectives are prioritized over children’s best interests. Below, she provides a brief and compelling timeline illustrating how unaccompanied child migrant policy in the U.S. has been used as a tool of international diplomacy and statecraft, and what a new policy path forward could look like if the needs of this vulnerable population were prioritized over politics.
Tell us a bit about the background for your book and what spurred you to critically examine the evolution of U.S. policy toward unaccompanied children.
In 2015, more than 50,000 Central American minors undertook perilous solo journeys north in hopes of starting new lives in the United States. Seeking safety, freedom and opportunity, most were apprehended, incarcerated and summarily deported. Protesting the children’s lack of legal representation and their detention in prison-like facilities designed for adults, lawmakers, lobbyists and children’s advocates asserted the United States should treat Central American boys and girls as refugees who possessed a unique age-based claim on asylum. Opponents argued the children represented an invasion of young deviants and criminals drawn by an overly generous immigration policy, epitomized by President Obama’s 2012 DACA executive order granting temporary residence permits to undocumented youth.
As the controversy raged, students from what was then the University of California, Irvine’s undocumented student organization, Dreams at UCI, asked me to help them make sense of the hostile reception offered this group of vulnerable children from a region where many of them had family ties of their own. As Dreams at UCI’s faculty advisor and as a historian of immigration and childhood, I felt a keen obligation to provide real answers to their questions. This book represents my best attempt at fulfilling that obligation. Sadly, more than six years after I began research on this topic, the crisis of unaccompanied child migration continues. The struggle to determine the parameters of unaccompanied children’s rights under American law has only intensified since President Joseph Biden took office in January 2021, as a new surge of unaccompanied Central American minors arrived at the border seeking asylum.
How does looking at the crisis through the lens of both a historian and Chicano/Latino studies scholar shed new light on this topic?
During the past twenty years, scholars of Chicanx/Latinx studies have written extensively about the experiences of undocumented and unaccompanied child migrants from Latin America. However, in many cases, these studies tend to be focused on a narrow group of children; and in most cases, they suffer from a “presentist” focus that usually devotes no more than a few pages to the longer histories of migration which the contemporary child migration crisis makes up a part of. Because of their focus on children’s experiences, they also usually don’t delve very deeply into the more precise mechanics of immigration and refugee law and policy or analyze its evolving implementation over time. This is where my training as a historian came in handy for me while writing Suffer the Little Children; it allowed me to see beyond the ongoing crisis in order to uncover the longue durée history of child migration. In fact, the seemingly recent phenomenon of unaccompanied child migration to the United States—though unique in intensity—is not unprecedented. Children have been entering the United States without a parent or guardian, whether bonded or free, voluntarily or coerced, since the colonial era. However, it wasn’t until the eve of World War Two that U.S. government officials, humanitarian leaders and the general public began to develop an understanding of unaccompanied children as a unique migrant population that might be deserving of special care or concern. This is where my book’s analysis begins.
In your analysis of policy from the 1930s to today, what factors have played the biggest role in determining how the U.S. responds to unaccompanied children seeking asylum in the U.S.? What’s changed in terms of the American response, and how can improvements be made to put child safety and well-being at the forefront?
From the 1930s until the present day, an extraordinarily wide range of organizations and actors—motivated by an equally diverse range of values, beliefs and interests—have all played important roles in shaping the U.S.’s response to unaccompanied child migration. Presidents, policy makers and voluntary agency staff members, consular and Border Patrol officers, parish priests and celebrities and community leaders, have all influenced which children have been admitted or excluded. However, despite the diversity of actors and interests involved—and notwithstanding official and media discourses that have consistently insisted on the altruistic motives underlying successive policies and programs—archival sources clearly reveal that the U.S. response to unaccompanied child migrants has been consistently driven by a “geopolitics of compassion” that prioritizes foreign policy and domestic political objectives over children’s best interests. Since the 1930s, the admission of carefully selected groups of unaccompanied children has provided successive administrations with a relatively low cost means of advancing a number of foreign policy goals. Some of these have included demonstrating solidarity, aid and comfort to besieged wartime allies and western European nations struggling to rebuild after 1945, as well as easing pressures on overburdened nations of first asylum for whom tensions produced by an influx of refugees threatened to open the door to Soviet intervention. After the onset of the Cold War, unaccompanied children were admitted as part of broader refugee resettlement efforts seen as crucial to repairing U.S. credibility and relationships following failed interventions (or the failure to effectively intervene) in local anti-communist uprisings in Hungary, Cuba and Vietnam. In many cases, these children also became a source of evocative public relations material, as government officials and the U.S. media both sought to exploit the propaganda value of images of suffering children to discredit the U.S.S.R., project the U.S.’s image as a benevolent power, and confirm the superiority of the American way of life. At the same time, the resettlement of unaccompanied minors has also advanced the domestic political agendas of U.S. leaders since the FDR era, serving to placate powerful political, ethnic, religious and humanitarian lobbies who have demanded the nation fulfill its moral ideals and commitment to overseas allies by opening its arms to groups of suffering children seen as uniquely deserving of American protection.
With the passage of the 1980 Refugee Act, the historical pattern of admitting unaccompanied children through a series of ad hoc, voluntary agency-directed childsaving schemes targeting specific groups of at-risk children, would finally be replaced by a broadly-conceived set of federal laws, policies and programs regulating the treatment of unaccompanied refugee minors (URMs). Representing the culmination of almost fifty years of humanitarian, political and legal advocacy, the Refugee Act reflected Americans’ growing acceptance of new notions of refugees’ and children’s rights as encoded in recent international law. Unfortunately, the archives reveal that in practice, the administration of the new URM program would continue to be powerfully influenced by foreign policy and domestic political considerations. The continued importance of a geopolitics of compassion in determining which children were admitted or excluded became increasingly apparent during the 1980s and 1990s, when U.S. concern for emerging global security threats in Africa and transnational activism on behalf of child soldiers led to the admission of a growing number of URMs from the continent. Similarly, during the 2000s, changing geopolitical and domestic circumstances contributed to further diversifying the demographics of those served by the URM to include minor refugees, asylees, and victims of trafficking and severe forms of abuse from almost fifty nations. But the geopolitics of compassion simultaneously drove the federal government to adopt a much harsher response to the growing numbers of Haitian, Mexican and Central American children who began fleeing economic deprivation and state-sponsored violence and repression in their homelands during the 1980s.
During the next four decades, despite sustained advocacy by legal, religious and grassroots organizations, the government’s refusal to acknowledge the human rights violations of anti-communist allies and its disavowal of the devastating consequences of more than a century of U.S. interventions in Latin America and the Caribbean have led to the systematic denial of asylum to unaccompanied minors from south of the border. During recent history, mounting anti-immigrant, anti-refugee and anti-Latino sentiment, driven by a decades-long influx of Cuban and Southeast Asian refugees, surging unauthorized immigration from Mexico and the 9/11 attacks, has also fueled racialized hostility toward asylum seekers and public support for an increasingly punitive immigration enforcement regime. These intertwined foreign policy and domestic political contexts have shaped the reception granted the mostly poor and non-white minors arriving alone at the border since the 1980s, who continue to be treated as “illegal” immigrants and illegitimate asylum seekers rather than children in need of protection.
What long-term solutions are currently being considered to address the needs of this highly vulnerable population and their future in the U.S.? What’s missing from the conversation, and how will an increasingly polarized electorate factor in?
With the passage of the 1980 Refugee Act, U.S. immigration law institutionalized a number of provisions that explicitly recognized minor’s unique age-based needs and interests. Since the 1990s, a small number of visas as well as access to federally funded foster care and protection have also been made available for children who are victims of human smuggling, sexual or labor trafficking, or domestic abuse. Overall, however, geopolitical and domestic political considerations have continued to disproportionately shape decisions about which children are seen as worthy of admission and protection. By way of example, we can contrast the standard of care provided to a small but increasingly diverse group of URMs, including after the mid-1990s several hundred former African child soldiers as well as a highly visible contingent of Sudanese “Lost Boys,” with the harsh reception offered to the growing numbers of Haitian, Mexican and Central American children who sought security and opportunity in the United States beginning in the eighties. Despite sustained grassroots legal advocacy, those who are now designated Unaccompanied Alien Children (UACs) continue to be confronted by a punitive immigration enforcement regime that treats them first as “illegals” and illegitimate asylum seekers—and only secondarily as children.
It's clear that the United States needs to adopt a more consistent, more nuanced and more rights-based approach to the growing phenomenon of unaccompanied child migration. As for how--we could begin by faithfully implementing the laws and policies already on the books. However, that alone won’t be enough. A good start for broader reform will also need to deal with two pressing deficiencies in our current refugee and immigration laws. First: despite the chaos surrounding the 1980 Mariel boatlift and the prolonged influx of Central American asylum seekers—both of which date back more than forty years, the United States still lacks an effective legal and logistical infrastructure for serving as a nation of mass first asylum. Second: we have yet to explicitly codify the internationally accepted principle of children’s best interests with U.S. immigration law. Because children who cross borders alone are in fact both individuals and members of broader communities of displaced people, both of these omissions must be addressed.
We could begin to remedy the first by reserving a significant proportion of annual refugee allotments to those fleeing contiguous and nearby Latin American and Caribbean nations, as well as refugees from countries where U.S. intervention has played a role in creating human rights violations and displacement. We also need to update the way we understand who has a valid claim on protection. Whether applied to children or adults, our current statutory definition of refugees fails to take into consideration the multiple and intertwined political, economic, social, environmental factors that cause people to cross borders in fear for their lives. A refugee policy for our new millennium should move beyond its Cold War preoccupation with political persecution to recognize the broader range of basic human rights deprivations that threaten human survival. There is both an ethical imperative and pragmatic argument to be made for these actions. Since so much migration to the U.S. has been produced or exacerbated by our proximity to (and asymmetrical relations with) developing nations—particularly south of our border—it stands to reason that many of these migrants could be more efficiently and humanely processed through an expanded refugee resettlement program than through our expensive, ineffective and inhumane immigration enforcement regime. After all, as recent history has made clear, refusing to acknowledge persistent political, economic and social crises in our own hemisphere will not stop Latin American and Caribbean people of all ages from seeking asylum in the U.S. As long as we continue to deny the significant numbers of refugees of all ages among those we insist on labelling as “illegal” economic migrants, attempts to address the structural problem of unauthorized immigration will continue to fail—as will our overburdened asylum process. The result will be additional human suffering, billions more taxpayer dollars wasted on fruitless efforts to “secure the border,” and further damage to our democratic and humanitarian ideals.
We also need to update our laws to bring our treatment of unaccompanied migrant children more closely in line with international norms. Procedures that protect the human rights of unaccompanied minors can no longer be left to the discretion of individual immigration officers or judges; they need to be explicitly codified. As part of these reforms, just as U.S. law usually permits adult refugees and asylees to bring their spouses and dependent children with them, the parents, customary caretakers and immediate family members of unaccompanied refugee minors and UACs who are granted asylum should also be admitted to the United States.
But just writing these provisions into law isn’t enough. In order to ensure that new legal protections are rigorously enforced, we will need to mandate and fund an independent oversight agency that closely monitors detained children in federal custody. Consequences for failures to comply with standards and procedures encoded in the law should also be clearly articulated. At the same time, federal funding and other forms of support should be provided to promote the efforts of legal advocates and grassroots activists who have played such a significant role in identifying violations of unaccompanied migrant children’s rights and addressing them through the courts. Scholars, journalists and other community members also have an important role to play. We need to address public misperceptions about unaccompanied migrant children and combat misinformation about their criminality and role as “anchors.” It falls on us to lead our fellow citizens in critically reassessing our mythological belief in the U.S. as a historic haven for the oppressed. We need to confront the truth that to the extent that our country has established a humanitarian tradition of welcoming those forced to flee, it has been largely—in the words of Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman, “in spite of, not because of our laws relating to refugees.” We need to confront head-on our historical opposition to the admission of refugees and immigrants of all ages, and commit to overcoming the racial, ethnic and religious biases that have undergirded that opposition.