Children really are crossing the border in large numbers, and the journey is, indeed, dangerous. In just four months, from Oct. 1 to Jan. 31, some 54,000 family units were apprehended crossing the border, the vast majority of them Salvadorans, Guatemalans and Hondurans fleeing violence in their home countries.
The mass separation of these families would be catastrophic. But it would not be unprecedented: Modern states have long practiced forcible removal of children from their parents’ care. And in doing so they have invoked motives that echo uncannily those of the Trump administration: the children’s own well-being. The idea that the government is acting in the child’s best interests is a morally and emotionally powerful one. Yet historically, this rationale has often produced heinous results.
Perhaps the most familiar historical instance involved Native Americans. Beginning in the late 19th century, the U.S. government removed tens of thousands of Native American children from their families and placed them in boarding schools to be instructed in English, Christianity and the benefits of “civilization.” “Kill the Indian and save the man,” declared Richard Henry Pratt, founder of the Carlisle Indian School and a vocal advocate of the “Friends of the Indian” movement. In this ethnocidal version of tough love, the government’s harsh educational project was inseparable from the ostensible goal of saving Indian children from their Indian-ness. Eventually, the boarding schools were shuttered, but they were replaced in the mid-20th century by staggering rates of foster care placements. Welfare authorities cited poverty and social pathology as reasons to separate children from kin and communities. In 1978, in response to this long and sordid history, Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act, giving greater power over child custody actions to tribal governments.
A parallel logic governed social policy toward children born illegitimately. Through much of the 20th century, young, unmarried mothers from Australia to Ireland were obliged, through various kinds of coercion, to give up their children. (In the United States, young white women were similarly pressured; for a variety of reasons, young black women were also stigmatized but found it easier to keep their babies.) Procreating out of wedlock marked mothers as irresponsible, lacking in judgment and unfit to raise children. Removing the child served as redemption for a mother’s moral transgression, but it was also seen as preferable for the child, who would be better off in a normative, two-parent family. In Australia, as many as 150,000 “forced adoptions” occurred between 1950 and 1975. They have since become the subject of official investigations, a national apology and special support services for those affected. In Ireland, 60,000 children were coercively separated from their mothers in the decades after World War II. Some were interned in religious institutions; several thousand were sent to adoptive families in the United States, an episode explored in the 2013 film “Filomena.”
Argentina continues to grapple with the ethical and political fallout of its government’s policy of appropriating children. In the 1970s, Argentina’s right-wing military government waged a murderous “dirty war” against its political opponents, detaining thousands of people on charges of subversion. Among them were hundreds of pregnant women who gave birth in prison. Other children of dissidents were caught up in police operations in which their parents were killed or arrested. Military officials placed these children, whom they designated “orphaned” or “abandoned,” with adoptive families. The Argentine government may not have set out to “redeem” the children of its political enemies, as was the case with Native American children or illegitimate ones. Yet it, too, couched its actions in humanitarian motives: Innocent children were being rescued from parents whose subversive politics made them unfit guardians. When the dictatorship ended in the early 1980s, a truth commission denounced the military’s “perfidious usurpation” in the name of child welfare. These events launched powerful social movements spearheaded by the children’s grandmothers and, as they grew up, the children themselves. These movements have shaped national and international child rights norms and spurred ongoing criminal investigations.
There are countless other historical examples of state-sponsored child appropriation. In the 19th-century United States, self-described “child-savers” gathered up tens of thousands of needy urban waifs and shipped them west on “orphan trains” in the belief that life in salubrious farm families would save them from vice and delinquency. A similar logic guided child migration projects in Britain, where poor children were removed from families and sent, often without parental consent, to far-flung parts of the empire.
Child removal is an extraordinary act of modern state power that falls most heavily on the poor and the powerless: the colonized, the subaltern, the dissident. Authorities have wielded this power over individuals and groups in an effort to redeem, punish and deter them. Now, they threaten to do so once again on the U.S.-Mexico border.
In every past instance, authorities rationalized removal as a way to protect children from parents, usually mothers. The Trump administration’s proposal follows a parallel logic: If mothers are aware of what awaits them, they will think twice before exposing their children to a risk of separation. “I would do almost anything to deter the people from Central America getting on this very, very dangerous network,” Kelly said.
Deterrence, however, is a cruel fallacy. Central American mothers are no less competent, judicious or loving than any other parents, and they certainly do not need the U.S. government to educate them about the dangers of the migrant route or to tell them how to protect their children. They, too, would “do almost anything” to avoid these risks.
The parents I met while serving as a translator at a detention center for mothers and children in South Texas came north because they had no choice. They left behind neighborhoods overrun by gangs that extort small businesses and families. One mother sobbed as she held a sleeping toddler in her lap and described a gang’s chilling threat to “pump your baby full of lead.” Young people who refuse to join gangs are targeted for violence — like the thin boy, 12 or 13 years old, whom I noticed sitting hunched over, his head in his hands in the waiting area. I asked if he was bored or hungry but later learned he suffered from migraines because of a severe beating for refusing a gang’s recruitment effort. Then there are the girls kidnapped as “girlfriends.” One mother fled El Salvador when her teenage daughter rebuffed a gang member’s affections. Tipped off that the gang was planning to abduct her — a common practice — the mother fled with her daughter the next day. She left behind another child, an infant, because she could not take both. Domestic and sexual violence are also endemic, and many women flee to get away from murderous partners. Today, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have some of the highest rates of murder and femicide in the world.
The only way to deter desperate refugees from traveling north is to address the causes of their desperation. Making them more desperate — layering added trauma on families that have already suffered violence and terror — is gratuitous and cruel. Given the huge backlogs in immigration courts, family separations could last years, and many children will likely wind up in foster care because undocumented relatives will be fearful of claiming them. If they receive special forms of relief available to minors while their mothers are deported, separation could become permanent. Little wonder this proposal has been roundly condemned not only by immigrant rights groups but also by UNICEF USA and the American Association of Pediatrics.
But beyond cruel, the policy is also futile. Mothers embark on the journey not because they have failed to consider the best interests of their children but because they have done just that. The Trump administration can wrap its actions in the mantle of humanitarianism, but it cannot disguise the cynicism of a policy that tries to manage an appalling geopolitical situation by punishing its victims. Nor can it hide the great irony that, even as it invokes the best interests of the child, its logic of deterrence requires children to suffer.