The magazine Highlights for Children jumped into the news cycle this week with a viral tweet condemning the Trump administration’s treatment of migrant children in American detention centers. To most people on the left-ish side of things, the statements in the Highlights press release seem completely unobjectionable. Who wouldn’t agree with the proposition that “children are the world’s most important people,” or that all children have an “inalienable right to feel safe and to have the opportunity to become their best selves”? Highlights CEO Kent Johnson argued that this sentiment should be so universal as to be nonpartisan: “This is not a political statement about immigration policy.”
But Kent Johnson is wrong. We—by which I mean, people on the left who are horrified by these camps—have to grasp the reality that the debate over what children deserve, by simple virtue of their youth, potential, and vulnerability, is far from resolved in our country. The idea that children—all kids globally, or even just those who live here in the United States—deserve food, education, medical care, and physical safety, and that those rights should be guaranteed by the collective, has never been apolitical. In the long sweep of human history, these ideas are maybe a century and a half old, and they’ve always been contested. That’s why they haven’t even resulted in universal access to safe, supported childhood within our borders, and why we remain the only U.N. member state not to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
“How can you be ‘pro-life’ and support child detention centers?” is the newest iteration of the classic liberal challenge: “How can you be ‘pro-life’ and fail to support universal health insurance/food stamps/housing assistance?” There’s a passage from Kristin Luker’s Abortion & the Politics of Motherhood, a 1984 book about the views of people on either side of the abortion rights issue, that finally answered this question to my satisfaction. In a paragraph about anti-abortion activists’ opposition to the provision of confidential contraception and abortion services for teenagers, Luker wrote, “Pro-life people see public policy in this realm as intruding the state into areas where it does not belong, namely, within the family. From their point of view, the family is both beleaguered and sacred.” Any outside force that treats a member of the family as a separate entity, “rather than as an organic whole,” is, from this perspective, problematic. (Implicit in this idea, I might add, is that the family is a patriarchal one, governed by a strong and benevolent father.)
In a footnote to this passage, Luker blew my mind: “This explains the frequent opposition of pro-life people to policies one would think they would support, as the intended beneficiaries are children.” Programs like those that provide state-supported day care, free school lunches, or nutrition assistance for pregnant women didn’t meet with support among the anti-abortion activists Luker interviewed, because “they resist the idea of letting the state into the sacrosanct territory of the home.”
This split over how much the state—“we”—should be doing for children when their families cannot, or will not, support them explains so much that’s frustrating about American failures around child-related policy. It explains why the idea that government-sponsored child care is Communist has had such staying power in our politics, why we still (despite advances in recent years) have a higher child poverty rate than other industrialized nations, why Child Protective Services departments around the country report that they are chronically understaffed.
When a part of the population fears government “interference” in the idealized nuclear family, it’s the most vulnerable who might benefit the most from that “interference” who suffer.
This schism—between those who believe that all children deserve to be protected by society at large and those who do not believe that other people’s children are everyone’s responsibility—partially accounts for the argument emerging on the right that these migrants’ deaths are sad, but they’re the fault of the parents who decided to bring the kids here. Trump’s acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Ken Cuccinelli, said this very thing during a CNN interview on Thursday night, when he was asked about the viral photo of drowned migrants Alberto Martinez Ramirez and his daughter Valeria, lying on the banks of the Rio Grande: “The reason we have tragedies like that on the border is because that father didn’t wait to go through the asylum process in the legal fashion and decided to cross the river, and not only died but his daughter died tragically as well.”
This isn’t the first time the administration has blamed a parent for the death of a migrant child. The president himself accused the father of Jakelin Caal of contributing to the death of his 7-year-old, in March of this year: “The father gave the child no water for a long period of time—he actually admitted blame.” (Through attorneys, the family vehemently denied this account.) This approach has the advantage of sounding good to a base that prizes “individual responsibility.” By focusing on the actions of the parents, Trump and his administration can also neatly circumvent the intense sympathy many people might feel for a toddler lacking diapers and a caregiver in American custody and get back to what comes easiest: blaming a brown person.
I’ve been rereading Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower this week. The 1993 novel is set in 2024 and follows the protagonist, Lauren Oya Olamina, through her late teenage years. The United States, afflicted by climate change and economic crisis, has descended into partial lawlessness, and states with more resources have fortified their borders against refugees from worse-off places. Olamina lives in a walled community in Southern California, comprised of formerly middle-class people who must now provide themselves with food, security, and water. Partway through the book, the streams of homeless people outside the walls burn their community down, and Olamina joins the poorest on the road.
This book has obvious resonances for us, as Abby Aguirre pointed out for the New Yorker a few years ago. Among the forces affecting Olamina’s life are rampant privatization, rising oceans, water scarcity, and police who do more harm than good. But the point that’s most relevant to this heartbreaking week of news is that in this partial-apocalypse scenario, the imperfectly implemented 20th-century idea that all American kids deserve a protected childhood, regardless of their origins, has vanished. The kids of the homeless poor are in a bad way. The public schools are closed, so there’s no possibility of education or upward mobility; bartered, sold, and enslaved, the kids are starved and abused, or turn thief and murderer to survive. Olamina’s family finds the bodies of dead children all the time. Sometimes, Olamina writes in her diary, the homeless even throw their kids’ corpses over the walls that surround their little enclave: a “gift of envy and hate.”
I hope against hope that things don’t get as dark in the real-life United States as they did in Butler’s fictional California. It would help to have a real collective understanding of what those on the left think children, in the United States or around the world, deserve from the rest of us just for being children—and to see this issue as political, like all the rest.
Support our independent journalism
Readers like you make our work possible. Help us continue to provide the reporting, commentary, and criticism you won’t find anywhere else.Join Slate Plus