Unaccompanied minors, mostly adolescents, keep arriving at the southern border as news spreads among the desperate and “tempest-tossed” in Central America that the United States will not abandon or refuse children. Their parents are willing to rip out their own hearts in order to save their children from violence or extreme poverty. For some Americans whose families have been here for generations, this is unimaginable. But for those who honor the ancestors who originally brought their families to our shores, or for those who embrace our country’s history as the “Mother of Exiles,” this is both a recurring chapter and a test of our quintessentially American values and resolve.
These children are not the first. American history is full of families who have made the same impossible choice. Between 1854 and 1929, charities ran an internal “unaccompanied minors” program, known as the Orphan Train, that relocated about 250,000 children, mostly from new immigrant or destitute families, from the East Coast into the heartland. For Cuban-American families like mine, Operation Peter Pan (“Pedro Pan”) is a touchstone. When Fidel Castro seized power under populist pretense but then quickly allied himself with the Soviet Union, more than 14,000 unaccompanied children, aged 4 to 16, were sent by their parents from Cuba to the U.S. in less than two years. Similar efforts sought to rescue Jewish children from Europe during World War II but achieved only modest numbers, to our collective shame. Arguments against these programs then were the same as they are now — xenophobic, racist, heartless, and un-American.
Once again, we face a defining moment, akin to 1939, when despite congressional hearings and support from humanitarian coalitions and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, we failed to even hold a vote in either the House of Representatives or the Senate for the Wagner-Rogers Bill, which proposed admitting 20,000 children from Germany to the U.S. outside of immigration quotas. Arguments at the time, including this from renowned fascist Sen. Robert Reynolds (D-NC), are substantially indistinguishable from a contemporary Tucker Carlson rant:
“Let’s keep America for our boys and girls. Let’s give American jobs to American citizens. Let’s empty our prisons of alien criminals and send them back to their native lands. Let’s deport those alien agitators who are eternally advocating a change in our form of government. Let’s do our best to save our country from destruction by alien-enemy forces which are boring from within. Let’s save America for Americans. Our country, our citizens first.”
I remind those who would turn away these children or pass judgment on parents for sending them into our arms, that words like these, now or then, say more about “us” than about “them.” Nobody can seriously say that the callousness that allowed millions to look away from Trump’s forced separations at the southern border is not part of the racial and ethnic prejudices that infect our culture, plague our people, and disproportionately impact our Black and Brown children whether native or foreign born.
Today, I am heartened by the termination of punitive family separations and the end of the Trump-era agreement between the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). That policy encouraged child welfare officers to share with immigration enforcement agents sensitive personal information about potential sponsors for unaccompanied children. This, of course, discouraged possible sponsors from coming forward. Meanwhile, children languished in detention facilities and were too often “lost” within institutional care.
Despite the Biden’s administration’s humanitarian approach for unaccompanied minors, it has struggled to house and feed the thousands arriving at the border and remains handicapped by both the diminished capacity it inherited and the sheer numbers of arriving youths. Bigger facilities and faster “processing” of these children, however, cannot be the only goals. Regardless of who is president, our treatment of these youths, even temporarily, has permanent consequences beyond the children’s immediate physical safety.
Since the time of the Orphan Train, we have learned much about early life adversity, resilience, and adolescence. Given the millions of children worldwide separated from their parents for many reasons — such as violent conflicts, employment needs, climate-induced migration, or government actions — we understand a great deal more about the impacts of adversity and sensitive periods on youth development. Not surprisingly, the effects of separation on cognitive development, well-being, and mental health are overwhelmingly negative and lifelong, and “more severe when the separation is prolonged or accompanied by other forms of deprivation or victimization,” such as prolonged institutionalization, violence, or being cut off from supportive communication — all of which many of the children in our care endured during the last four years.
However, the particular ages of the minors currently crossing the U.S. southern border present an opportunity, if we are willing to seize it, to mitigate the impact of the traumas. Experts note, “[R]ecent behavioral and neurobiological resilience work that suggests adolescence (a period marked by heightened plasticity, development of key neurobiological circuitry, and sensitivity to the social environment) may be a particularly opportune moment for … interventions.”
We see the new administration understands this. It has already reduced by 45% the number of children held in the prison-like conditions of Customs and Border Protection as they transfer them into the more suitable custody of the HHS, which has been opening a series of pop-up centers to house migrant children until they can be released to a sponsor or relatives. In an important change, safe family placements for these minors are now being encouraged as this is what best serves their needs. We now know, for example, that with caring adults, supportive communities, and schools as their new context, we can significantly improve outcomes for separated youth, even as we accept that not all their stories will have happy endings. Advocates, remain watchful.
While our politicians continue to debate, and distinct government agencies act out conflicting agendas, the compassionate immigrant heart of our America continues to beat. Tens of thousands of Americans protested family separations. Doctors, lawyers, social workers, parents, and grandparents across the nation have volunteered and continue to volunteer their time, treasure, and homes to address the needs of these children. We rejoice at the apparent changes in care, communication, and an increased willingness to accept assistance from the new administration. Years into these efforts, all of us hope that our immigration laws will soon become fair, inclusive, reliable, expedient, and humane. They must. Even former Republican President George W. Bush calls the failure to pass immigration reform during his tenure as one of his biggest regrets and has released a book of portraits and stories about the contributions immigrants have made to our country, “Out of Many, One: Portraits of America’s Immigrants.”
But meanwhile, the clock ticks and childhoods flee. We cannot just warehouse young people while their asylum cases and sponsor placements proceed. These developing bodies and minds need us in big and little ways. If you can, please volunteer at a welcome center through one of the designated charities or send essential supplies such as menstrual period supplies for girls, shaving kits for adolescent boys, or clothing for any youth. Go further and donate supplies to engage their minds and bodies and to keep their stress and helplessness at bay while they wait for others to decide their fate. We need to support our new warmer welcome of these children, and our country’s actions need to catch up to our improved intentions. Our arms are wide enough.
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