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Clothing is complicated. While it can be used as a form of self-expression, it can also be used to quash individuality and enforce conformity. Sometimes, it reveals a person’s status or rank. But for the migrants crossing the US-Mexico border, clothing is mostly functional. It serves to improve the odds that wearers survive a treacherous journey and life in a new country, should they reach the United States.
This is why many parents of migrant children inscribe their contact information, and that of friends and relatives already situated in the US, in the youth’s clothing before immigration officials separate them: It is a desperate bid to see their children weather the nation’s hostile immigration system and be reunited with loved ones.
The Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy for unauthorized immigration saw the separation of more than 2,300 migrant children from their parents in May and June. More than 700 children were separated from parents in April. After a widespread backlash to the family separation policy, including from members of his own party, on Wednesday President Trump signed an executive order to curb the practice. That order, however, won’t reunite the children placed in detention centers and foster care with their parents, some of whom have already been deported.
A representative of Bethany Christian Services, which has placed about 100 migrant children in foster homes, told CNN that caseworkers often receive no identifying information about the kids’ families. And Steven Wagner, acting assistant secretary for children and families at the Health and Human Services’ Administration, admitted to not knowing how many reunions have occurred.
Although some of the migrant children arrive at foster care agencies with their parents’ contact information written on clothing and accessories, it’s uncertain if this tactic will hasten the reunification process. Camila Alvarez, managing attorney for the unaccompanied minors unit of the Central American Resource Center in Los Angeles, expressed doubts about the effectiveness of this move.
“When parents and kids are separated, they’re taken to other facilities,” she said. “Parents are put in ICE detention or federal detention, so even if parents are putting their names on children’s clothing and a worker happens to see it, the parents are still kind of lost.”
In one case reported by ABC News, the tactic worked — several months after the fact. In October, a 9-year-old boy detained by immigration officials after leaving Guatemala to cross the US-Mexico border with his father wound up in a foster home in Michigan. Before he took off for the States, his mother sewed a paper containing her phone number and the numbers of family friends in the US into his pants. He gave the caseworker the paper, and she phoned his mother in Guatemala. His father had already been deported back to the country, and the boy was set to be reunited with his family Wednesday.
But younger children may not have this fate. Preschool-aged children especially are scared and simply want to know where their parents are, Alvarez said. She described the family separations as “just chaos.”
“Everything’s confusing right now,” she said. “Not even the organizations themselves are getting identity documents to make sure it’s the child Border Patrol says they are.”
Often these children only have their clothes on their backs. The now 10-year-old who ultimately reunited with his family showed up at his foster home in the same pair of soiled pants he’d left Guatemala wearing. That’s because those pants, with his mother’s contacts sewn in, were his lifeline back to her.
Many migrants, however, cross the border with more than just the clothes they’re wearing. They carry rosaries, pocket Bibles, and backpacks filled with toiletries, medication, and water. The rosaries and Bibles symbolize God’s protection to this heavily Catholic population, and the need to take along those articles of faith also points to how dangerous it can be to traverse the arid desert of the border region.
Last year, 412 migrants died making the attempt, up from 398 deaths in 2016. Anthropologists and even Customs and Border Protection workers have taken to preserving the belongings migrants have left behind to show they are just as human as their American-born counterparts. Exhibits of migrant belongings collectively reveal how they have risked their lives for a new start in a nation largely ignorant of or indifferent to their grave circumstances.
The headlines sparked by Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy for undocumented migrants has generated a wave of public support for this vulnerable group, especially the children involved. But Trump’s executive order doesn’t necessarily spell the end of family separations.
“It doesn’t provide a guarantee that all family separations will stop,” Alvarez said. “There’s language [in the order] that Border Patrol agents or some government officials can make a decision about whether a family should be separated.”
On Thursday, Melania Trump visited a detention center where migrant children were housed. She’d recently issued a statement that revealed her concerns about family separations. But the $39 Zara military jacket she wore on her way to Texas might have told another story: It featured the words, “I really don’t care, do u?”
Her spokesperson denied that the jacket reflected the first lady’s feelings about the migrant children she visited. Given the outrage the family separations have elicited, a mere denial likely isn’t enough to make her detractors forgive the misstep. And a public figure, of all people, should know that clothes are routinely used to convey a broader message.
Earlier this week in Philadelphia, protesters demonstrated this point by using footwear to make a statement. They left dozens of kids’ shoes along Rittenhouse Square near the hotel where Vice President Mike Pence was staying. Empty shoes have long been associated with the Holocaust, during which Nazis often ordered Jews to remove valuable footwear before killing them. And in March, activists placed 7,000 shoes outside the US Capitol as a cry for gun reform after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Since the migrant children separated from their parents are still living — though there have been reports about abuse — the empty shoes signify the trauma they’ve endured. They’ve faced horrors both during the dangerous journey across the border and in a nation that has exposed them to immigration policies widely condemned as inhumane. But those wearing clothes bearing their parents’ names may have, at least, some hope that they could be reunited.