The Heartbreaking, Lifesaving Practice of Welcoming 'Unaccompanied' Child Migrants

A history lesson for Americans


"Tell parents in Central America to stop sending their kids unaccompanied," Rush Limbaugh thundered on his radio show. Fox News' Laura Ingraham compared the children to "illegal" "invaders" and declared that "it's not our responsibility" to "house and feed and clothe and give medical attention" to them.

In response to an uptick in Salvadoran, Honduran, and Guatemalan children showing up at the southern border, some in the U.S. have rushed to condemn parents for sending their kids, alone, on a dangerous journey. Former Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen demanded sweeping authority to deport these unaccompanied minors.

Handing them asylum, critics claim, will only incentivize more risky behavior by irresponsible adults. Therefore, they say, it's best to send these children back to their crime-ridden countries.

If such logic had taken hold in Europe after World War I, we may never have known the name of another famous child: Anne Frank. The woman who hid Frank's Jewish family in a secret annex in Amsterdam for two years—and retrieved Anne's diary after the Nazis sent them all to concentration camps—was herself an unaccompanied minor who had fled to Holland. Her name was Miep Gies and she was Anne's father's devoted secretary.

Gies, whose original name was Hermine Santruschitz, was born in Vienna to Austrian parents in 1909, five years before the Great War began. The Allied food blockade in 1914–1919 of the countries comprising the Central Powers meant that Gies grew up on the brink of starvation, malnourished and stunted. In Anne Frank Remembered, she recalls that when she was little, her "legs were sticks dominated by bony kneecaps" and her teeth were soft.

Things only got worse when her parents had another daughter. With even less food to go around, Gies' parents turned her over to a humanitarian agency that placed hungry kids with foster families abroad. One bitter winter morning in 1920, they bundled her in every piece of warm clothing she possessed and put her on a train filled with other "transports," as the children were called. Signs bearing the names of their Dutch foster families, whom they'd never met, dangled from their necks.

Gies' stay was meant to last only a few months, until she recovered her strength. Instead, her foster parents—despite being of modest means and having five kids of their own to raise—embraced her as if she were family.

With much pulling of strings, Gies obtained Dutch citizenship after the Nazis invaded during World War II and threatened to deport her to Austria. She dreaded that prospect for the same reason Central American teenagers living in America today do: She had built a life for herself in Holland and felt little connection to her native country.

What happened to Gies was a widespread phenomenon in the vanquished Central Powers. Overall figures are hard to come by, but it's likely that hundreds of thousands of kids were "transported" from Hungary, Germany, and Austria to foster families in Holland, Switzerland, Britain, Sweden, and Belgium. Like Gies, 5–10 percent never returned.

Holland was neutral during World War I, but remarkably, Allied nations also admitted children from their former enemies. Belgium fostered around 22,000 kids from Hungary alone. Each month from 1924 to 1927, a train would arrive carrying 400–500 Hungarian children.

None of this would have happened without the efforts of individual philanthropists and humanitarian outfits that publicized the unspeakable suffering unleashed by the war. In a fascinating 2013 article from a French history journal, the University of Bristol's Friederike Kind-Kovács notes that at first it seemed incomprehensible to both sides that kids could be entrusted to countries they'd just spent their blood and treasure fighting.

Herbert Hoover (prior to his presidency) and the British humanitarian Eglantyne Jebb (who founded the Save the Children Fund), along with organizations such as the Red Cross, launched a massive public awareness campaign emphasizing that kids were innocent victims and shouldn't be judged by a crude "friend-enemy scheme." They distributed leaflets with pictures of starving children and captions that read, "Our Blockade Has Caused This."

Distance and expense meant that not many kids came to the United States. But Hoover's American Relief Administration, which raised half of its funds from private sources, sent aid to agencies transporting children within Europe.

These organizations weren't totally without ulterior motive. Most were religious in nature, and they tended to prioritize kids belonging to their denominations and to place them with families that shared their faith. The Catholic Church was particularly aggressive in moving children from Hungary, a Catholic nation, to Belgium's northern Flemish region, which was experiencing a Catholic revival. Belgian researcher Vera Hajtó wrote in 2009's The History of the Family that during Sunday Mass, Flemish priests would openly tell their congregations that if they didn't step up and "do their religious duty" to take in a Hungarian child, the child "would fall into the hands of Jews and Protestants who will help him only on the condition that they can make a Jew or Protestant out of him."

But the priests also emphasized the common bonds of humanity between all parents. "Fathers and mothers," they beseeched, "think of your children and how much you are worried about them when they suffer, and don't close your parental heart to the starving children of your brother."

What they most definitely didn't do—contra American immigration restrictionists—is demonize the migrant kids' biological families as shiftless and uncaring. Rather, they highlighted the immense emotional sacrifice these parents were making for the sake of their children, using imagery and vocabulary designed to resonate. Kind-Kovács describes one image, from a booklet titled From the Horrors of War, where a kneeling, emaciated Hungarian mother, eyes closed and surrounded by a crown of thorns, holds her starving child in the air to give him away, while the child opens his arms as if imploring a foster family to receive him. So successful were these efforts in moving hearts and changing minds that many Belgians agreed to take in Hungarian kids ("Hongaartjes," as they were called) despite widespread racism and an erroneous belief that the kids were black.

These efforts became the blueprint for rescue efforts in Europe during subsequent conflicts, especially World War II. Throughout the Nazi period, Jewish children were evacuated to Britain and other countries. The most famous of all these operations was the Kindertransporte launched by British, Jewish, and Quaker leaders after Kristallnacht in 1938. That's the night when S.S. militia pillaged Jewish homes, stores, and synagogues, rounding up and killing hundreds of Jews. Kindertransporte organizers convinced the British government to admit 10,000 Jewish children, pointing out that when they polled German Jewish parents to ask them if they'd stay behind and send their kids alone, the parents nearly unanimously said "yes."

That turned out to be good karma for Great Britain when World War II broke out. In Operation Pied Piper, the government in 1939 relocated some 3 million unaccompanied children from British cities facing bombardments to the countryside and to Canada, South Africa, New Zealand, and even the United States.

Unlike Kindertransporte and Pied Piper, the purpose of the operation that saved Gies was to rescue children from life-threatening poverty, not imminent violence. Today, parents in El Salvador and Honduras and Guatemala—the so-called Northern Triangle countries—are trying to extricate their kids from both. El Salvador is the murder capital of the world, with Honduras and Guatemala not far behind. And it isn't mere random crime parents are worried about. Their kids are being targeted by gangs who stalk schools and homes searching for male recruits and girlfriends, beating and killing those who don't join. Kidnappings to extort ransom are also rampant.

Half of children in Guatemala are malnourished, with 25 percent of the population living on less than $1.25 a day. In El Salvador, more than a quarter of kids below the age of 5 live in extreme poverty. In Honduras, nearly 70 percent of people live below the poverty line and a third of infants are malnourished, according to the U.N.

What's more, as Princeton University's Douglas Massey has pointed out, the conditions in these countries are directly related to U.S. actions during the Cold War—such as funding paramilitary groups—aimed at stopping the spread of Soviet Communism. These efforts triggered internecine fighting and social breakdown.

President Donald Trump has scaled back even the meager programs that President Barack Obama put in place to help this population. He tightened the criteria for amnesty to specifically bar victims of gang violence from qualifying, and he scrapped the Central American Minors parole program, which gave a two-year renewable visa to a few thousand children who failed to win asylum but had one parent legally present in America.

It's ironic and tragic that a shared experience of adversity opened the hearts of Europe to the children of their enemies, while we in America have closed our hearts to those whom we've harmed but who have done us no harm.