The Children's Crusade

The planet is in the final stages of a mass migration of humanity that was initiated in the mid-seventeenth century. After eons of civilizations based on highly circumscribed agricultural settlements where, for the most part, generations lived and died in geographical stasis, Europeans discovered the New World and then the Antipodes - lands that could be turned to more intensive farming methods and produce substantial new wealth (at the incidental cost of eradicating their native peoples).

Within a hundred years, however, the industrial revolution began to establish the city, for those without substantial land-holdings, as a more reliable source of income. From that point on, millions of people began to be swept up in a global diaspora where the goal was to exchange rural poverty for urban poverty. Now, in the twenty-first century, we are experiencing the final stages in this almost total urbanization of the Earth. People have been, and continue to be, both pushed out of the countryside by the establishment of large scale mechanized farming - that leaves little room for peasant agriculture - and pulled into the city by the lure of a higher standard of living.

In Arrival City, 2010, Doug Saunders documents the role that favelas (self-built shanty towns), squatter enclaves and urban-slums play in succoring the newly arrived, predominantly peasant, populations. In his historical review, he notes that “between 1800 and the First World War, about 50 million Europeans left the continent permanently for a new home…twenty percent of Europeans moved to the Americas, Australia or South Africa”. Half of these migrants ended up in the United States and settled in major cities like New York, Chicago or Toronto. This country, with the Statue of Liberty as its symbol of welcome became, to millions of Northern, then Southern and Eastern Europeans, Arrival Nation. Here, from often squalid urban beginnings, migrants could begin their transformation into the galley-slaves of consumerism – the Great American Middle Class.

Charles Hirschman argues that as the country became successively less anglo-centric (or WASP), it was the children of Eastern and Southern European immigrants, predominantly Catholic or Jewish, who helped pave the way for the New Deal of the 1930s, the Great Society of the 1960s, and the 1965 Immigration Act – political circumstances that would eventually lead to a wave of immigration from Asia and Latin America. Now, as the country heads toward a non-white majority by 2043, it is these new migrants that are poised to change, again, the domestic political balance.

Meanwhile, increased border security, including the infamous wall (where technologies are shared with Israel) has had the unintended consequence of preventing Mexican and Central Americans from returning to their home countries - and thus encouraging them to become permanent settlers in the U.S. The fence is more effective at keeping ‘illegals’ in the country than keeping them out - by raising the difficulty level of entry and denying migrants the easy opportunity of return. For a country founded on immigration, the United States has signally failed to uphold that tradition of welcome and refuge towards their southern neighbors.

Now, a Children’s Crusade is massing on the border established by the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo in 1848. Like its original, eight hundred years ago, this new crusade is founded on a combination of hope, delusion and tragedy.

Early in 1212, a twelve year old French shepherd boy named Stephen, inspired by a heavenly visitation, began a crusade to win back the Holy Land from infidel Muslims. By the end of June, according to contemporary reports, this child-preacher had gathered 30,000 children at Vendôme, in central France, where they all began their march towards the Mediterranean port city of Marseille. Although many died along the way, the crusade eventually arrived and here, Stephen had prophesied, the seas would part and they could continue their journey on foot; but there was to be no divine work of geo-engineering and the children accepted the offer of two merchants, Hugh the Iron and William the Pig, to transport them across the Mediterranean on their fleet of ships.

Nothing more was heard of them until 1230, when a priest returning from the Middle East told their sorry tale of ship-wreck, enslavement, martyrdom for refusing to accept Islam and, for a lucky few, employment with the governor of Alexandria. (A History of the Crusades, Steven Runciman, 1951).

Ian Gordon reports in the July/August edition of Mother Jones, that 70,000 children, many no older than Stephen the boy-preacher, will arrive unaccompanied at the border this year. Prey to drug-traffickers, sexual predation and physical assault, these children are part of a surge in child-migration fostered by tales of sympathetic treatment by immigration officials, burgeoning drug-violence in their home districts, the underlying surge of the rural poor in search of material advancement in first-world cities, and most prosaically, hunger: Gordon notes that “the cost of tortillas has doubled as corn prices have skyrocketed due to increased American ethanol production and the conversion of farmland to sugarcane and oil palm for biofuel”.

They arrive from Mexico and Central America's Northern Triangle—Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, hoping to send remittances back home or join a parent no longer able to visit them. While Mexican nationals, whatever their age are turned back immediately (to try again) children from non-contiguous countries can benefit from long judicial reviews of their status and settlement with a relative or an American family while their case is processed. Many successfully disappear into immigrant communities, or eventually receive legal status, and may achieve a level of education, food security and economic prospects that ultimately validates their long and often dangerous migration.

This, indeed, is in the tradition of our Arrival Nation. Although younger perhaps than most, they share in the struggle of arrival which characterizes the history of migration. Their hardships become a part of their arrival mythologies: their struggles transmuted into a determination that their success, and eventually that of their children, can assuage the trauma of their up-rootedness – their deracination.

As a part of the epic transformation of the planet from a rural to an urban way of life this new children’s crusade is also part of a trend which will see, by 2050, according to United Nations projections, a halt in the world’s population growth. Clive Ponting, in his A New History of the World, 2007, writes that it took two billion years for the world’s human population to reach one billion in about 1825, and is projected to increase to nine billion before the trend’s reversal in another thirty five years. The children massed at the border will be instrumental in effecting this epochal shift - unless they are returned home to poor rural communities where birth-rates remain high.

Stephen, shepherd and boy-preacher, stood ready to take his followers, children all, into the heart of an unfathomably alien culture and there convert the infidel to a Europeanized Christianity and return the Holy Lands to their iconic centrality within the Roman Church. The rag-tag assemblage of children massed at our borders is engaged in a very different crusade. They await not the parting of the waters but the melting of the hearts of this Arrival Nation – an atavistic return to the true spirit of this country, tragically first evinced by its native populations who welcomed the white man.

Each successful child migrant, however they establish their new lives, can thus, perhaps, count as a small part of our repayment of the heavy psychic debt we owe to these lands.