From Alienation to Protection: Central American Child Migration – Heide Castañeda, Lauren Heidbrink, and Kristin Yarris
Heide Castañeda, Lauren Heidbrink, and Kristin Yarris
During the summer of 2014, the eyes of the United States – indeed, the world – turned their gaze on the thousands of Central Americans crossing borders to seek refuge and opportunity. This resulted in a range of responses – from solidarity and support to racism and exclusion – and a stalled search for solutions. As three U.S.-based scholars conducting research along these migration routes over the past several years, this summer we were pulled somewhat unexpectedly into public debates about Central American migrant children and U.S. immigration policy. Coming one year after failed efforts towards comprehensive immigration reform in Congress, the issue of unaccompanied minors has complicated popular understandings of the reasons, processes, and meanings of migration. Here, we reflect on the broader context and policy implications of our research.
The push factors driving Central American migration to the United States have hardly fluctuated over the past decades. Foremost among them are economic and political insecurity, violence, and underdevelopment. The U.S.’ contribution to these “push factors” is well documented – whether through the expansion of “free trade” economic policies that undermine local agricultural production and heighten food insecurity, dismantle unions, and slash the public sector workforce, or through political support of anti-democratic and quasi-legitimate governments. Current U.S. “aid” to Central America is concentrated primarily on military and police training of the very groups that often contribute to violence against the poor – precisely the violence that drives contemporary outmigration. Domestic policy shifts have further compounded the issue. Mass deportations of immigrants accused of criminal offenses, originating during the Clinton era, have led to re-grouping and strengthening of criminal gangs in the “Northern Triangle” of Central America (that is, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala). The absolute failure to achieve comprehensive immigration reform has only exacerbated the current crisis. Despite immigration law’s claim to privilege the family, family-based petitions for legal status remain out of reach for most Central Americans in the U.S., leaving parents and their children few choices other than risking the dangers of clandestine migration.
In this context, the construct of the “unaccompanied alien child” is problematic for a number of reasons. First, this language situates children as victims of parental neglect and/or criminal human traffickers (coyotes) rather than as involved contributors in their own migration decisions. Children, even very young children, are able to understand the causes of migration and respond in ways that help themselves and their families escape the problems in their home countries. By their early teens, youth also contribute to their own migration decisions, weighing the risks, dangers, and opportunities of remaining or migrating. Media portrayals fail to acknowledge children’s social agency in migration processes. For children and families facing extreme hardship, poverty, and life-threatening violence who lack “legal” means of migration, paying someone who is perceived to heighten the promise of passage is a rational choice rather than evidence of criminal intention. Yet taking an anthropological view of children as actors in global migration does not exclude them from also being deserving of social and political support by migrant-receiving and transit countries. Further, representing children as either geopolitical pawns or as unduly susceptible to rumor fails to acknowledge the capacity of young people to act on their own circumstances.
Second, the juridical term “unaccompanied alien child” others migrant children in multiple ways. Not only do they come from other countries (and therefore are framed as undeserving of U.S. residency), but child migrants also represent an other view of childhood that challenges some assumptions of U.S. culture. Rather than a period of innocence sheltered from the violence and insecurities of adulthood, migrant children are exposed and responding to the very precarity created by contemporary geopolitical systems. Additionally, these children may be “unaccompanied” by family members in their migration journeys, but family relationships very much structure child migration decisions. Viewing child migrants solely as “unaccompanied” or unattached further shifts attention away from the failure of U.S. immigration policy to assist families in reunifying and minimizes U.S. government accountability for the conditions pushing families and children to embark on life-threatening journeys.
Another manifestation of this othering in media reporting in summer 2014 were accusations that migrant children could be dangerous disease-carriers. This was the case even though by law, all children are screened (often multiple times) and vaccinated upon apprehension. Indeed, placing blame on immigrants for spreading disease is a longstanding xenophobic discourse that dates at least to the end of the 19th century, as ambivalent American approaches towards new immigrants arriving to ports such as Ellis Island sought to exclude them on the basis of illness or disability. Over the past several months, news stories have alleged that migrant children are bringing a plethora of diseases including lice, scabies, chicken pox, tuberculosis, H1N1 influenza – illnesses largely attributable to conditions of their migrant journey and subsequent detention. Other sources speculated that even Ebola could enter the US in this manner. Headlines have labelled the situation a “medical crisis” and even a “full-blown public health disaster.” Notably, there is a higher rate of childhood vaccination in Central America than in the U.S.; 93% of children in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are vaccinated against disease like measles. Nonetheless, fear of disease continues to motivate some communities and elected officials against this immigration stream, as panic around alleged “contagion” further emphasizes the idea of children as alien others and directly underscores calls for additional securitization of the border.
From our on-the-ground engagement in research sites in the U.S., Mexico, and Central America, we offer several important policy recommendations:
- The United States must respect the human and legal rights of due process and protection of children. The international community overwhelmingly deems these children and families refugees based on the UNHCR definition, which holds that refugees are those “with a well-founded fear of persecution” and who are “unwilling or unable to return” to origin countries for fear of persecution. Given the endemic poverty and violence from which children are fleeing, their legal cases must be seen in light of international law and not just U.S. political expediency. The Obama Administration’s push for rapid repatriation of children and families not only circumvents the legal protections and due process for children afforded by bi-partisan legislation of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA), but also exacerbates the conditions of violence and poverty that spurred their migration in the first place, ensnaring young migrants in cycles of deportation and migration. Essential short-term policy responses include immediately desisting the rapid repatriation, providing sufficient funds and time for case processing, allocating funding for direct legal representation through the Department of Justice, and allocating resources for post-release services.
- The United States must cease the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border. Border enforcement has not halted migration; rather, people seek alternative routes that end up being more dangerous that only grow illicit networks of smugglers and organized crime in Mexico. Migrants are increasingly forced along riskier passages, such as the treacherous Sonoran desert, where there have been 5,595 recorded deaths of migrants since 1998. Current deployment of National and State Guard troops to help Border Patrol agents respond to the spike in unaccompanied migrants is a misguided continuation of failed securitization policies and not an effective use of human or financial resources. The presence of the National Guard along the border has raised concerns among experts about adequate training, especially due to unfamiliarity with immigration law, racial profiling, and the logic of using military troops to respond to people who are surrendering. A shift towards protection and away from surveillance and securitization can save human lives in the short run and humanize transnational migrants in the long run.
- The United States must transform its policy in the hemisphere away from investing in “security” via policing and militarization and towards social security through economic and social development. For many children, migration is the choice of last resort. Creating opportunities for education, employment and safety would allow young people to thrive in their homelands. Here, the example of Nicaragua might be insightful; this is the Central American country receiving the lowest levels of U.S. foreign aid but achieving some of the highest indicators of economic development and social security. This relative security has resulted in fewer Nicaraguan children – as compared to children from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala – joining the current flow of migration northward.
As scholars and U.S. citizens, we call upon the Obama administration and Congress to undertake the critical work they were elected to do – conduct a meaningful debate on immigration reform and propose viable, long-term solutions to a crisis of the U.S.’ own making.
Nine-year old Carla from San Pedro Sula, Honduras used strips from Mylar foil blankets provided at the Border Patrol detention facilities to tie back her tangled hair after 6 days with no shower. (McAllen, Texas; photo by Heide Castañeda)
About the Authors
Heide Castañeda is Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of South Florida. A medical anthropologist who has worked in Germany, Mexico, and in the United States, her primary research areas include migrant health, health policy, undocumented/unauthorized migration, and constructs of citizenship. She is a founding member of the AccessDenied editorial collective.
Lauren Heidbrink is an Assistant Professor in Social and Behavioral Sciences and Co-Director of the Public Policy program at National Louis University in Chicago. Her research and teaching interests include the anthropology of childhood and youth, transnational migration, performance and identity, law at the margins of the state and Latin America. She recent published an ethnography on unaccompanied child migration and detention entitled Migrant Youth, Transnational Families, and the State: Care and Contested Interests (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014).
Kristin Elizabeth Yarris, PhD MPH MA, is an Assistant Professor of International Studies at the University of Oregon. Her research and teaching interests are in the fields of global health, global mental health, social and cultural determinants of health, transnational migration and family life, and migrant and refugee health. Kristin is a faculty mentor for the Latino Mental Health Research and Training program. She is currently working on a book manuscript titled, “Grandmothers and Global Migration: Intergenerational Caregiving in Nicaraguan Transnational Families.”
- Responding to rampant gang violence in Honduras, the Obama administration is considering a proposal to screen minors there to see if they can enter the U.S. on refugee or emergency humanitarian grounds and thus bypass the dangerous migration through Mexico.
- Child migrants from Central America have shared harrowing stories of their journeys through Mexico and across the border, many involving abuse. Sonia Nazario describes the hometown contexts of this group she terms “children of the drug wars.” Commentators attribute the rise in child migration primarily to misinformation about the Obama administration’s Deferred Action program, although some politicians and concerned citizens are training the conversation on political-economic causes including the international weapons trade, crime, and poverty.
- A recent study finds that undocumented youth, known as the “Dreamers,” are becoming increasingly disenchanted with political parties in the US.
- Attorney General Eric Holder and Education Secretary Arne Duncan instructed public schools not to deny enrollment to children of undocumented immigrants, reminding districts that current practices may violate federal law.
- A recent New York Times editorial discusses inattention to complaints regarding Border Patrol agents’ abusive or threatening behavior.
- Lawmakers in California have proposed a bill to include health care coverage for undocumented immigrants, closing a gap created by the Affordable Care Act.
- A 12-year-old girl, Noemi Álvarez Quillay, committed suicide in a children’s shelter on the border after she was picked up by police in Juárez on her second attempt to travel, alone but in the company of smugglers, the long journey from Nicaragua to her parents in the Bronx.
- Twelve people were arrested April 28 in a protest at the White House against deportations.
- On April 30, the A.F.L.-C.I.O. protested deportations by projecting a 60-by-90-foot video onto the side of the union’s headquarters in Washington.
- New Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said comprehensive immigration reform would be necessary to end unjust deportations and keep families together.
- Government records show that two-thirds of the people deported under the Obama administration had committed only minor offenses, contrary to the president’s claim that Immigration and Customs Enforcement prioritizes removing serious criminals (more commentary here and here). Rather than simply deporting them, the administration has chosen to file formal charges of “illegal entry” in 90 percent of cases against people without any previous criminal record, which threatens those caught returning illegally with prison time. However, over the course of Obama’s tenure since 2009, new deportation cases brought by his administration have decreased, albeit not at a rate pleasing to immigrant advocates.
- The New York Times Editorial Board is calling on President Obama to turn his attention away from immigration legislation and finally take executive action to halt deportations of non-criminal immigrants, a recourse the board says is inevitable.
- In its periodic review of U.S. compliance with the ICCPR, the UN Human Rights Committee called on the federal government to facilitate access to health care, especially reproductive care, among undocumented immigrants.
- An immigrant rights coalition is calling for a congressional investigation of inhumane detention practices at Georgia’s Stewart and Irwin county detention facilities, following a 2012 ACLU report.
- Hundreds of immigrant detainees at the Joe Corley Detention Center in Conroe, Texas launched a hunger strike on March 18, one of several recent strikes (e.g. Northwest Detention Center) to protest federal deportation practices.
- A heartbreaking and important group of maps allows for comparison of the militarized borders around the world with the highest death tolls.
- In a harsh new crackdown, the Obama administration plans to forcibly remove undocumented immigrants from Medicare’s rolls and explicitly require lawful presence in the country to enroll. Advocates charged that the problem of “fraud” lies more with health care providers than this population.
- A Border Patrol agent shot and killed a man he said had struck him in the face with a rock. The agency claims that rock-throwing incidents increased 70 percent from 2011 to 2012, an issue that has become the center of discussions around the agency’s use of deadly force. Read more…