Racist, Immoral Dehumanization of Immigrant Children

There are two main challenges in addressing the border issue of increased numbers of undocumented children traveling alone from Central America to the US.
The first is that the dehumanization of Latinos in the US has been so tremendously successful that a basic call for decency and humanity is absent from the conversations surrounding this situation. For example, I recently highlighted the issue in an op-ed to a local newspaper and the comments reveal people hiding their racism behind arguments of “legal” and “illegal.”

An absence of decency and humanity can also be seen in the protesters who turned away buses of children or who are protesting detention centers across the country where children are housed because we’re a “nation of laws” or because the children “carry diseases,” “bring crime,” will grow up to “rape women.” This is all to familiar language that uses the same fear tactics, dehumanization, and racism once used towards African Americans during slavery and Jim Crow and towards the Chinese during the late 1800s—language used to justify atrocious acts of oppression of these groups then and language used to justify monstrous cruelty to these children today. One has to wonder if these protesters would have the same response to refugee children coming from Eastern Europe. Perhaps there would still be a backlash against thousands of Eastern European refugee children arriving alone to the US; however, I doubt it would rise to the shameless levels we’ve seen recently, or that it would use the kinds of language being used–language that has roots in removing people of color outside of our human and national family throughout American history. This underscores how effective the racialization of Latinos in the U.S. currently is.

The second hindrance with addressing this issue is the problem of politicians who either do not care or if they do care are acting first and foremost in their self-interests by being in lock step with xenophobic Americans’ preferences. This response by our nations leaders underscores Schneider and Ingram’s research revealing that politicians make laws that benefit certain groups and burden others. This explains why Congress refuses to act in a bipartisan fashion and pass laws addressing this situation. This explains why traumatized children are being put on planes and sent back as a deterrence to others. This is not just, rational, or wise public policy but this is what our political leaders are engaged in.

Instead, there must be another way. There must be collaboration and civility between the nations involved to come up with short-term and long-term policy solutions. For example, Héctor Perla Jr. recently provided examples of both short term and long term solutions in a recent article. Perla gives the example of granting the children refugee status rather than seeing them as undocumented immigrants in the short term, and in the long term he argues we must address economic policies in Central America that are creating the conditions pushing children and their parents to migrate.

Other short term ideas with the goal of preventing further harm to the children immediately by keeping more children from dying or being injured on the train include finding them earlier in the process of migration. This would require creating a coalition between the US and the countries from where the children depart to check the trains and help the kids at that point. Long term of course must address the roots of the problem. This requires taking into consideration why children are fleeing their countries and finding ways to address these issues as Perla suggests. This too, must be done in collaboration with leaders from Mexico and Central America. Of course, civility, compromise, and collaboration across national leaders seems impossible to accomplish when it doesn’t happen across political leaders in this country who follow the desires of many Americans who cannot see Latinos as human beings, not even the children.


  1. Karl Dittman

    Every human being is aware of the morality of a choice. You know when you are doing something that is wrong. The illegal immigrants that are coming to this country, make a conscious choice to ignore our immigration laws, They know that it is wrong, for ANY reason. They can say, they just want to work, drug cartels are threatening them, etc. etc. but there IS a process to come here. I cannot go to McDonalds and take a Big Mac because I am hungry! Even if the police stopped arresting people for taking Big Macs, I wouldn’t do it. It is wrong.
    You cannot expect people who make an immoral choice to begin their stay in the U.S. to be treated with dignity and respect. The first thing illegal immigrants do is disrespect the entire country in order to be here. It is that type of behavior that makes the latin american countries such political and economic failures.
    I personally enjoy immigration and support it. But it is unfair and immoral to allow the illegal immigrants from latin america countries in before legal immigrants from other countries. It is the adherence to law and justice that seperates civilized societies from the corrupted countries these immigrants are fleeing. They should not attempt to change our system to the one they just left.

    • Joe

      Most white immigrants to this country were of course illegal, from the Native American point of view, and most of those whites knew that invading and killing was wrong, too. And later white immigrants around 1900 came without documentation. Their descendants are most of the country today. Is this immoral? Does that bother you?

  2. Maria Chavez Author

    If we want to talk about immorality then it should be the focused on the immoral public policies that for generations have encouraged and then discouraged immigration (from Mexico in particular) without regard to people and their families. As Golash-Boza argues, we do not have “illegal” people; rather we have a system of dysfunctional and restrictive immigration policies that punitively target immigrants, especially unauthorized ones. Immoral are our federal, state, and local policies that bar immigrants from obtaining driver’s licenses, going to college, working, accessing health care, and so on – all activities associated with the benefits of citizenship and membership. These barriers are racially-based. Ignorance of this history and the contemporary circumstances in which immigrants live by the majority of Americans is what allows many to so easily forget that we are all connected, we are all one, and immorality is not reserved for just the actions of people of color and the poor. If we want to talk about immorality we must expand the discussion from a simplistic framework and examine the public policies and actions that have led to the situation where people are undocumented and not just on the immigrants. We must have immigration policy that is humane, just, realistic to the issues of supply and demand, and an acknowledgment that immigrants come from countries with historical, political, and economic ties to the U.S. This type of conversation is much more productive than saying unauthorized immigrants are acting in immoral ways and have “choice.” It is also much more nuanced and perhaps that is what makes some folks uncomfortable.


  1. “Racist, Immoral Dehumanization of Immigrant Children” | The Immigration & Education Hub

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