IVÓN PADILLA-RODRÍGUEZ (University of Nevada, Reno) is a 2015 Marcus L. Urann Fellow and a 2014 Truman
Scholar who is a Ph.D. student at Columbia University’s Department of History. In 2014, she co-published the award-winning
The Country I Call Home. She researches at the intersection of twentieth-century immigration policies, histories of childhood,
and Latino immigration to the United States. She has presented her research on immigration reform to members of the U.S.
jurisdictional debates between the state and federal governments, and inconsistent state
procedures and understandings of the visa.
Most importantly, its “best interests of the child” approach is internally contradictory
because it does not rightfully perceive children exactly as they are — as children. In
1973, legal scholar Hillary Rodham foreshadowed why the approach is as confused as it
is: “a rationalization by decision-makers justifying their judgments about a child’s future
[is] like an empty vessel into which adult perceptions and prejudices are poured.” 8
Today, U.S. immigration policies operate within a binary of conceptions about
children. In cases where children’s immigration cases are adjudicated without
consideration of their parents, children are treated as functional adults who
must secure their own legal representation and participate in interviews that use
questionable interrogation tactics, according to a 2014 Citizenship and Immigration
Ombudsman’s report. 9
This is what Rodham meant in 1973: that when a “best interests of the child”
approach does exist in immigration law, it fails to take into consideration the voice and
experience of the child. The approach is employed through the lens and perceptions of
its adjudicator — the adult — and may unreasonably hold the child to adult standards.
Legal scholars such as Jacqueline Bhabha and David Thronson have articulated the
binary through which immigration law operates when it comes to children. Bhabha
argues the U.S. legal system exhibits a profound ambivalence in its treatment of
children, for it simultaneously retains its commitment to enforcement priorities and
humanitarian principles that understand the child to be a defenseless victim. Generally,
children are perceived by U.S. immigration law either as appendages to adults or
miniature equivalents to adults. 10 A best interests approach conceived in this dualistic
way fails to productively inject children’s voices, lived experiences, and agency into
Both approaches — treating children as objects and as adults-in-the-making — have
led to the violation of children’s rights by causing bureaucratic delays and litigation
battles. Competing interpretations of the “child” under the law enlarge the inadequacies
in access to immigration relief for undocumented children. The reason for this is that
these interpretations fail to employ a perception of the child concomitant with their
reality: agential, rights-bearing children.
If immigration law were to employ a truly child-centered approach that located a
child’s worth not in its potential to reach adulthood but in its resilience to persevere
throughout its childhood, the state might be better equipped to address and integrate
existing and future populations of border-traversing youth who reach the U.S. We can
begin to locate solutions for a child-centered approach to U.S. immigration policy by
recognizing the experiences of the child migrants who were successfully admitted and
integrated into U.S. society throughout our past.
Top photo: Courtesy of the National Archives, item 543866: A migrant
father with his young son, 1972.
Bottom photo: Courtesy of the National Archives, item 543871: A young
child of a migrant family works in a sugarbeet field in 1972.
Bhabha, Jacqueline. Child Migration &
Human Rights in a Global Age. Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 2014.
García, María Cristina. Seeking Refuge:
Central American Migration to Mexico,
the United States, and Canada. Berkeley:
University of California Press, 2006.
Klapper, Melissa R. Small Strangers: The
Experiences of Immigrant Children in
America, 1880-1925. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee,
Ngai, Mae. Impossible Subjects: Illegal
Aliens and the Making of Modern America.
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004.
Rodham, Hilary. “Children Under the Law.”
Harvard Educational Review 43 (1973):
Zahra, Tara. The Lost Children:
Reconstructing Europe’s Families After
World War II. Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, 2011.