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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Tiffany Pai

Think of the Children

Children, for all of the sentimentality we project onto them, are extremely weird, sometimes terrifying, and will always understand more than we think.

About six months after I started my law job at an immigration internment camp for mothers and children in Dilley, Texas, I took a weekend off to see my sister and her kids in New England. My sister, who had already visited me once in Dilley and volunteered with the families there, had explained my job to my niece in somewhat vague terms. There’s a place where the government locks up children from other countries, she told my niece, and Brianna’s job is to save them.

I don’t endorse this lawyer-as-savior narrative—I am a bureaucrat trying to bury rival bureaucrats in documents, and mostly not succeeding at it—but on the other hand, my niece was four years old at the time, so, simplified explanations were needed. And to my niece’s enormous credit, she was not at all impressed with me. Soon after saying hello, she looked me up and down and asked: “Did you save all the children?”

“Not yet,” I told her. “I’m working on it.”

“If you didn’t save the children yet,” she said, ruthlessly, “then why are you here?”

Besides an indignant and sheepish hey! I didn’t really have a great answer to that one. “Out of the mouths of babes” is a saying that’s long been bandied around in praise of the homespun, innocent wisdom of children. But the biblical verse it’s paraphrased from (Psalms 8:2) is a bit more terrifying than that: “Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength because of thine enemies, that thou mightest still the enemy and the avenger.” Children, when not busy watching Paw Patrol and Octonauts, are the mouthpieces of divine imprecation, and we had better not forget it.

Later that night, my niece woke up crying from a nightmare and wandered into the living room where I was asleep on the couch. The sound of wailing penetrated my sleeping brain, and I sat up with a shock. I’m supposed to be at work, I thought confusedly, looking around in the dark, unable to remember where I was. The place where I would normally hear children crying was at my job.

Art by Gina Lerman

Amongst Cool People, there has long been disdain for popular sentimentality about children. As Oscar Wilde once cuttingly remarked of Charles Dickens’ long-suffering child protagonist in The Old Curiosity Shop: “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.” (Admittedly, Wilde himself was pretty sentimental about children, so this was clearly one of those manufactured intra-left conflicts.) It’s very easy to mock parents who post maudlin updates about their offspring on Facebook, and very satisfying to decry the moral shallowness of conservatives who fixate obsessively on the imagined torments of non-sentient proto-children in the womb while blithely ignoring all the unambiguous human suffering in the world. Trying to stir up outrage and sympathy about children has often been thought of manipulative, obvious, and lazy—the assumption being that of course people care about children, who are uncontroversial objects of pity, being both cute and powerless. Surely it’s the less obviously endearing people, those thorny and unlovable adults, who more urgently require our attention and imaginative energy.

And it’s true that sentimentality is an inappropriate attitude to have towards children. It somehow manages to unfairly exaggerate the distance between adults and children, while in no way doing justice to the eldritch weirdness that is childkind’s #1 defining trait. Children, after all, are recent alien arrivals into a universe whose inputs they are hungrily absorbing and continually sorting into odd and unpredictable boxes. This makes them say the strangest shit. (For example, my niece advised my sister to only vote for Bernie Sanders if he changed his name to “Banana Unicorn,” a campaign misstep that has not been properly evaluated in any post-mortems.) At the same time, as compulsive category-sorters operating under a massive informational deficit, children are not really that different from adults. Sure, they’re less static than adults: their dough-brained irrationality writhes and expands, whereas the irrationality of their grownup counterparts has already hardened into its final contortion. For me, at least, the main difference between being a kid and being an adult was that, as a kid, I felt like my body was the wrong size for all the emotions I had. My anger, my distress, my affection always felt impossible to contain, bursting out of me in ways that later ashamed me. I find children a little terrifying now, because I remember how much was going on beneath the surface when I was a kid. I suspect that most children I meet are nursing strange grudges and vivid, secret loves; and so I interact with kids much like I interact with cats, cautiously and awkwardly, usually assuming that they have already judged me and found me deeply inadequate.

However, for all that being sentimental about kids is laughably absurd, it’s also worth pointing out that tenderness for children is actually a much less widespread and deeply-rooted norm than people think. This has been the main insight I’ve derived from my exposure to child asylum-seekers. I used to think that hurting children was an aberrational and somewhat rare human behavior. Now, I think that it’s something that huge numbers of human beings will do with increasing boldness if they believe they can get away with it. I believe this, in part, because I’ve encountered so many children fleeing violence and exploitation within their families and communities; but also because I’ve seen the huge apparatus of state violence turned pitilessly on children, at the behest of U.S. policymakers who don’t even have the excuse of social upheaval and intergenerational trauma to mitigate their culpability. The truth is that children, in their strangeness, their physical helplessness, their unpredictable and uncontrollable potentialities, are the most natural targets for punishing the thwarted desires of adults: thus, many people derive satisfaction from hurting children. Children are also the perfect vehicle for conveying violent ultimatums to adults. The logic is the same whether it’s a gang member pointing a gun at the child of the parent he’s extorting, or the U.S. government arresting and corralling and imprisoning children who come to the border—if I would do this much to a child, hovers the unspoken threat, do you think there’s anything in the world I wouldn’t do to you?

In the summer of 2014, when children began showing up at the U.S.-Mexico border in somewhat larger numbers than usual—some of them travelling alone, others of them travelling with parents or other relatives—the Obama administration’s immediate desire was to deport them all as fast as possible. The government made this goal clear through numerous public statements. Hillary Clinton, for example, stated that all children “should be sent back as soon as it can be determined who responsible adults in their families are.” In terms of total border apprehensions, 2014 was far from a remarkable year: at 479,371 apprehensions, it was only slightly higher than the previous year’s total of 414,397, and considerably below the annual averages for the years 2000-2009, during which border apprehensions of 1 million a year or more were typical. But the government swiftly and disingenuously characterized the 2014 numbers as a “surge,” and it’s not hard to see why. Because children are supposedly “sympathetic,” and because child immigrants enjoy a modicum more due process than the near-zero level afforded to adult immigrants, the government feared that immigrants would start to expect better treatment from the U.S. government if they came with their families instead of crossing alone. And so the Obama administration initiated the first mass detention of families on U.S. soil since Japanese internment. Initially, the administration’s plan was to keep border-crossing families detained indefinitely until they could legally be deported, regardless of how long this process took, in order to deter further family groups from crossing. This “no release” policy was challenged in court, and the government eventually agreed that it could not formally use imprisonment as an immigration deterrent, and that it had to abide by existing legal protections for immigrant children, which—supposedly—places limits on how long they can be detained. (The 20-day hard limit on detention of children, which you may have heard about in the news, is a legal fiction that the government does not and has never followed, although until recently there were some limits on how brazenly the government was willing to flout it.)

The “family detention” policy that emerged from the Obama years created a new system in which mothers and children apprehended at the border were detained en masse, and would be rapidly processed by the asylum office via what is called a “fear interview,” which determines whether  1) the government allows asylum-seekers to remain in the United States to continue fighting their claim, or 2) deems them presumptively ineligible for asylum and deports them immediately. Between 2014 and early 2020, thousands of families a year were cycled through one or two family internment camps near the border. Because U.S. asylum law is extremely complicated, lawyers set up on-site operations to try to prepare families for their interviews as quickly as possible; asylum-seekers have no right to legal representation in these interviews, but do have the right to seek a consultation in advance. The job of lawyers at these camps, therefore, was to train newly-arrived asylum-seekers to beat government officials one-on-one at an extremely intricate game of legal chess. Preparing people for an interview did not simply mean trying to make them emotionally ready to discuss their trauma, because the rules of asylum are as arbitrary as the rules of any game; these rules weren’t conscientiously designed to sort people who are truly afraid for their lives from people who are not truly afraid, but rather to whittle out a haphazard subset of winners from a mass of terrified players. And so, every asylum-seeker needed to be as well-educated in the law as every asylum officer, and be able to outwit them.

The interviews took place in a little trailer in the detention complex. Children and their parents awaited their interviews in a cramped room decorated with crayon drawings of popular cartoon characters—and although these pictures looked like a child’s handiwork, rumor had it that they were drawn by an employee of the private prison company that ran the internment camp. Two of the illustrations were recognizable as Dora the Explorer and Doc McStuffins, but both of them were both depicted with white skin, red hair, and freckles. (The casual whitewashing of cartoon children who resembled my clients was far from the most disturbing thing that happened at that internment camp, but it was definitely super weird and I still think about it all the time???) Most often, it was the adults who answered the Asylum Office’s questions, but sometimes, the children needed to be interviewed too. If the child had unique and compelling individual circumstances, it might make sense to request that the child provide their own testimony; one of my coworkers fondly remembers demanding that the Asylum Office provide an autistic child with toy dinosaurs, since he found it easier to communicate with plastic lizards than words. (In this case the Asylum Office opted to pass the family on the strength of the mother’s testimony, rather than trying to interpret our junior paleontologist’s dramatic reenactments). At other times, if the government intended to deny the parent’s claim, they would attempt to interview the child as a form of due diligence (legal jargon for “ass-covering”), to ensure that the child had no legally relevant information to offer.

Kids’ interviews are often wild stuff. Children interact with the interview process in very strange ways, in part because they don’t understand it, but also because they understand it all too well. They interpret questions literally, and have very little instinctive respect for government officials. Due to my aforementioned fear of and awkwardness around children, I have never been skilled at prepping kids for interviews. Once, when I was still a law student, I accompanied a four-year-old child to an interview, and I still remember the exact moment in the interview when the child locked eyes with me, smiled slyly, and then began playing extremely aggressive footsie with me, in plain sight of the asylum officer who was questioning her and her mother. Trying to take notes during the interview, respond to the officer’s queries, and fend off the kid’s tiny, vicious sneakers was one of the more complicated pieces of multitasking I’ve ever done. Kids often treat the interview process like the giant farce that it is, and the transcripts that result from the Asylum Office’s interviews of kids sometimes read like absurdist screenplays: 


Can you tell me your name?


 I’m crazy.


Why are you crazy?


I like to have fun.


Can you tell me your birthday?


[no response]


Can you tell me how old you are?


 [no response]


Can you tell me where you are from?


I’m very crazy, I like to have fun.


Can you please tell me about a time when someone said something that scared you?


[is making farting noises]


How old are you?


I don’t know, I am small.


Can you tell me what you are afraid of?


I’m afraid of zombies.


Why are you afraid of zombies?


Because they eat me.


Have you ever been threatened?


Yes, a zombie threatened us but I slapped the zombie and he died, wham!

It was certainly a bit weird to be doing legal research, writing, and consultation in a meeting-space that was always filled with children, who were sometimes frustrated and crying, sometimes boisterous and disruptive, sometimes unnaturally quiet and patient. I was always amazed by how long some of those kids were able to sit still without anything to entertain them, when my nephews and nieces of the same age would have been clawing at the walls. I don’t know if it’s because they were accustomed to less constant stimulation, or if it was an instinctive response to their parent’s palpable anxiety and discomfort. Seeing children in an internment camp was jarring to people who came to Dilley for the first time—I know it was jarring to me—but I quickly got used to writing emails and last-minute briefs with the cacophony of 60-odd kids in the background. We’ll get them all out of here, no matter what it takes, was what we all told ourselves, and for a time, this goal was largely achievable. The government’s general practice was to release families into the United States for further proceedings if they passed their initial interviews with the asylum office, and until mid-2019, almost all the families did pass—in part because they were migrating from extremely dangerous areas and had past experiences that clearly qualified them for legal protection, but also because they were smart, and had a lot to lose, and so they learned to play the government’s game, delineating their fears for their own safety into the fine-grained legal categories the government demanded. And so the imprisonment and interrogation of most of the families at the Dilley internment camp was a high-stakes hazing, a sadistic initiation ritual rather than a long-term punishment.

But the Trump administration, over time, realized the same thing that the Obama administration did before them. To send a clear message to adult immigrants, it was children they would need to target, both because of the emotional and symbolic weight of hurting children, and because child immigrants’ slightly more robust legal protections would require more concerted effort to erode. The administration sent this message most publicly and dramatically during the brief period of “zero tolerance” family separation, when children were systematically ripped away from their parents. Although that memorable piece of cruelty was relatively short-lived, it was only the beginning of the Trump administration’s efforts to punish families who cross the border with children. First, the government started pushing more asylum-seekers back into Mexico, ensuring that fewer families ever made it past the border. For those families who were still arrested and brought to the family internment camps, the government made it increasingly hard for families to access lawyers in advance of their interviews. Then they replaced asylum officers (who act as interviewers) with Border Patrol agents. Then they invalidated overnight huge swathes of case law that had once offered families protection. Then they banned virtually all Central Americans who travelled through Mexico from seeking asylum.

Suddenly, from one day to the next, massive numbers of families began failing their fear interviews and getting whisked away by ICE. When some families who had not yet been deported brought a lawsuit against the government, challenging the barrage of new policies that seemed specifically designed to make it impossible for families to pass their interviews, the government punished the families by locking them up indefinitely. If we can’t deport you, the government decided, we won’t release you, either. There are now dozens of mothers and children who are coming up on their one-year anniversary in immigration jail, all because the government is determined to make an example out of them, and to discourage other families from fighting their deportations.  Even as the pandemic has raged, and ample evidence shows that keeping people confined in prison settings is dangerous, the government still refuses to let many of these families go. 

Back when I was still working full-time at the family internment camp, and most families were still getting released instead of deported or indefinitely detained, I was often disturbed by the thought that I was complicit in what the government was doing there—that by providing legal services, and therefore allowing the government to claim that the families had access to attorneys, I was giving the government moral cover to keep imprisoning them. The way I made myself feel better, for entangling asylum-seekers in the government’s sick mind-games, was by imagining that all those children would eventually be released into the United States. Even if they couldn’t get status through the notoriously harsh immigration court system, I reasoned, they would inevitably have U.S. citizen siblings, and later, perhaps, their own U.S. citizen children. Ultimately, it would simply become too complicated and time-consuming for the government to locate and remove them all. I told myself that the human will to move and settle was, in fact, more primal and inexorable than the flimsy vagaries of the law; and so I hoped that the little bit of power my colleagues and I could give these families by helping them pass their interviews would become a bigger power later, once they were living and working, organizing and resisting, within the United States. But of course, the families who come through Dilley, and the number of people crossing the border generally, are a tiny trickle compared to the huge population of this country. And now, with the government’s draconian new border policies, which have only become more restrictive during the pandemic, that trickle is getting smaller and smaller by the day.

My niece—the same one who admonished me for having the audacity to take a vacation while children were still locked up in jail—has been very troubled by the existence of the family internment camp. She still regularly tells my sister about various plans she’s been hatching to help the children escape. One such plan involved luring Donald Trump to the camp with a false story of a jailbreak, then overpowering him and locking him up, stealing his keys, and setting all the families free. Having said all this, she then casually asked my sister: “Hey, where can I get a fireball?” 

Despite my suspicion that my niece might do pretty well leading a revolutionary cell, I don’t really like when people pin too many of their hopes on children, or the “younger generation,” whether that means the Zoomers or whoever comes after them. It feels like a lot of pressure. Millennials have struggled under the weight of Boomers’ mistakes, and so, I assume, younger people will likewise struggle to recover ground from the devastating setbacks that have resulted from my generation’s political impotence. I don’t have children of my own, so I don’t have any special emotional investment in the next generation liking me very much. But for their own sakes, rather than our own, I think we should respect and encourage the anger, defiance, and skepticism of children. We should want our species’ newest members to be on fire with the uncynical fury of people who are seeing injustice for the first time, and are still fresh enough to recognize it for the perversion it is. And so I hope that the children of the dispossessed will be as entitled in their demand for their rights as the rich are entitled in their demand for their petty desires. And I hope that children who are born into less dire circumstances can somehow intuit that those children in revolt are their real friends and companions, that they are all in league together against the cruel and bitter world made by adults; that their moral and natural loyalty is to their fellow-children, and not to their parents or grandparents. I hope that the children of the world will kick us, mock us, and cajole us out of our slumber. I hope that the mouths of babes breathe fireballs against their enemies.

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