Child Refugees: Our Present Informing Our Past

August 16, 2016
By: Gráinne McEvoy

In early 2015, I presented a paper to the annual meeting of the American Catholic Historical Association, which discussed the American Catholic Bishops’ response to the ultimately unsuccessful 1939 Wagner-Rogers bill to admit 20,000 German children to the United States. While certain Catholic leaders, including Monsignor John A. Ryan, prominently championed the bill, the hierarchy of bishops (although divided on the issue) withheld their official support. Their explicit reasons for doing so included a concern that the removal of European children from the security of their parents, homes, and country of birth was disruptive and unnecessary and that, as one senior bishop wrote in April 1939, the proposal to bring German children for adoption within the U.S. was “not convincing on the point of need.” I had presented this material, taken from my doctoral dissertation, in order to demonstrate my broader argument that a commitment to family unity and socio-economic stability shaped the 20th century American Catholic position on U.S. immigration law. But, I left the session feeling not entirely satisfied with what I had presented.

Part of the problem, I believe, was that I hadn’t fully come to grips with the issue of unaccompanied child migration and the particular challenge this presented to Catholic critics of U.S. immigration law. The 20th century Catholic social critique of immigration emphasized the individual’s right to migrate, but also upheld the state’s right to control migration, in the national interest. For Catholic critics, the process of migration was potentially fraught with spiritual and temporal dangers, and they supported limits on immigration if it threatened the material or moral well-being of the migrant or the host society. They reasoned that the traditional nuclear family unit provided an essential bulwark against the perils of migration. The Catholic response to the question of unaccompanied child migrants was therefore a particularly thorny one.

The alarming and heart-breaking reality of child refugees and unaccompanied minors, looms as an acute international problem today. In recent years, the media and humanitarian organizations have helped train our eye on key flash points: the movement of around 70,000 unaccompanied minors from Central America into the U.S. in 2014; the more than 3 million children displaced by the war in Syria; and the lone teenage (and younger) boys from Afghanistan and elsewhere living in limbo in the “jungle” of Calais in northern France. These situations have inspired frequent comparisons in the press, on social media, and elsewhere to potentially analogous situations in the past. Perhaps the most prominent example of this in the U.K. was the way in which lawmakers invoked the history of the Kindertransport, which brought around 10,000 unaccompanied children from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia to the U.K. in 1938-39, during the debate over new refugee legislation last April. Lord Alf Dubs repeatedly drew attention to his own origins as a 6-year-old brought to England on the Kindertransport from Prague in 1938. In the process, he successfully secured a promise from the British government to amend their proposed law to admit “as soon as possible” 3,000 of the 88,000 unaccompanied child refugees, from Syria and elsewhere, already in Europe.

As historians, if we compare the present to the past at all, we strive to make powerful and instructive comparisons, rather than drawing analogies that ignore nuance and context. This discipline means that historians of immigration could be well placed to take an activist position on contemporary events, should they choose to do so. But, perhaps the reverse can also be true; that conscious attention to contemporary dynamics in debates over migration can cast an instructive light on the past. While many have been using historical events to instruct the present, that present has helped me to focus on particular questions as I work on the portions of my manuscript that consider Catholic responses to the Wagner-Rogers bill, and the topic of unaccompanied minors in general.

In the U.K., lawmakers, aid workers and the public have debated who qualifies as a child and what relationships constitute family. This has encouraged me to figure out how my Catholic critics of immigration policy approached these contingent categories. In the realm of policy-making, legislators who opposed Lord Dubs’ amendment expressed their concern that providing sanctuary for unaccompanied minors would create a dangerous incentive for parents who desperately want to save their children from war and the threat of ISIS, but who underestimate the dangers of the traveling to and through Europe. This logic, however misguided or spurious it may be, argues that the enactment of laws to admit unaccompanied minors may not be in their best interests. The contemporary discussion of the child migrant crisis, like the debate over the Wagner-Rogers bill in 1939, comprises an array of prejudices, anxieties, and humanitarian impulses at work in a specific policy-making moment. Observation of this dynamic, I believe, is helping me consider ways to approach this thorny issue within the American Catholic critique of immigration in the 20th century.

Gráinne McEvoy

Gráinne McEvoy is an Irish Research Council Postdoctoral Fellow at Trinity College, Dublin. She graduated from Boston College with a doctoral degree in American history in 2014. At present, she is working on her book manuscript, entitled “God at the Gates: American Catholic Social Thought and Immigration Policy, 1910-1965.”

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