This is not the first time that immigrant children have been at risk. Here is the story of a moment when public intervention helped.

Lately, the news about immigrant children have been bleak. The stories have been controversial, heartbreaking, and deeply disturbing. When one story, a story about immigrant children being lost by the US government, proved to be untrue, there was a moment of hope: perhaps all the horrors along the US-Mexico border that we had heard of were untrue. But no, the darkest of all has proven verified and verifiable: the US Government is separating children from parents as a deliberate strategy of immigration deterrence.

As I read each article and report detailing abuses along the border, I am reminded of another time when the futures of immigrant children were at risk, another moment when governments used children’s lives as political fodder.

The story I am thinking of happened in Mexico, the very country whose emigrants America cannot seem to figure out how to treat humanely.

But when it happened in Mexico, public outcry caused a revolt of public opinion — one that changed the course of policy.

When it happened in Mexico, the federal government pivoted. The president changed his mind. The government decided to recognize the children as just that — children — which is to say, not merely as political pawns. It decided to do the right thing.

I have said it before, and here it is again: there is so much that the United States could learn from Mexico.

Propaganda used to fundraise for child refugees of the Spanish Civil War. (Credit: AGN)

In 1937, nearly 500 Spanish children were evacuated to Mexico, sponsored by the Mexican government, in a humanitarian gesture intended to save them from the Spanish Civil War. They were only meant to stay in Mexico for the duration of the war. They were told that it would be a few months, a year at most, that they were away from family and home.

This act was indeed a generous one. Other countries around the world — England, France, Belgium, and the Soviet Union, to name a few — had accepted Spanish children as refugees, but Mexico was the only country whose federal government itself decided to sponsor the children. In other nations, non-governmental organizations like the Red Cross had managed these humanitarian programs. In Mexico, President Lázaro Cárdenas himself took an interest in the initiative.

But it cannot be said the motives of the government were purely altruistic, either. Both the Spanish and Mexican Republic had much to gain from this effort. Mexico, itself a new democracy, was eager to prove its legitimacy and integrity on an international stage. How better than to launch a trans-national aid program for war refugees — and children at that? Across the Atlantic, the Second Spanish Republic had been beleaguered by Franco’s military coup-turned-war effort and debilitated by the Western Democracies’ Pact of Non-Intervention in the Spanish Civil War; if the Spanish Republic would not win militarily or diplomatically, the best it could do was try to conquer in the court of public opinion. Sympathy would be its weapon, and who would be more sympathetic than a war orphan?

The children were pawns, caught in the crossfire of major historical events: war, revolution, colonialism, anti-colonialism, the global spread of fascism, the global spread of communism.

Newspaper coverage announcing the grand reception for the ‘Spanish orphans.’ (Credit: UNAM Hemeroteca)

And so these nations took advantage. They spread the rumor that these nearly 500 children were orphans, when in fact all but the smallest handful had left their parents back home. They threw a parade for the children when they arrived in Mexico. The governors of Mexico City and Morelia gave public employees the day off so that they could welcome the children in person. They treated them like heroes.

Fast forward three years: The Spanish Republic falls. The war ends. Franco wins. Spain enters a desperate economic depression and a period of brutal political repression. Republican sympathizers flee in vast numbers — hundreds of thousands make the trek across the border to France.

All this time, the Spanish children are growing up in Mexico.

They live in a boarding school, each year graduating from grade to grade. They learn to read, or to multiply, or to name the countries on the map of the world. They wait for letters to arrive from home. Some run away.

Says Jordi Llop, a surviving member of this group, about this time:

“A moment comes after so many years when you don’t think about family anymore, or anything. A moment comes when you lose everything. You just live your life and your life is as if you were alone. You don’t long for anything. At the beginning you did, but the moment comes in which everything gets lost, everything gets blurry. A moment when you say, ‘Well, here I am. here I am. This is what I do. Nothing else.'”

And so when the children learn that the war has ended — from letters from Spain, or from newspaper articles, or from their teachers — they confront a new kind of despair. This is the despair of an unknown future, for where would they live now? And when, if ever, would they return to Spain?

Their parents write: Don’t come back. It is not safe here. It is so dangerous. There’s no food. We’re afraid. You’re better off where you are.

Vincent Carrión Fos, another member of this group, remembers:

“MY FATHER ALWAYS WROTE TO US, AND HE SAID: ‘LOOK, SON. OVER THERE YOU’RE IN SCHOOL. YOU CAN MOVE FORWARD. You can study. IF YOU COME HERE, YOU’RE NOT GOING TO BE ABLE TO GO TO SCHOOL.'”

And then this happens: Generalissimo Franco, now dictator of Spain, and his followers begin to lobby for the return of the children. The narrative importance of the children’s repatriation is not lost on them. Their story, the story of these nearly 500 ‘orphans’, has always been weighted with meaning. Their return would be no less significant: the just-right ending to the history that Franco is writing and rewriting in real time.

So begins a campaign. Franco’s deputies offer to pay for the children’s trip. They put pressure on the new president of Mexico, Manuel Ávila Camacho.

Once again, the lives of these children were used as bargaining chips by nation states.

President Ávila Camacho is willing. He is not invested in the children the way his predecessor was. While Cárdenas continues to visit, send gifts, and invite the children to swim in his personal pool, Ávila Camacho sees them as one more inherited responsibility, and one that he can do without. What’s more, Ávila Camacho is beholden to the long-standing Spanish immigrant community; they are part of whom he sees as his constituency. And they are by and large Franco supporters: exactly the community who is most invested in the repatriation of the children. Ávila Camacho agrees to send them back.

They make arrangements to send them back, despite the pleas of parents to keep them where they are.

And they do plea. They beg in telegrams and letters: Please let our children stay.

Word spreads about the plan to return the ‘war orphans.’ And though it is before the time of social media, before the 24-hour news cycle, before 140 characters and reposting and messages that act like viruses, a desperate, panicked, urgent concern captures the attention of the public in a fashion that would be familiar to our 21st century lives. Ávila Camacho’s office is flooded with correspondence. Across Mexico, and the United States, and even parts of Latin America and Europe, the public writes. Had there been hashtags at the time, they would have used them.

An example of one such protest letter to President Ávila Camacho: “They beg you to intervene to not let The Spanish Youth be handed over to Franco’s regime.”

The children’s stories are as weighted as ever.

And in this case, this one story, the letters and telegrams work. Public concern sways public opinion, which then sways public policy.

Ávila Camacho changes his mind. It is frankly not worth it to him to cause this much of a ruckus: the children are not worth that much to him. The children would be allowed to stay. Rather than sending them back, he makes arrangements with the government of the Spanish Republic in exile. They would set up homes in the capital where the children could live. They would attend the new schools that were being established for the children of Spanish exiles. They would continue to integrate into Mexican society. Eventually, decades into the future, they would be given formal papers stating that they do in fact have the right to live in Mexico.

What public opinion forced Ávila Camacho to learn was this: that once refugees flee, most will never — can never — return to where they came from. And so it is up to the new country, the adopted country — which is to say, it is up to us — to find ways to let them stay.

For a long time, these children would not know how long they would live in Mexico or what their futures would hold. But for this moment, they could trust that they would be safe. And they were.

♦♦♦

Want to help the immigrant children along the US-Mexico border? Check out We Belong Together.

Human Journey

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Destry Maria Sibley is a freelance writer, media producer, and educator. As a Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellow, she is traveling throughout Mexico collecting the stories of Los Niños de Morelia, a group of child refugees who fled the Spanish Civil War and settled in Mexico in 1937. Destry's grandmother was among this group of children, and it is her personal experience of flight, exile, and assimilation that has motivated Destry to learn more about the lives of child refugees -- historically and in the present.