News and images of an influx of unaccompanied child migrants have swept across the nation in recent weeks. In late June, USA Today reported that since Oct. 1, 2013, “more than 47,000 migrant kids primarily from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador” have been caught entering country through the U.S.-Mexico border. More recently, government officials have estimated that this population could grow to 90,000 by the end of September. These children, many of whom have journeyed to the U.S. hoping to reunite with family, are being held in numerous southwestern detention facilities while awaiting trials to determine their fates. Most will be deported back to the countries that they fled.

Child migrants locked up and awaiting deportation, feared as future voters, pushes us to think about how the idea of “immigrant child threat” reveals the ongoing negotiation over the value of different kinds of children. So, while Clay Jenkins, a Democrat elected Dallas County judge in 2010, argues that “these are children—they are precious children,” he is expressing a contested view.

This is not the first time children have come to the U.S. based on rumors that they would be allowed to stay. Today it is cause for alarm and a desire to close borders; in the 1950s, the faulty rumors were CIA-sponsored tall tales of Communist child-eaters during Operation Peter Pan, rumors that served to get thousands of Cuban families to give up their children to foster families in Miami, never to be reunited after the Cuban Revolution.
We see how immigrant children are devalued when we compare them to another group of child migrants: transnational adoptees. Research on legislation regarding children’s citizenship argues that adoptees were granted the privilege of their adoptive parents’ citizenship while children of immigrant parents, who had arrived through official channels, could not access social citizenship rights because of their parents’ non-native status.
Society’s “value” of children changes over time and in different situations. While children were once members of household production in the 19th century—say, just another worker on the family farm—they may now be “sacralized” as priceless, if economically worthless, in the 20th century. However, as adoption scholar Laura Briggs writes on the children of deportees from the U.S., “[T]his is still a fight, a question; immigrant children are not seen as a cute, innocent, victimized population.”

For more on how immigration to the U.S. has changed over time, check out this roundtable.