“Which Children Matter?”

Children light a new fire in the immigration debate.

The debate on immigration has recently boiled over, with border policy being brought front-and-center. This more recent attention and uproar was ignited by reports of children being separated from their parents at the United State’s southern border. Whether  images of children being detained or the chilling audio  of children crying out for their parents, these children triggered something intensely emotional for all sides—even for Republicans who have been pushing for stronger enforcement of immigration policy.

However, this issue of children at the border is not necessarily new. In fact, for years, unaccompanied migrant minors have been apprehended upon entering United States. Yet, while the children separated from their families have come to dominate headlines and the focus of national discourse on immigration, discussion of unaccompanied minors has been largely absent. This, despite the fact many children continue to arrive at the border and are detained in the same facilities, and under the same conditions, as those that were separated from their families. Many currently reside in the United States in a bureaucratic and legal state of limbo, as they attempt to attain immigration relief. Why might this be?  What causes a different response to children arriving at the border unaccompanied, as opposed to those being separated from their families? This essay will attempt to address these questions in an effort to push social scientists to think more critically about these issues in the contemporary immigration debate.

The family separations in question occurred for those apprehended as they attempted to enter the United States at a location other than a designated port of entry. Once apprehended, children and parents were separated either at the US-Mexican border or at temporary holding facilities, and family members were sent to different detention centers for processing, sometimes in entirely different states. President Trump noted, in a roundtable on immigration, that the administration was forced to separate families—adding Democrats were to blame for the law that created this situation. It has since been clarified that this forced separation of families was due to a court ruling from the Federal District Court of Los Angeles which restricts migrant children from being detained longer than 20 days. Therefore, in order to maintain its “zero-tolerance” policy, the administration separated children from adults to be able to prosecute adults as criminals. After severe criticism, Trump signed an executive order that halted the separation of families at the border.

In a broad sense, the policy of family separation has served to highlight another set of inconsistencies and draconian measures in the current administration’s approach to immigration. This specific approach to border management is characteristic of an immigration policy ideologically rooted in deterrence—which in cases of asylum, goes against international law (one of which is the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which the United States has signed). The only difference is that a proper deterrence policy would establish and instill consequences for particular actions, while incentivizing alternatives deemed more favorable or “correct” actions by the administration. What we see however, is that the Trump administration has little-to-no interest in proposing alternatives, which suggests it favors the removal of people. With this, we can draw parallels between the case of family separation and the case of unaccompanied migrant minors.

While some may make the argument that children separated from their parents and children migrating unaccompanied are unrelated, it is important to emphasize that both are coming from the same countries that still feel the effect of American foreign intervention and are making similar claims for refuge.
Trump raised eyebrows earlier this year following comments where he referred to people attempting to immigrate to the United States as “animals, not people,” sparking discussion over whether he was referencing Central American migrants generally or speaking specifically about MS-13 gang members. These moves have served, largely, to delegitimize Central American migrants and their cases for asylum. In the case of family separations, we see  a similar strategy employed, with members of the current administration, as well as right-wing speakers, suggesting families being separated may be child smugglers or child actors; the latter, part of a larger move to delegitimize the child-ness of Central American migrant children. In the case of unaccompanied minors, child-ness has been delegitimized through images dominating media of minors being portraying as only young adult males. Although these images are not necessarily specific to the Trump administration, this perceptual and visual challenge to the concept of “child” is also a strategy to undermine particular responses and claims for relief. We can see this play out in the very language employed around these cases—often referring to victims of family separation as “children” while referring to those migrating unaccompanied as “minors,” when—in reality—both groups encompass children from a range of ages.

This begs a few questions for us as social scientists to consider more carefully. Does the social construction of children have more inherent value when tied to family? Is it that in family separations, children are afforded a particular response and must be protected, by virtue of their conceptual proximity to the family unit, whereas for unaccompanied minors it may be more palatable to challenge their motives, intentions, and character? What does this say about how we conceptualize those of different ages and their agency? Further, is it perhaps that the released visuals or audio of very young children are evoking something deep in the American psyche, which is not the case with children migrating unaccompanied? As social scientists, it is up to us to tease apart these potentially larger constructs—of children, childhood, and child-ness—that operate to form the very fabric of policies and our responses as members of civil society. Now that the executive order has been signed, and some forms of rectification are taking place, is this enough to reduce the immigration debate to a simmer? Is separation truly all that we, as a society, took issue with, or will there be further pressure on challenging conditions for detention? Given that detention of individuals in horrid conditions is not unique to this administration, is detention only too much to bear when connected to children being separated from their parents? Is there a certain age where we can overlook or ignore the conditions of detention, a state of legal limbo, and the violations of an individual’s human rights? How can we construct alternatives to government organizations and structures around the issue of immigration? Discussion of immigration policy may have boiled over, but it is just beginning to scratch the surface of a long chain of issues within an immigration system which has been dysfunctional for years.

While some may make the argument that children separated from their parents and children migrating unaccompanied are unrelated, it is important to emphasize that both are coming from the same countries that still feel the effect of US foreign intervention and are making similar claims for refuge. Furthermore, it is important to remember that while many separated children were detained and moved to the same facilities where unaccompanied minors were being held, the focus of the discourse remained largely on family separation. In doing so, we have elevated a particular issue, while failing to acknowledge and address another. In this instance, we must ask ourselves as social scientists: Are our reactions and our advocacy, suggesting which children matter? Why do we challenge the policies of government administrations that separate children from their families but remain silent concerning policies that delegitimize and curb provisions for relief to children who arrive alone?

Luis Edward Tenorio is a sociology doctoral student at the University of California, Berkeley. Prior to graduate studies, he served as a youth representative to the United Nations on behalf of different NGOs and as a White House intern for the Obama Administration.

Cite as: Tenorio, Luis Edward. 2018. “‘Which Children Matter?’” Anthropology News website, August 8, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/940

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