Why we feel ambivalent

(Towards Migrants and Migration Acts)

Many liberals and human rights advocates supported president Obama’s executive action on immigration last week. Many others, however, are ambivalent about their take on this act. Should we protect families even if parents are undocumented? While the response is obvious to me (yes), I take this ambivalence as a healthy sign of thoughtfulness and change. It also reveals a common social response to others and outsiders. Professor Jacqueline Bhabha discusses this issue in her new book Child Migration & Human Rights in a Global Age:

We view the state as having a protective obligation toward vulnerable children in its role as . . . parent of the nation; but we also expect the state to protect us from threatening, unruly, and uncontrolled outsiders, even if they are children.

A society’s unwillingness to act (as reflected through Congress’ year-long gridlock on immigration reforms) indicates simultaneous feelings of sympathy and hostility towards others.

This is particularly so for migrant children, where perceptions of vulnerability (“poor and innocent children”) and otherness (“not really like our children”) coalesce. So, economic and self-interested demands for the cheap labor of migrant children are in tension with uncontroversial rights that all children, including these children, now have as a matter of both law and popular belief. That is why the exploitation of migrant children in factories, farms, and sweatshops in industrialized countries continues, as does the vulnerability of the relevant industries to rights-driven lawsuits and human rights campaigns. It is an uneasy but continuing balance, reflecting society’s ambivalence.

Bhabha’s conclusion is that ambivalence should be carefully calibrated (at an executive level) to protect children at risk while supporting their autonomy—and I agree with her. The government’s ability to protect immigrant families should also be seen as a way to guarantee children’s autonomy and access to better options.

— Alexia Raynal, Zeteo Deputy Editor

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Jacqueline Bhabha is Director of Research, and Professor of the Practice of Health and Human Rights at the Harvard School of Public Health. She has published extensively on issues of transnational child migration, refugee protection, children’s rights and citizenship. I will soon review her book Child Migration & Human Rights in a Global Age (Princeton University Press, 2014). Stay tuned.

To read more posts in the fields of children and childhood by Alexia Raynal, visit her ZiR page here.

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