Neither “wolves” nor “predators:” Combating the Vilification of Immigrant Children

Immigrant children have been in the news lately. Most recently, a ten-year-old child with cerebral palsy was detained by immigration authorities on her way to surgery. Legitimate public outcry, as well as a prompt lawsuit, led to her release. Another group of immigrant children has received less media attention, though singled out with particular animosity: alleged gang members.

Calling for expanded enforcement, Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently zeroed in on the role that unaccompanied immigrant children play in the expansion of gang activities in the U.S. Sessions called those children “wolves in sheep clothing.” Sessions’ damaging comments accomplishes two things at once: it vilifies children with alleged gang ties (whom the President also called “animals”) and brands them as manipulative of the system. These harmful words have led to arbitrary raids of Central American and prolonged detention immigrant children profiled for alleged gang affiliation.

Scapegoating immigrant children 

Despite these alarming comments and actions, this administration grossly overestimates the population in the government’s crosshairs. The Senate recently convened a special session to discuss “The Problem of MS-13,” a famous transnational gang founded in Los Angeles, and spread across Central America through waves of deportations. Senators examined data that plainly contradicts the Attorney General’s statement.

Of all unaccompanied minors apprehended at the southwest border since 2011, 0.02% were either suspected or confirmed to have ties to gangs in their home country, according to U.S. Border Patrol Acting Chief Carla Provost. For the lone children who are alleged “wolves,” they have to overcome significant prejudice to have a fair day in court.

Who are those children and why is due process at stake?

CAIR Coalition routinely screens and represents children with alleged gang ties. It is well-known that gangs coerce and forcibly recruit children in Central America. Sometimes, a child merely has the misfortune of growing up in a place where gangs are more powerful than the government. The police repeatedly fail to curtail this practice, and is known to collude with different gangs. 

Undertaking the journey to the U.S. is perilous for most; it is especially dangerous for children fleeing gang violence. Those children flee with the constant fear that the gang’s broad network of informants, accomplices, and members will hunt them down.

After crossing into the US, they hope to feel safe at last. Instead, they are automatically detained for indefinite periods of time, and have to defend themselves alone, without the right to counsel, in a system that views them as the danger, not the victims. This view directly contradicts Congress’ imperative to treat each unaccompanied child with a higher level of care due to their inherent vulnerability and evaluate each claim individually.

History repeats itself

This is not the first time that the U.S. grapples with a harmful theory that depicts vulnerable children as inherently violent. Over three decades ago, politicians and sociologists began spreading the use of the term “superpredator” to scapegoat marginalized children alleged to engage in gang or drug-related activities. 

This harmful language unleashed a series of local and federal legislation that locked up children for life, until the Supreme Court intervened. The Court reminded authorities that children are less culpable than their adult counterparts and their circumstances must be taken into account. Even where they commit reprehensible conduct, they have an inherent capacity for remorse and rehabilitation.

In other words, children are children—not wolves or predators that society should condemn, incarcerate indefinitely, or deport without due process.  That is why CAIR Coalition is committed to protect all immigrant children’s rights.