Skip to content

Somebody Else’s Babies

Feeding children to the deportation machine

The very first baby born to immigrants in what is now the United States of America went missing before she learned to speak. Four-year-old Virginia Dare was lost along with the rest of the Roanoke colony in Virginia 428 years ago. We know this as a certainty; it is as knowable as any fact in American history.

Here, meanwhile, is something else. Last week, the American media breathlessly covered the plight of 1,475 apparent migrant Virginia Dares—unaccompanied minor children alleged to have been spontaneously “lost” by the United States government after arrival. This was not so much a fact as a conclusion, drawn from congressional testimony of a Health and Human Services official from a status report on the Office of Refugee Resettlement (the HHS department tasked with the custody and safe release of migrant children). This official was unable to definitively “determine with certainty the whereabouts” of children released to the custody of vetted sponsors in the United States. No one but the media (and, inevitably, Twitter) was calling them “lost,” but the possibility that enough children to fill an urban elementary school had simply gone missing within our borders did not allow much time for reflection or nuance.

These two stories had no clear bearing on one another, but they were close enough in casual resemblance to weave into an awkward social media tapestry hashtagged #WhereAretheChildren.

This news came within weeks of U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announcing one of the most abjectly monstrous U.S. immigration policies since the wartime internment of Japanese-Americans:  the forced separation of children from their asylum-seeking parents, jailed after turning themselves in at the southern border—and the federal government’s intentional orphaning of these children by declaring them to be unaccompanied minors.

These two stories had no clear bearing on one another, but they were close enough in casual resemblance to weave into an awkward social media tapestry hashtagged #WhereAretheChildren. Elected officials, activists, and the interminable “America-was-always-great!” optimists of #TheResistance began to demand by the thousands that Immigration and Customs Enforcement do something. This campaign was complicated both by the fact that there was no clear problem to be solved (and no clear solution even if there were) and that ICE—for once!—truly had nothing at all to do with separating these families.

But while not directly connected, these stories were also not unrelated. Although no one really seems to have noticed this was happening before Trump’s name could be attached to it, the Associated Press reported in early 2016 that Obama’s ORR acknowledged a significant contingent of children released from its care were unaccounted for since at least 2013. (Routine followups were not conducted before then.)

While concerning, this outcome can’t be unexpected when the population receiving these children consists, for the most part, of deeply cautious undocumented families whose entire lives in this country have been defined by their ability to avoid federal immigration authorities. Unaccounted-for is not “lost”; unfindable is not “unsafe.”

ORR has no explicit responsibility for these children after their release (although in testimony HHS has considered “taking a fresh look at this question”). The agency typically relies on sponsors, local social services providers, and legal advocates to take over once ORR officials have done their part to ascertain that children are going to safe homes. (And given ICE’s recent, wholly inappropriate collection and use of ORR data, there’s a strong case for keeping federal immigration bureaucracy out of the lives of children and their families beyond the point of release.)

With all of that understood, the Sessions policy, now poised to unnecessarily create tens of thousands of new unaccompanied minors, presents a new opportunity to examine how the deportation machine has processed and consumed these children in recent history. Throughout the three presidential administrations in which I have been a practicing immigration lawyer, the United States government has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to, among other things, the permanent exile of migrant children to certain deprivation and likely death.

 My first juvenile client was a six-year-old in a pink jacket, snoring in her mother’s arms in the immigration court’s lobby on a Tuesday morning as I discussed her fate with the ICE attorney assigned to her case. Both of the girl’s parents were in the United States under Temporary Protected Status, a state of lawful immigration limbo (since cancelled by Trump) which allowed them neither a path to citizenship nor the ability to sponsor their daughter for a visa. After her last remaining grandparent in El Salvador died, she traveled north with her mother’s sister and was briefly detained at the border, then released to her parents pending deportation proceedings before an immigration judge.

I knew that the ICE attorney was a new mother, and couldn’t help but appeal to her own humanity as I made my case for a joint motion to close the proceedings. I asked how she would feel as a parent in this situation.

She stared at the wall, then met my eye directly without answering my question.

“I’ve deported children younger than this,” she said.

She looked again just over my shoulder–and then, unblinking, back into my eyes.

“And I’ll do it again. It’s my job.”

That was twelve years ago. I was able to keep my client with her parents, but since then ICE has, as promised, tried it again—and again, and again, and then many times over in countless other cases in my office and around the country. The presidential portraits on the walls of our nation’s immigration courts have changed. The relentless feeding of innocent children into the hoppers of the deportation machine has not.

With broad bipartisan agreement and the overwhelming support of American faith leaders, George W. Bush signed the single most important set of protections ever afforded to unaccompanied alien children (“UAC”) in 2008. The new legislation guaranteed the best available conditions for children in these situations, as well as a full and fair hearing before an immigration judge for children from countries that did not directly border ours.

Obama’s Department of Homeland Security soon arrived at what history should ultimately judge as the worst available response: declaring the “surge” a crisis of national security, rather than a humanitarian one.

But the new UAC protocols did not become a notable national policy issue until 2011, when immigration observers flagged a nascent trend: a rapidly-swelling juvenile wave from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras heading for our  southern border. UAC numbers then exploded exponentially in just two years:  from 12,000 when the “surge” began in  2012 to nearly 70,000 in 2014.

Seventy thousand. So many from an entire generation of  infants, children, pre-teens, and adolescents fleeing violent gang recruitment, kidnapping, torture, and unimaginable physical and sexual harm which their governments–corrupt and hollowed out from years of American military, political, and economic intervention–were effectively unable to prevent.

In a masterful report released at the height of the crisis, Fulbright scholar Elizabeth Kennedy discovered a dismal theme throughout her interviews with Central American parents: guilt at their desire to keep their families together in their home countries while living with the knowledge that their children would be safer nearly anywhere else on the planet. Faced with the impossible choice of having to exile or bury them, many desperate parents did whatever it took to make whatever arrangements they could to send their kids north. Most came with trusted friends or extended family, many with traffickers arranged by desperate parents. Some even came alone.

As this new wave of incoming children crested, Obama’s Department of Homeland Security soon arrived at what history should ultimately judge as the worst available response: declaring the “surge” (the official internal term for this mass juvenile migration) a crisis of national security, rather than a humanitarian one. Children and families were held en masse at the border in new remote “family detention” facilities in the desert many miles away not only from qualified immigration attorneys, but even from basic services such as hotels and gas stations.

Their deportation hearings were nasty, brutish, and expedited. Obama’s ICE attorneys began to file briefs in opposition to the release of detained families under any conditions with boilerplate arguments that letting these women and children out on ankle bracelets in order to come back to court on their own time would “endanger national security.” This seemed to mean that somehow  word of such releases would get back to their homes countries and encourage more women and children to flee for their own lives. This was a definition of “endanger national security” with which I was previously unfamiliar. (Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton fully endorsed this position in her 2016 campaign, adding that deporting children as quickly as possible would “send a message” to their home countries.)

For children who were eventually released pending further review of their asylum claims, Obama’s DHS created juvenile “rocket dockets” in immigration courts around the country to return kids to their senders as quickly as bureaucratically possible. Anything else might risk a sense of comfort, protection, or even belonging in a country that was even then already beginning to seriously entertain a future Trump presidency. And as with every other part of our vast deportation machine, the infrastructure built and rapidly expanded by the Obama administration to deport children in haste is now entirely in the hands of Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions.

Virginia Dare’s story has taken on new life as the firstborn in a country by and for the white race, and her name has become an unfortunate racist shibboleth for the kinds of people for whom our nation’s minority-white future is not simply a demographic inevitability, but a catastrophy. The founder of the white supremacist publication VDare (named explicitly in her honor) has been clear in his opinion that “American culture” is “at risk from non-whites,” and his popular website promotes the kinds of hard-right, openly racist nativism that has quietly moved from the far edges of conservative thought into the Republican mainstream over the past three years.

Republican Congressman Steve King supported Dutch xenophobe Geert Wilders in a tweet a few months after Trump’s inauguration, writing “we can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” It was an open and gross display of the plainest kind of white supremacy, right there on an elected representative’s social media account where anyone could read it. His tweet would  have made real news a few years ago, but now is just another Republican talking point. Nor were such outpourings confined to career bigots like King, still arguably on the fringe right. House Speaker Paul Ryan said as much six months later when he encouraged “American women” to have more babies. He did this within weeks of backing massive legislative cuts to legal immigration rates and passively blocking a legislative solution to the DREAM Act that would have ensured the lives and futures of more than one million young aspiring Americans who happened to have been born in the wrong kinds of countries to the wrong kinds of parents.

Somebody else’s babies;  American women—the quiet parts keep getting louder.

And we arrive now at this new border, a place that any person of conscience must recognize as a point of no moral return. A country that would not only rip children from the arms of their parents, but then intentionally orphan and exile them just to “send a message,” risks not only losing them, but itself.