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The Childhood, Law & Policy Network (CLPN)

Interview with Anita Casavantes Bradford about her book, Suffer the Little Children: Child Migration and the Geopolitics of Compassion in the United States

Our member, Prof. Anita Casavantes Bradford (University of California Irvine, US), talks about her new book, Suffer the Little Children: Child Migration and the Geopolitics of Compassion in the United States (University of North Carolina Press, 2021).

Suffer the Little Children book cover

Q: What is this book about?

Suffer the Little Children argues that the U.S. response to unaccompanied child migration has been consistently driven by a geopolitics of compassion that prioritizes foreign policy and domestic political objectives over children’s best interests.

Since the World War Two era, the admission of select groups of unaccompanied children has provided successive administrations with a relatively low cost means of advancing a number of foreign policy goals. These have included demonstrating solidarity, aid, and comfort to besieged wartime allies and western European nations struggling to rebuild after 1945, as well as 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.

At the same time, the resettlement of unaccompanied minors has also advanced the domestic political agendas of U.S. leaders seeking to placate powerful political, ethnic, religious, and humanitarian lobbies who have demanded the nation open its arms to groups of suffering children seen as uniquely deserving of American protection.

The geopolitics of compassion became even more 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 unaccompanied minors from the continent—at the same time that the government adopted a much harsher response to Latin American and Caribbean children fleeing economic deprivation, violence, and repression in their homelands.

Q: What made you write this book?

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.

As the controversy over migrant children’s right to asylum 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.

Book Excerpt (pages 8-10):

The story told in Suffer the Little Children challenges the false binary between the categories of “refugee” and “economic migrant” frequently used to differentiate between groups of equally endangered people seeking asylum in the U.S.—both adults and children—since at least the 1930s. It sheds new light on how the term refugee has served to articulate particular forms of rights deprivation while also functioning as a form of privilege bestowing what Vietnamese refugee scholar Phuong Tran Nguyen calls a “moral belonging” on some—but not all—who need protection. This book also makes clear that this privilege comes with a price. As Yến Lê Espiritu notes in Body Counts: The Vietnam War and Militarized Refuge(es), those selected for admission to the U.S. as “refugees” have long been imagined by political leaders as tools of statecraft and pressed into service of the nation’s geopolitical ambitions.

This way of imagining refugees necessarily frames them as passive, dependent and voiceless, objects of pity rather than rights-bearing subjects: exactly the way that modern western societies imagine children. It wasn’t until after the 1920s that childhood as most middle-class Americans understand it today—an idyllic and protected phase of life, free from paid labor and dedicated to school and play—became commonplace. Together with new notions of children as the raw political material from which modern nation-states would be constructed, these ideas inspired a new transnational network of women’s child saving activism, beginning with the founding of the Save the Children Fund in England in 1919. Similar ideas continue to inspire humanitarian activism today. This book provides countless examples of how children’s advocates since the 1930s sought to generate support for unaccompanied minors’ admission by framing them as innocent victims in need of saving by a benevolent paternal United States. I also draw attention to gaps between these representations and minors’ own identities and lived experiences, and to the ways they have obscured the distinct capacities and needs of the adolescent boys who represent the majority of children who migrate alone. I point out the ways that discourses and images of endangered foreign children implicitly encouraged Americans to see sympathy and humanitarian action as an alternative to the structural changes needed to remedy human rights deprivations that fuel the ongoing crisis of unaccompanied child migration.

This book also asks a cultural historian’s questions about how changing notions of refugees and children’s rights have interacted with Americans’ shifting understandings of race, ethnicity, religion, national origin, class, gender, and age over time, and how together these factors influenced which unaccompanied migrant children were deemed deserving of protection and sympathy and which reviled as “anchors,” deviants and criminals. The discourses and images deployed for or against children’s admission since the 1930s played a major role in shaping the way they’ve been understood. But this book also asks a more fundamental question about the extent to which different groups of unaccompanied child migrants since the 1930s have been understood as individual rights-bearing subjects—and the ways that notions of race in particular have influenced those understandings. Like women before them, children have been considered possessions or appendages of adults. In the United States, they went unrecognized as individual subjects of immigration law until 1907, when children’s admission without a parent or guardian was formally prohibited (though in practice, this fell to the discretion of immigration officers at ports of entry). By the time the 1980 Refugee Act was passed, U.S. immigration law contained a number of provisions explicitly recognizing minors’ unique age-based needs and interests. However, as this book reveals, decisions about which unaccompanied children to admit or exclude continued to be based on an understanding of them as extensions of their parents and communities.

This implicit denial of children’s individual existence facilitated admission of some unaccompanied minors—mostly white, middle class, European-origin and/or Christian—when Americans wished to demonstrate solidarity or provide assistance to their parents or home nations. But it also worked against poor, non-white and non-Christian children, whose claims on admission and protection were evaluated in light of their broader implications for refugee and immigrant flows from their homelands instead of in terms of their individual circumstances. This racialized logic of deterrence justified barring most endangered Jewish children from the United States in 1939, seeing them as an “entering wedge” whose admission would lead to an influx of co-religionist adult refugees. It also informed laws that forced European “half-orphans” in the 1950s, and the children of American GI and Southeast Asian mothers in the 1980s, to choose between lives of deprivation in their homelands or migrating to the U.S. alone. Between the mid-70s and the present day, this racialized logic of deterrence has also inspired a growing number of frontline immigration officials to undercut unaccompanied Southeast Asian, Haitian, Central American and Mexican minors’ access to asylum, despite indisputable evidence of their acute need for protection.



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