Magazine article Phi Kappa Phi Forum

The Neglect of the Immigrant Child: Making the Case for a Child-Centered Approach to United States Immigration Policy

Magazine article Phi Kappa Phi Forum

The Neglect of the Immigrant Child: Making the Case for a Child-Centered Approach to United States Immigration Policy

Article excerpt

In November 2014, President Barack Obama stood before the American public to announce the creation of Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and expansion of the 2012 executive action known as deferred action for childhood arrivals. DACA is a discretionary grant of relief for undocumented people brought to the U.S. unlawfully as young children. DAPA was an attempt to shield the parents of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent resident children from deportation. the expansion of DACA and creation of DAPA were blocked by a Texas district court and deadlocked in the U.S. Supreme Court's United States v. Texas decision in February 2015 and June 2016, respectively.

In President Obama's remarks about the two programs, he spoke about the U.S. as a nation of immigrants and discussed our centuries-old tradition of welcoming foreigners to the country. In his speech, President Obama employed a common strategy of elected officials who have spoken on the topic of immigration: he invoked the nation's history alongside the oft-stated characterization of the United States as a nation of immigrants.

The phrase "nation of immigrants" can be traced to one academic's seminal history of immigration to the U.S. In the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Uprooted, Oscar Handlin professed, "Once I thought to write a history of the immigrants in America. Then I discovered that the immigrants were American history."

Historian Melissa R. Klapper altered Handlin's words to reveal an insight that is too often overlooked not just by academics but--as this article will make clear later--lawmakers and practitioners, as well. In Small Strangers, Klapper contends U.S. history is a story of foreign-born youth and native-born children of immigrants. "As both real people and symbols, turn-of-the-century immigrant children played a vital role [in the] unprecedented productivity and economic growth of their country."

Little has been written about the history of immigrant children in this country, and yet migrant youth have been disproportionately and uniquely impacted by immigration waves and policies in the U.S. A brief overview of some of the most important eras of immigration illuminates the neglected yet persistent presence of young immigrants.

The mid-nineteenth to early twentieth century marked an age of mass migration to the U.S., involving several European groups. Millions of children came to the U.S., many of whom contributed their labor to our economy during Americas Progressive Era. According to Selma Berrol, though "foreign-born white children constituted the largest proportion of the national child labor force," reformers insisted on characterizing the issue of child labor as one of "children" who were unmarked by ethnicity or immigration status. (1)

In post-war America, President Harry Truman signed into law the Displaced Persons Act of 1948, an emergency measure that responded to the influx of refugees searching for stability in the aftermath of World War II. The law planned to admit 200,000 displaced persons, 2,000 Czech refugees, and 3,000 orphaned children. What is rarely discussed in accounts of this law is that World War II was, according to historian Tara Zahra, a "war against children" because of the unprecedented number of young people separated from their parents by deportation, ethnic cleansing, and forced labor. (2) Some of these children gained admission to the U.S. through the 1948 Displaced Persons Act either as eligible displaced orphans or family dependents.

In 1942, the U.S. admitted its first set of contracted Mexican nationals known as braceros through the Migrant Labor Agreement negotiated with Mexico. From 1948 to 1964, the U.S. admitted approximately 200,000 braceros a year to fill agricultural labor shortages. According to Mae Ngai, "while young adult men comprised the backbone of the labor force, children, older men, and women worked illegally as supplemental labor. …

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