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IHRC Symposium Commentary on Migration across Global Regimes of Childhood


Welcome to the first of the new SHCY Commentary series, in which SHCY members provide written contributions on various academic topics pertaining to the history of childhood and youth. Thank-you to Kelly Condit-Shrestha and the Immigration History Research Centre for this think-piece and introduction to recently passed Migration and Global Regimes of Childhood Symposium. We look forward to their follow-up.

Migration across Global Regimes of Childhood1: An Introduction

Friday, September 21, 2018

120 Elmer L. Andersen Library, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities

On Saturday, June 16, 2018, a Homeland Security official asserted, “We are not separating babies from parents.” On Tuesday, June 19, 2018, a Border Patrol official  told news journalists “that it’s a matter of ‘discretion’ how young is too young for a child to be separated from their parents. In general, he said, the age of 5 has been used as a benchmark, with children younger than that called ‘tender-aged.’”

On Wednesday, June 20, 2018, The Associated Press reported: “The Trump administration has set up at least three ‘tender age’ shelters to detain babies and other young children who have been forcibly separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border.” That same day, the Detroit Free Press reported how, “in the middle of the night, two baby boys arrived in Grand Rapids after being separated from their immigrant parents at the southern border weeks ago. One child is 8 months old; the other is 11 months old.

As of Thursday, July 19, 2018, only 364 of an estimated 2,551 childrenseparated under Trump’s zero-tolerance border policy had been reunited with their parents. That same day, Congresspersons Elijah E. Cummings, Jerrold Nadler, and Bennie G. Thompson reported: “Trump officials made a startling confession – they had no interagency plan in place to reunite children with their parents when Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced President Trump’s ‘zero tolerance’ policy in April.’” On Wednesday, July 23, 2018, U.S. attorneys presented more than 100 pages of migrant parents’ personal testimonies documenting the “coercive and misleading manner” through which immigration officials took their children.

What is the current U.S. and transnational “regime of childhood” that, despite intense bi-partisan resistanceand public protest, governs the separation of these migrant children and parents? How might we think more broadly about “regimes of childhood”?

Michel Foucault offers one possible starting point when he describes the domain of sexuality “as an especially dense transfer point for relations of power: between men and women, young people and old people, parents and offspring, teachers and students, priests and laity, and administration and a population.”2 This symposium illuminates the domain of childhood as a similarly notable “dense transfer point for relations of power.”

Ann Laura Stoler’s thought is also helpful in analyzing regimes of childhood. In her essay, “Tense and Tender Ties: The Politics of Comparison in North American History and (Post) Colonial Studies,” she responds to historian Robert Gregg’s appeal to better understand “the larger dimensions of the imperial system.”3 In particular, Stoler’s intersectional analysis utilizes Foucault’s “regimes of truth”4 to explore these larger "ways of knowing and establishing truth claims about race and difference on which macropolities rely,” and macropolities’ more intimate spheres of governance, in order to “reveal how North American histories and those of empires elsewhere compare and converge.”5 In particular, Stoler suggests that: 

Refocusing on an imperial field highlights the contradictions between universal principles and the differentiated imperial spaces and particularistic ways in which they were applied. But it may also do something more, helping identify unexpected points of congruence and similarities of discourse in seemingly disparate sites. It may prompt a search for common strategies of rule and the sequence of their occurrence that questions the relationship between imperial expansion and nation building… It may point to techniques for managing the intimate that spanned colony and metropole and that constrained or enabled both colonizer and colonized. Not least, such an exercise may challenge cherished distinctions between the dynamics of American internal empire and European overseas ones-or undo those distinctions altogether.6

In conversation with the insights drawn from Foucault and Stoler, this symposium will investigate the overlapping and intersecting scales through which child bodies were (and are) meant to be managed—at the levels of individual and family, institution and state, and across national boundaries—at different historic and contemporary moments. Within an overarching frame of “the global” and multiple scales of movement, this symposium will treat child migration processes whether they crossed oceans or national borders, or remained within continental or state boundaries, as interconnected, rather than separate histories. In this way, the symposium will explore the perpetuation and trajectory of what I call global “regimes of childhood”7 that have governed large-scale and local “ways knowing” children and childhood, across time and space. These transnational “truth claims” have worked to implement modes of governance in order to control the movement of youth, and by extension, their families, networks of kin, and broader communities—thus illustrating children and childhood as “dense transfer point[s] for relations of power.”

Ruminating on “connections and comparisons,” Stoler asks: “Would it be more fruitful to compare the governing strategies of colonial regimes or ‘the regimes of truth’ that informed colonial cultures at different times and places?”8 “Migration across Global Regimes of Childhood” will seek to do both.

Across Time and Space

By June 23, 2018, 81 of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” migrant children had entered the U.S. foster care system via the Michigan-based adoption agency,  Bethany Christian Services. Even before, and especially after, this development, domestic and transnational adopteesfirst/birth mothers, and multi-disciplinary scholars had already made connections between these contemporary events and the United States’ long history of child separation centered, in particular, around indigenous and children of color.

Since it’s come to light that parents were given mere “minutes to decide whether or not to leave their children in the U.S.” and the Trump administration assessed that “48 hours” constituted acceptable decision-making time, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) pushed back “for a longer waiting period after reunifications – seven days.” The ACLU argued that this was “sufficient time [for parents] to consult about what might be the most consequential decision of their lives.” This argument resonates with the politics surrounding the 2011 amendment to South Korea’s Special Adoption Law. This historic amendment represented the culmination of an extensive human rights campaign regarding the separation of Korean children from their unwed mothers, and included stipulations that guaranteed a seven-day waiting period for thoughtful deliberation, parent counseling, consultation, consent, and child relinquishment.9 Present-day, CHANGE (“a Coalition for the human rights of adoptees,” led by repatriated Korean adoptee activists and allies) is in the midst of a transnational political campaign, in support of further revising the 2011 Special Adoption Law. These revisions argue for the inclusion of specific child and family rights-based principles to “supportfamily preservation and the protection of children,” “children’s rights as recognized by the UNCRC,” and “anti-corruption measures and penalties for noncompliance.”10

On the other hand, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen validates the administration’s border-child separations through a discourse of criminalization and illegality:

[T]he law says if you cross between the ports of entry, you are entering without inspection and that is a crime… Our policy has not changed in that if you break the law, we will refer you for prosecution… Operationally what that means is we will have to separate your family. That’s no different than what we do every day in every part of the United States when an adult of a family commits a crime.
Again, we do it every day in every part of the country. If you have a family and you commit a crime, the police do not not put you in jail because you have a family. They prosecute you and they incarcerate you. Illegal aliens should not get just different rights because they happen to be illegal aliens.

Laura Briggs’s Somebody’s Children (2012), documents the long history of separating children from their families, for political reasons, in the U.S. and Latin America. In particular, the book’s epilogue “explores how the U.S. citizen children of immigrants… [were] starting to become very vulnerable to being sent into foster care and adoptions… [b]y treating the status offence of overstaying a visa [, for example,] like a crime…. Officials [were] pushing children into state protective services and foster care.”11 More recently, legal scholar Marcia Zug provides additional examples of how “[s]tate courts and welfare agencies have frequently concluded that a parent’s undocumented status and their willingness to cross the border illegally was proof enough of parental unfitness that could justify the termination of parental rights.” Anthropologist Lauren Heidbrink makes this link to the eventual adoption of certain unaccompanied minors: “[For those minors who have been reclassified as refugees under special immigrant juvenile status], what’s presented as abuse, abandonment, or neglect can instead be a parent who was deported or detained.

Beyond the discourse of migrant status and documentation, what role does race play in this current regime of child-family criminalization and illegality? Turning our gaze to the internal politics of U.S. child separation, the highly raced criminalization of black and Hispanic mothers, resulting in their children’s placement into foster care, have led some to label this systematized child separation as “Jane Crow.” The most explicit (post-slavery) criminalization of black mothers occurred during the 1980s “crack babies” epidemic. The racialized taking of black children from their “undeserving” families has a deep, long, and painful history.12

And what of the expression of “nurture,” if you will, offered by border-separating government officials? In practice, there has been no age-protective limit that has kept children with their parents. But the sentiments expressed by both Homeland Security and Border Patrol officials about “not separating babies” and “the age of 5… as a benchmark” recalls, for example, political and administrative discussion surrounding compulsory education and American Indian boarding schools during the late nineteenth century. In 1893 Congressman Taylor defined “Indian children [as] Indians between the age of 6 and 21.”13 On June 16, 1894, Congress held a lively debate regarding parental consent, children’s age, and whether or not youth “under the age of 14 years” should be sent “to a school beyond the State or Territory in which said reservation is situated.”14 Within this discourse of nineteenth century policy dialogue surrounding American Indian child removal, infants were not separated from their parents.

In the historic enactment of global “regimes of childhood”—focused on child and parent rights, surveillance and discipline, nurture and sentiment—what logics of governance have changed and transformed? What circuits of knowledge have continued and been sustained, despite these changes, over time? What have varied “regimes of childhood” meant with respect to migration, discourse, and practice, as reflected both in global universalities and specificities, in different communities’ experiences, in geopolitics, and in national conceptualizations of race and sovereignty?

Dr. Laura Briggs’s15 keynote, “Understanding the Spectacle of Separating Children at the Border: A History,” will place a sharp focus on the contemporary and historic removal of children for political reasons, as well as its “spectacularization – the making of grotesque spectacle, whether this summer or at the end of the Indian Wars, with boarding schools, or on the auction block in slavery, the tearing away of children from their mothers’ sides, or the paradoxical invisibility and spectacle of child disappearance in the Cold War civil wars in Central America.”16

The remainder of the symposium will be organized temporally, across three panels focusing on different “regimes of childhood”: “Empires, Old and New,” “Cold War Geopolitics,” and “Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989)” in order to highlight three specific epochs: the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Cold War era, and present-day immigration politics. The symposium will encourage public engagement, academic and non-academic collaboration, and interdisciplinary dialogue by bringing together fifteen presenters: graduate students and renowned scholars (from a multitude of disciplines), acclaimed writers, activists, and community members. The presentations will focus on such topics such as: child labor in British and U.S. imperial contexts; transracial domestic and transnational adoptions; child refugees, contemporary human rights and child welfare discourses; and the interconnections between these different (im)migrant communities. This symposium will also foreground the insights, expertise, and perspectives of child migrants themselves by including presentations from refugees and adoptees who arrived and migrated throughout the U.S., during different historical contexts. Together, these panelists will present a variety of case studies in order to illuminate the intersections and divergences, in discourse and practice, of child migrations that resulted from a range of motivations: the desire for labor, the pursuit of education, humanitarian concerns, and intergovernmental agendas.


Influenced by Stoler’s view that “research that begins with people’s movements rather than with fixed polities opens up to more organic histories that are not compelled by originary narratives designed to show the ‘natural’ teleology of future nations, later republics, and future states,”17 this symposium centers migration as its overarching framework. Through this framing, I imagine the symposium to be an opportunity to shed new light on the global interconnectedness, divergence, and transformation of youth and youth migration—how children have been historically perceived and governed; how they acted and moved, internally and across oceans.

As I’m certain these presentations will show, global “regimes of childhood” have not been shaped only through state intervention, but through the children, their families, and their communities who have moved “within, [among,] between, and outside” of these regimes.18 However, the power of regimes that continue to govern and manage populations over the longue durédespite, for example, political changes and successful forms of community resistance, contribute to the endurance of certain discursive logics that continue to manage meaning and construct social categories. Ann Laura Stoler and Frederick Cooper describe such sustainment of these governing logics as

colonialism’s modular qualities, how different regimes [build] projects with blocks of one earlier model and then another, projects that were then reworked by the colonized populations that those models could never completely master or contain… we might imagine nineteenth-century history as made up, not of nation-building projects alone, but of compounded colonialisms and as shaped by multinational philanthropies, missionary movements, discourses of social welfare and reform, and traffics of people.19

We can thus witness the global and enduring power of certain “regimes of child separation” in Laura Briggs’s June 2018 testimony in support of the State of Washington v. Donald Trump in his official capacity as President in the United States, et al.20 In her testimony, Briggs seamlessly links the Trump administration’s “current policy of separating children from their parents in order to deter border crosses” to U.S. federal government policies of Native American child separation “as a strategy to end the Indian Wars of the nineteenth century.” She continues to map the legacies of these nineteenth century family separations into the twenty-first century, and their social, cultural, and political impact on Native American communities. According to Briggs’s testimony, it is then also logical to compare discourses surrounding nineteenth century and contemporary U.S. policies and practices with the actions of “Latin American dictators and paramilitaries in the mid-twentieth century [, who utilized child separations] to terrorize communities thought to be involved in insurgencies and to avoid the raising of another generation of ‘reds.’” From the 1970s through the 1990s, countries throughout Latin America, sometimes with the explicit support of the U.S. government, enacted child separation policies under the rubric of Cold War agendas in order to take the children of alleged insurgents, most often vulnerable unwed mothers.21

While in many ways “different,” how is it that Trump’s “zero tolerance” border separations continue to resonate with nineteenth century U.S. indigenous and Cold War Latin American child separation policies?

It was also between the mid-nineteenth and late twentieth centuries that Canada and Australia employed their own versions of forced child removal on behalf of (white) nationalist political agendas and indigenous children’s alleged “best interests.” These youths were placed into white families, institutions, sometimes federal boarding schools; and in Australia, they encompassed a “stolen generation” of more than 25,000 aboriginal children.22 And it was following Spain’s Civil War (1936-1939) that the victorious Nationalist government separated Republican children from their parents, to be raised and assimilated into Nationalist families and ideals. Loyalist mothers were infantilized as incapable and undeserving of keeping their families intact. Their children thus “disappeared” via government policy and were adopted out.23

All of the above-mentioned instances of child separation policy have since ended, often with official apologies on behalf of federal governments. But similar “regimes of childhood” and child separation continue into the present, as evidenced in our contemporary politics—a history that appears to keep repeating itself. In this way, the central task of this symposium, through its exploration of manifold case studies, is “not to figure out who was colonizer and who was colonized,” but “to ask what political rationalities [concerning childhood, child separation, and child-family-parent rights] have made [specific] distinctions and categories [of governance particularly] viable, enduring, and relevant.”24

I will follow up on these proposed inquiries via a Report, following the September 21, 2018 Immigration History Research Center (IHRC) Symposium: Migration across Global Regimes of Childhood, in a future Society for the History of Children and Youth (SHCY) Commentaries issue.


1. This Immigration History Research Center (IHRC) event is funded in part by the Imagine Fund Special Events Award from the University of Minnesota Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost and an Outreach Grant from the Society for the History of Children and Youth, and co-sponsored by the College of Education and Human Development (CEHD); Asian American Studies Program; Human Rights Program; Center for Austrian Studies (CAS); Center for German and European Studies (CGES); Interdisciplinary Center for the Study of Global Change (ICGC); Institute for Global Studies; Departments of American Indian Studies; Anthropology; Chicano & Latino Studies; English; Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies (GWSS); German, Scandinavian & Dutch (GSD); and History; Subjects, Object, Agents: Young People’s Lives in the Global South (YaSOA). Concept/Organization: Kelly Condit-Shrestha. Artwork: Simi Kang.

2. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. I: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 103.

3. Robert Gregg, Inside Out, Outside In: Essays in Comparative History (New York: St. Martin’s Press, Inc., 2000), 6.

4. Michel Foucault, “Truth and Power,” trans. Colin Gordon, Leo Marshall, John Mepham, Kate Soper, in Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977, ed. Colin Gordon (New York: Pantheon Books), 131.

5. Ann Laura Stoler, “Tense and Tender Ties: The Politics of Comparison in North American and (Post) Colonial Studies,” The Journal of American History 88, no. 3 (2001): 831.

6. Ibid., 847.

7. Thank you to Mary Jo Maynes for pushing me toward this language and literature. For related scholarship with different emphases that point to the usefulness of Foucault in Childhood Studies or utilize a “regimes” framework see, for example, Gunilla Dahlberg, Peter Moss, and Alan Pence, Beyond Quality in Early Education and Care: Postmodern Perspectives (Philadelphia: RoutledgeFalmer, 2001); Glenda Mac Naughton, Doing Foucault in Early Childhood Studies: Applying poststructural ideas (London: Routledge, 2005); Leena Alanen, “Regimes of childhood and children’s welfare,” Funding by the Academy of Finland, 2004-2007, staff.jyu.fi/Members/lalanen/projects; Jean Grugel and Nicola Piper, Critical Perspectives on Global Governance: Rights and regulation in governing regimes (New York: Routledge, 2007); David M. Pomfret, Youth and Empire: Trans-Colonial Childhoods in British and French Asia (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2016).

8. Stoler, “Tense and Tender Ties,” 846-847.

9. Sang-hun Choe, “Group Resists Korean Stigma for Unwed Mothers,” New York Times, October 7, 2009, A6; Jane Jeong Trenka, tammy ko Robinson, and Kim Stoker, “New adoption law puts family preservation first,” Hankyoreh, July 7, 2011, http://english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_editorial/486303.html; Shannon Doona Heit, “Diasporic Articulations and the Transformative Power of Haunting: Returning Adoptees’ Solidarity Movement with Unwed Mothers in Korea” (MA thesis, Hanyang University, 2013); Sang-hun Choe, “An Adoptee Returns, and Changes Follow,” New York Times, June 29, 2013, A4; Jane Jeong Trenka, “The 2011 Amendment to the Special Adoption Law: A One-Year Evaluation” (MA thesis, Seoul National University, 2014); Maggie Jones, “The Returned,” New York Times Magazine, January 18, 2015, MM30; Paul Y. Chang and Andrea Kim Cavicchi, “Claiming Rights: Organizational and Discursive Strategies of the Korean Adoptee and Unwed Mothers Movement,” Korea Observer 46, no. 1 (2015): 145-180; Hosu Kim, Birth Mothers and Transnational Adoption Practice in South Korea: Virtual Mothering (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.), 191, 197. See also, Kelly Condit-Shrestha,"South Korea and Adoption's Ends: Reexamining the Numbers and Historicizing Market Economies," Adoption and Culture (forthcoming).

10. tammy ko Robinson, Email message to author, February 9, 2018; CHANGE Coalition, “adopteesforchange,” Instagram, www.instagram.com/adopteesforchange/.

11. Laura Briggs, Somebody’s Children: The Politics of Transracial and Transnational Adoption (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012), 271.

12. See, Susan Okie, “The Epidemic That Wasn’t,” New York Times, January 26, 2009; Briggs, Somebody’s Children,Chap. 3; Dorothy Roberts, Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare (New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2002). See also, Kelly Condit-Shrestha, Racialized Borders within the United States: A History of Foster Care, Adoption, and Child Removal in African American Communities,” U.S. History Scene (forthcoming).

13. “For Support of Schools,” in An Act: Making appropriations for the current and contingent expenses of the Indian Department, and for fulfilling treaty stipulations with various Indian tribes, for the year ending June thirtieth, eighteen hundred and ninety-two, 26 Stat. 1012 (1893), 24th Cong., Congressional Record: 2138.

14. Rep. William Holman of Indiana, on June 16, 1894, to Senate, 53rd Cong., 2nd sess., Congressional Record: 6432. 

15. Laura Briggs is Professor of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is the author of several books, including Somebody's Children: The Politics of Transnational and Transracial Adoption, which explores the political and economic reasons why Native and African-American people in the US and those believed to be part of insurgent and indigenous groups in Central America's Cold War, usually single mothers, lose their children--and how those children become available for adoption. Most recently, she wrote expert testimony for a group of 17 states' attorneys general who filed legal action against the Trump administration's policy of separating children from their parents at the US border. 

16. Laura Briggs, Email message to author, July 22, 2018.

17. Stoler, “Tense and Tender Ties,” 862. 

18. Ibid., 864.

19. Ibid., 862. See also Anna Laura Stoler and Frederick Cooper, “Between Metropole and Colony: Rethinking a Research Agenda,” in Tensions of Empire: Colonial Cultures in a Bourgeois World, eds. Frederick Cooper and Ann Laura Stoler (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 1-58.

20. “Declaration of Laura Briggs in Support of the State of Washington” in State of Washington v. Donald Trump in his official capacity as President of the United States, et. al., P.Attorney General of Washington 138 (WA 2018). 

21. Ibid., 154-180. 

22. Rowena MacDonald, Between Two Worlds: The Commonwealth Government and the Removal of Aboriginal Children of Part Descent in the Northern Territory (Alice Springs: IAD Press, 1996); Robert Van Krieken, “The ‘Stolen Generations’ and Cultural Genocide: The Forced Removal of Australian Indigenous Children from their Families and Its Implications for the Sociology of Childhood,” Childhood 6 (1999): 297-311; Wesley Crichlow, “Western Colonization as Disease: Native Adoption and Cultural Genocide,”Critical Social Work 3 (2002): 104-27. On the global dimensions of post-World War II indigenous child separations see Margaret D. Jacobs, A Generation Removed: The Fostering and Adoption of Indigenous Children in the Postwar World (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2014).

23. Michael Richards, “Ideology and the Psychology of War Children in Franco’s Spain, 1936-1945,” in Children of World War II, ed. Kjersti Ericsson and Eva Simonsen (Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2005), 115-137, 121.

24. Stoler, “Tense and Tender Ties,” 865.

About the Author

Kelly Condit-Shrestha is a transnational U.S. historian of migration, childhood, adoption, and critical race, and Post-Doctoral Research Associate in the Immigration History Research Center (IHRC) at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. Her research explores children who are placed out, whether for economic or humanitarian rationales, as child migrants operating within transnational social, cultural, and political systems. Her forthcoming articles include “South Korea and Adoption’s Ends: Reexamining the Numbers and Historicizing Market Economies,” Adoption & Culture and “Racialized Borders within the United States: A History of Foster Care, Adoption, and Child Removal in African American Communities,” U.S. History Scene. She is currently working on a book manuscript, tentatively titled Adoption and American Empire: Migration, Race-Making and the Child, 1845-1988. Her consultation and public history work with the Adoption Museum Project (AMP) highlights intersections between past and present child placement practices, law, culture, and public policy. She also serves as a fellow with U.S. History Scene (USHS), a multimedia history education website composed of historians and educators at over fifty universities. 

This symposium concept grew out of the work, learning, and collaboration she’s done at the IHRCand with the Interdisciplinary Center for the Study of Global Change (ICGC) research circle Subjects, Objects, Agents: Young People’s Lives and Livelihoods in the Global South (YaSOA), this past year. 

I thank Director Erika Lee for inviting me to organize this symposium and for her support, along with that of interim Acting Directors Saengmany Ratsabout and Yuichiro Onishi at the IHRC, and Pat Baehler, Events Coordinator at the Institute of Global Studies (IGS). I am particularly indebted to Elizabeth Dillenburg and Mary Jo Maynes whose intellectual contributions and participation in the symposium planning have been critical to envisioning the conference day.

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