Home > Recent Post > From Alienation to Protection: Central American Child Migration – Heide Castañeda, Lauren Heidbrink, and Kristin Yarris

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:

  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.

Ad pic 1Nine-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.”

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  1. September 10, 2014 at 12:40 pm

    It is so discouraging that Obama has forestalled on immigration reform, yet again.

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