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Child Migrants Have Been Coming to the USA Alone Since Ellis Island

The press portrayed the Central American children and youth who are arriving at our southern border as a migration phenomenon without precedence. Nothing can be further from the truth. Annie Moore, a 15-year-old girl from Cork County, Ireland, and her two younger brothers were the first persons in line on January 1, 1892, the opening day of the new immigration station at Ellis Island (Tasneem 2014). Several waves of unaccompanied children have entered the United States since then. From 1960 to 1962, Operation Pedro Pan (Peter Pan) resulted in the airlift from Cuba of 14,000 unaccompanied children. It was one of the largest migrations of unaccompanied children into the USA from a single country.

In 1975, Operation Baby Lift involved an evacuation of about 3000 orphans from South Vietnam. Since 1980, almost 13,000 children and youth under the age of 18 have entered the unaccompanied refugee minors (URM) program funded by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) and administered by the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services (LIRS) and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). At its peak in 1985, ORR provided protection to 3828 children. In 1982, Congress passed the Amerasian Homecoming Immigration Act, giving preferential immigration status to Vietnamese children born to US servicemen. About 23,000 Amerasians and 67,000 of their relatives entered the United States under this act (Johnson 2002).

In 1988, large numbers of unaccompanied youth and adults from Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala arrived in South Texas. Many were teenagers fleeing armed conflicts in those countries. Tens of thousands would eventually come, and many received temporary protected status (TPS) or asylum. In January 2010, Haitian children orphaned by a devastating earthquake began adoption journeys into the USA. More than 1000 orphans were adopted, aided by passage of the Help Haiti Act of 2010. Many children were given “humanitarian parole,”[1] an immigration program used sparingly that some suggest should apply to the Central American youth who started arriving in large numbers in 2014 (US Department of State 2014).

Even though some of these programs were initially met with controversy, in the end the evaluation of integration outcomes was quite positive among the general public. The nineteenth-century immigrant wave, in particular, is held up as the group that successfully integrated into the US social fabric within just one generation—they learned English, entered the labor force, and participated in civic organizations. Many of the young people resettled as part of Operation Pedro Pan recalled painful separations from their parents, but at the same time emphasized how well they have done in this country (Johnson 2000; Conde 2000).

Refugee children from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos resettled in the United States in the 1980s and 1990s often have been called the Asian “model minority,” and their achievements are held in high regard by the news media and the general public—despite more complex pictures emerging from empirical research (Ngo and Lee 2007, 415-453). The fact remains: US society was favorably disposed to previous waves of youth migration, and there was no picketing when they arrived on US shores. Will the Central American children and teens who have arrived recently also be welcomed in local communities? What kind of solutions will be put forth to ensure their integration?

  • [1] On November 14, 2014, the State Department established an in-country refugee/parole programin El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to provide a safe, legal, and orderly alternative to thedangerous journey that some children are currently undertaking to the United States. This programallows certain parents who are lawfully present in the USA to request access to the US RefugeeAdmissions Program for their children still in one of these three countries. Children who are foundineligible for refugee admission but still at risk of harm may be considered for parole on a case-bycase basis.
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