A family walks into Brownsville, Tex., from Matamoros, Mexico, on Saturday. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
Nara Milanich is an associate professor of Latin American history at Barnard College and a volunteer with the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas.

Last week, I received an email from my kids’ preschool list. Parents were mobilizing to collect donations for migrant children separated from their families who had just arrived at local shelters. The mail called for clothing, diapers, baby wipes. Three hours later, another message arrived with a new subject line: “please no more donations!” The response had been so rapid and so generous that the organizers were now politely pleading for people to stop giving.

The overwhelming response to the donations drive reflects the outrage and desire to help that we have witnessed in the past few weeks. Horrified by the prospect of children forcibly separated from their parents at the border, millions of ordinary people around the country and the world have been moved to donate goods and money, to volunteer to foster separated children, to head to the border to help in any way they can. As someone who has served as a volunteer legal assistant in a detention facility for refugee families in Texas, I am truly heartened by the extraordinary public response to the separation crisis. As a historian who studies childhood, however, I am more cautious. Humanitarianism is a double-edged sword: The prospect of suffering children can move people to action like perhaps no other, but such well-meaning impulses often prove radically insufficient and sometimes downright counterproductive.

The idea that innocent and vulnerable children are uniquely deserving of protection and succor is deeply rooted in modern ideas of childhood. “The weakness of childhood interests the affections of the most brutal and hardhearted,” observed Adam Smith. In the 19th and 20th centuries, such ideas gave rise to a powerful impulse to protect children from violence, exploitation, and neglect. They also imbued children’s suffering with a particularly powerful emotional valence. Little wonder that the horror of the Syrian war has been dramatized in the now iconic figure of 5-year-old Omran Daqneesh staring dirty and bloodied from an ambulance seat. Or that the most potent symbol of the European refugee crisis is the limp body of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi washed up on a Mediterranean beach image.

A similar dynamic is on display in the catastrophe of family separation that the Trump administration engineered at the border, though Trump wound up reversing the policy and a federal judge in California ordered officials on Tuesday night to begin reuniting the families. Images (and audiotapes) of suffering children have inspired outrage and catalyzed action. The prospect of thousands of children in internment camps and “tender age” shelters jolted many of us out of our political exhaustion and, for at least a moment, arrested the seemingly relentless drift of normalization. It has exposed in a way perhaps no other development yet has the endgame of this administration’s racial nativism. The political consequences of this crisis remain to be seen. Trump’s most potent foe, though, may prove to be not the raucous crowds of the #resistance, but the sobbing children recorded at a border facility.

Yet for all its power to galvanize, the impulse to save children can have ambiguous consequences. Focusing on humanitarian aid for migrant children all too often comes at the expense of appreciating the full context of their lives. Make no mistake; the wailing children in the audiotape were the result, most immediately, of the new “zero tolerance” policy that Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced for unauthorized migrants. But they were also the product of broader and deeper developments that made “zero tolerance” possible in the first place. These include long-standing violence and human rights violations at the U.S.-Mexico border, which have been denounced by activists for years. They include the political impulse, radically intensified in recent years, to demonize immigrants as criminals or even as sub-humans. This impulse is, of course, this administration’s hallmark.

Even more insidiously, the imperative to protect children is frequently used as a rationale for penalizing their parents. Some conservatives have attempted to conceptually cleave away the poor, suffering children from their lawbreaking parents. As one Texas lawmaker wrote in an open letter asking Gov. Greg Abbott (R) to halt the separations, “These children did not make the decision to violate our laws to be in this country nor have they committed any crimes. Their parents did.” If the parents are responsible for their children’s suffering, the child’s vulnerability itself is a reason to disparage the parents.

Meanwhile, humanitarianism is a powerful foil used to justify the violation of rights. Amid their many shifting explanations for the policy before President Trump abandoned it last week, administration officials suggested that family separation is itself a humanitarian measure. Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen characterized forcibly removing children from their parents as “protect[ing] alien children from human smuggling, trafficking and other criminal actions.” Their parents are, in this framework, the smugglers the children need protection from. Her predecessor, John Kelly, now the White House chief of staff, argued that family separation would protect children by discouraging their parents from bringing them north in the first place. Child saving, in short, is a powerful but perniciously elastic idea that can justify even policies of willful harm.

This is not a call to abandon altruism — or the outrage that helped force Trump to reverse himself. By all means, ordinary citizens should indulge their compassion in circumstances like this. Donating clothing and diapers to attend to the immediate needs of children whom our government has recklessly separated from their parents is not an empty gesture. At a moment when former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski ridicules a girl with Down syndrome and right-wing provocateur Ann Coulter dismisses distraught children as “actors,” basic empathy clearly cannot be taken for granted.

But compassion is a poor substitute for justice. Framing our response in terms of charity threatens to depoliticize this crisis, downplaying the fact that migrant children’s suffering is not just the unfortunate product of happenstance but is itself a deliberate political strategy.

Thanks to public outrage the separations have been suspended and approximately 500 of the more than 2,500 children forcibly appropriated by the U.S. government in recent weeks have been reunited with their parents. But the issue doesn’t end here. The children taken from their families are a small subset of a much larger population of children whose well-being has been harmed by immigration policies in recent years. These include the tens of thousands of migrant children who have been jailed in family detention centers since 2014, the estimated 1 million undocumented children resident in this country and the 4.5 million young citizens who have an undocumented parent. It’s not just separated migrant children who are suffering: Studies suggest that punitive immigration policies are associated with rising rates of severe psychological distress among children in immigrant families resident in the United States.

Nor should the focus on suffering children cause us to ignore their parents and other adults. The unrelenting criminalization of immigrants and refugees has as its necessary and inevitable outcome the brutalization of migrant children. We cannot hope to succor the latter without also addressing the former.

Read more:

Families will no longer be separated at the border. But where are my clients’ kids?

Sessions is criminalizing immigration violations. That upends decades of history.

Yes, you can call the border centers ‘concentration camps,’ but apply the label carefully