“Suffer the Little Children”: US Foreign Policy, Unaccompanied Child Migrants, and the Geopolitics of Compassion in Postwar America

Friday, January 6, 2017: 9:30 AM
Mile High Ballroom 1C (Colorado Convention Center)
Anita Casavantes Bradford, University of California, San Diego
Children traveling to the United States represented a large, albeit understudied, immigrant population since the colonial era. After World War Two, increasing numbers of children have migrated alone to the U.S from countries like Hungary, Cuba, Mexico, and Southeast Asia. This paper will analyze the shifting international and domestic contexts which shaped the U.S. government’s role in provoking and responding to the postwar migration of unaccompanied Hungarian, Cuban, Southeast Asian, African, and Central American and Mexican children. Through comparative and transnational analysis of the varying circumstances of these successive waves of child migration, it will trace the processes by which U.S. immigration policy towards unaccompanied children evolved from a series of ad hoc responses to specific circumstances and groups of children into a more broadly conceived and institutionalized set of policies, in tandem—though not always in sync with—the emergence of an international consensus about the unique rights of children and the need for global collaboration to protect at-risk minors during the 1980s and 1990s.  It will uncover the complex relationship between U.S. foreign policy, domestic politics, and the differential reception and treatment of distinct groups of unaccompanied children, focusing on how American political, economic and security interests in specific parts of the world influenced the selection, admission or rejection, and care provided to different groups of migrant children, as well as their representation in public discourses. Finally, it will analyze how the historically interdependent relationship between the federal government and religious agencies facilitated the development of new legislation programs to assist carefully selected groups of children arriving alone to the U.S., even as the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment after the 1980s increasingly compelled the government to draw distinctions between those who would be seen as “innocent victims” and those who would be categorized as deviant, dangerous, and excludable.

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