Most Central American children streaming across the United States’ southwestern borders are teens, but many are under the age of 10. Collectively, they’re seen as poster children for some kind of legislative action on immigration or border security. The compassionate stance understands they fled to escape poverty, violence, gangs, drug cartels and human trafficking. The critical stance worries they’ll bring the same to U.S. soil.
Children in crisis have been moved before en masse into the United States — but certainly not in these numbers, estimated at 60,000 since October and possibly another 20,000 by this fall. But it’s worth examining such previous migrations:
After Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake, some 1,000 Haitian children were granted “humanitarian parole” and entrance to the U.S. by President Obama.
Prior to the spring 1975 fall of Saigon, President Gerald R. Ford approved “Operation Babylift” — 30 flights at a cost of $2 million to transport 4,000-plus Vietnamese orphans to the United States.
Parents opposed to Fidel Castro’s regime in Cuba in the early 1960s sent 14,000 children and youths to the U.S. in an exodus known as “Operation Pedro Pan.” While the Catholic Church coordinated much of the relocation, the federal government contributed financing and visa waivers.
At the onset of World War II, Britain received 10,000 Jewish children from Nazi-occupied nations through efforts dubbed “Kindertransport.” About 1,000 ended up in America.
While not immigrants per se, some 250,000 orphaned, abandoned or homeless children were dispatched by rail from East Coast cities to foster families mostly in the rural Midwest, as the so-called “orphan trains” ran from the 1850s to the 1920s.
Nearly four centuries ago, 100 vagrant children were rounded up in London in 1618 and shipped to Virginia Colony to help alleviate labor shortages, marking the early stages of Britain’s “home children” scheme of distributing the poor or orphaned to overseas interests.
Ironically, the first person registered on the Jan. 1, 1892, opening of Ellis Island’s immigration station was an unaccompanied minor— 15-year-old Annie Moore of Ireland, accompanied by two younger brothers. Eventually reunited with parents who had immigrated to America three years previous, Emily was welcomed with a certificate and $10 gold coin — a statue now commemorates her place in U.S. immigration.
As these Central American children are transported to detention centers and temporary facilities while their status is considered, protesters in Arizona and California are lining the streets and even blocking buses.
It’s reminiscent of 1939, when the German ocean liner MS St. Louis tried transporting 938 Jewish child and adult refugees out of Nazi-occupied Germany and unsuccessfully to North America. After being turned away by Cuba, the United States and Canada, the St. Louis returned to Europe, with a third of the refugees received by Great Britain. The rest disembarked in Belgium to be divided up among that country, the Netherlands and France. Eventually, about a quarter of the ship’s passengers died in Nazi concentration camps.
In future years, how will history recount our response — the United States as a national government and Americans as a people — to the 2014 mass immigration of Central American children and youths? Will we be seen as humanitarian and helpful? Or harsh and even hostile?
Let us remember this past history as the nation considers its current response to these Central American child immigrants.