Disposable Childhoods: Child Migration and the Guardianship Principle at the US Border, 1890s-1920s

Photo: Department of the Treasury, Public Health Service, "Immigrant Children, Ellis Island, New York," 1908, National Archives at College Park

Widely circulated through social and mass media, images of displaced children at the US-Mexico border, in Ukraine, and elsewhere rivet public attention on their plight, leading us to think they need and deserve protection more than anyone else because of their unmistakable innocence and vulnerability. This kind of humanitarian belief, however, is deeply rooted in nineteenth-century middle-class sentimental culture that increasingly sanctified childhood, organized practices for children’s well-being, and advocated for relevant legal developments. In American cities during the Progressive Era, the installation of municipal milk stations, child labor inspection, and juvenile court systems made children ever more the age-based beneficiaries of state “protection.” From the 1890s to the 1920s, the US government tightened control over border-crossing persons through its federal laws and enforcement efforts. Even as child protection justified state intervention into American families, the federal government weaponized the childhood status against foreign-born minors arriving unaccompanied, diseased, or disabled. Disposable Childhoods: Child Migration and the Guardianship Principle at the US Border, 1890s-1920s will provide the first study of children’s border-crossings during the nascent years of federal immigration control and child welfare.




Disposable Childhoods is centered on three historical questions. It first asks how children experienced border crossing differently from grownups because of their childhood status? Relatedly, it explores how that status could helped or harmed children in the process of border crossing.? These two questions inform my third question: how did the federal government define and address childhood in inspection processes?

Photo: Lewis Hine, Immigrant Family in the Baggage Room of Ellis Island

Photo: Yukako Otori, A scene from the Ellis Island Immigration Museum
Photo: Yukako Otori, A scene from the Ellis Island Immigration Museum

My analysis of child migration is driven by what I call the guardianship principle. It is a set of norms that shaped the border-crossing experience of child migrants. As children were processed for clearance to enter the United States, they required support from their parents or legal guardians socio-economically capable of giving them post-entry protection and care. But the presence of a legible guardian in the United States did not guarantee their entry into the country. The guardianship principle gained legal footing in the Immigration Act of 1907, which created an excludable class of unaccompanied alien minors under sixteen years of age. Amid growing concerns about child labor, American authorities instituted a more thorough inspection of border-crossing children’s identities, chronological ages, and family backgrounds. This procedure allowed the immigration service to deliver minor arrivals to their rightful guardians in the country, but not all of them were ready to establish whose dependents they were and hence subject to exclusion as unaccompanied alien minors. Meanwhile, the medicalization of border control raised inspection standards, prohibiting entry to unhealthy children, regardless of their guardians’ immigration and citizenship status. My book provides a socio-legal history of child migration, in which the guardianship principle works as a thread to weave children’s individual stories into a coherent narrative.