From the Hill:

The White House said Monday that most of the thousands of unaccompanied minors flooding across the border would likely be deported.

The statement from White House spokesman Josh Earnest, who said most of the children crossing the border won’t have a legal basis to stay in the United States, comes after criticism from members of both parties, and ahead of President Obama’s trip to Texas on Wednesday.

“Based on what we know about these cases, it is unlikely that most of these kids will qualify for humanitarian relief,” Earnest said. “And what that means is, it means that they will not have a legal basis for remaining in this country and will be returned.”

I’m reminded by this whole sad story of three very different times in American history when the US had to decide what to do about a large group of child refugees.

The more recent was Operation Peter Pan in 1960 to 1962, also known as Operación Pedro Pan, a CIA program that involved 14,000 children to be sent to the US from Cuba by worried parents who feared Fidel Castro would take their children and send them to military schools and Soviet-style labor camps. A number of those children went on to success including US Senator Mel Martinez and Miguel Bezos, father of Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder. There are few people today who argue that Operation Peter Pan was bad for America even though arguably the lives of the children removed from Cuba were in less danger than the children in detention camps right now.

And then there was 1939. Two events happened that year. The first was earlier in the year when Congress rejected the Wagner-Roger bill. Tulane’s Southern Institute for Education and Research succinctly described what the bill would have done and what happened to it:

In the Greater German Reich, an estimated 20,000 children had been left both homeless and fatherless by the Kristallnacht destruction and the imprisonment of Jewish men. In the U. S., Senator Wagner and Representative Rogers proposed the Wagner-Rogers bill that would allow these children to immigrate into the U. S. outside of the existing quota. The bill would permit the admission of only these children. It would not permit the admission of other children at a later date. It was a one time only affair. According to a Gallup poll conducted at the time, two thirds of the American public opposed the bill. In the end, the bill did not even reach the floor of Congress for debate. It was squelched in committee. During the debate on the Wagner-Roger’s bill, President Roosevelt remained silent. Once, when the president was on a cruise in the Caribbean, his wife Eleanor Roosevelt telegraphed him to ask if she might state publicly that both of them supported the bill. The president answered, “You may, but it’s better that I don’t for the time being.” The “time being” did not change. The president never voiced an opinion, one way or the other, on the Wagner-Roger’s bill. He signed an internal memorandum on the bill, “File. FDR.”

Helen Hayes, one of the greatest actresses of the 20th century, testified in front of Congress about the bill. From a story that the Jewish Telegraphic Agency ran on April 21, 1939:

Helen Hayes, testifying as “an American mother” before a Senate-House immigration subcommittee, declared today that adoption of the Wagner Rogers Bill for admission of 20,000 refugee children to the United States in two years would serve as an example to the children of this country in repudiation of oppression and racial brutality.

The noted screen and stage actress joined Senators Robert F. Wagner and Arthur Capper and representatives of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations in supporting the bill at the opening of three-day hearings at which the only opposition offered was from the representative of 42 patriotic societies.

Miss Hayes, who has two children, one of them adopted, said she wanted her children to grow up without racial prejudice. It is brutalizing, she said, for a child to read in the papers of refugees being shunted back and forth. If Belgium and Holland take refugees, why not the United States? she asked.

Quoting the motto of her grandmother, who had nine children, “There is always room for one more,” Miss Hayes said: “There is room in my family for one more. I beg you to let them in.” Asked by Representative Charles Kramer (Dem., Cal.) if she would accept a child sight unseen, the actress replied: “Gladly!”

We don’t know how many of the 20,000 children survived, but it’s likely that most did not.

More headlines were garnered just a month later by the SS St. Louis. The Hamburg America ship carried over 900 Jewish refugees from Germany to Cuba where they had visas to enter the Caribbean country. Many of the passengers were children. Cuba did not honor the visas and the passengers were left in limbo. After negotiations between Jewish organizations and the Cuban government broke down, the ship sailed to Miami and sat off the coast of Florida hoping the US government would show mercy and allow the ship’s passengers to enter the US. The ship’s requests were denied and the SS St. Louis returned to Europe. Most of the passengers, including the children, were murdered by the Nazis over the next few years.

Is 2014’s child refugee crisis comparable to 1939? While no one is claiming that there is a systematic genocide taking place in Central America, the situation seems to be pretty dire. Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are three of the most dangerous places on earth and children are twice as likely to die as children in Iraq. And children aren’t just collateral damage – they’re actually the target of the violence. According to Vox.com:

Recent studies suggest that most of these unaccompanied children aren’t economic migrants, as many Americans might assume — they’re fleeing from threats and violence in their home countries, where things have gotten so bad that many families believe that they have no choice but to send their children on the long, dangerous journey north. They’re not here to take advantage of American social services — they’re refugees from conflict. Understanding the nature of the violence pushing them north is crucial for figuring out what to do about the child refugee crisis on our southern border.

*****

Children are uniquely vulnerable to gang violence. The street gangs known as “maras” — M-18 and Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13 — target kids for forced recruitment, usually in their early teenage years, but sometimes as young as kindergarten. They also forcibly recruit girls as “girlfriends,” a euphemistic term for a non-consensual relationship that involves rape by one or more gang members.

If children defy the gang’s authority by refusing its demands, the punishment is harsh: rape, kidnapping, and murder are common forms of retaliation. Even attending school can be tremendously dangerous, because gangs often target schools as recruitment sites and children may have to pass through different gangs’ territories, or ride on gang-controlled buses, during their daily commutes.

Franklin Roosevelt caved to political pressure from Republicans in 1939 (as well as fear of a backlash at the polls in 1940). But his inaction on both the Wagner-Rogers bill and the SS St. Louis turned out to be two of the most shameful decisions in American history. If President Obama sends these children to their deaths, history will likewise remember his actions as being cowardly and immoral.

Greg Siskind

Greg Siskind

Greg Siskind is a partner with Siskind Susser, PC - Immigration Lawyers. After graduating from Vanderbilt University, he received his law degree at the University of Chicago. He created the first immigration law web site in 1994 and the first law blog in 1997. He's written four books and currently serves on the board of governors of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. He can be reached by email at gsiskind@visalaw.com.
Greg Siskind
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One Response to Peter Pan and Helen Hayes – Lessons from Past Child Refugee Crises

  1. […] "Is 2014′s child refugee crisis comparable to 1939?  While no one is claiming that there is a systematic genocide taking place in Central America, the situation seems to be pretty dire.  Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are three of the most dangerous places on earth and children are twice as likely to deny as children in Iraq.  And children aren’t just collateral damage – they’re actually the target of the violence. … Franklin Roosevelt caved to political pressure from Republicans in 1939 (as well as fear of a backlash at the polls in 1940). But his inaction on both the Wagner-Rogers bill and the SS St. Louis turned out to be two of the most shameful decisions in American history. If President Obama sends these children to their deaths, history will likewise remember his actions as being cowardly and immoral." – Greg Siskind, July 7, 2014. […]

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