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

September 4, 2014 1 comment

 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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Foreign Girl Forever – Einat Fishbain

June 25, 2014 1 comment

Einat Fishbain

Lily Oudraogo was born in Tel Aviv, and that’s where she lived and died. Twenty-five difficult and insulting years on the margins of society, and beyond, reached an end on June 6, likely from complications of preeclampsia (a pregnancy-related condition involving high blood pressure, among other factors). Her younger son, Ben-El William, born less than a week earlier, is still in the neonatal department at Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital. Her five-year-old son Michael is with friends from the local Ghanaian community who are trying to help. Francis, Lily’s partner for the past three years, wanders the halls of the hospital, fluctuating between courteous smiles at those offering consolation to spells of crying, anger, and helplessness. It is hard to imagine a sadder and more senseless end to the life of a woman who spent her entire life trying to survive in the land of her birth.


Lily was born in 1989, the second daughter of unauthorized migrant workers from Ghana who had arrived in Israel a few years earlier, leaving their older daughter in Ghana. Read more…

Bodies on the Line: Fighting Inhumane Treatment with Hunger in Immigrant Detention – Megan Carney

May 4, 2014 Leave a comment

Megan Carney
Arizona State University & University of Washington, Seattle

Heeeeyyyy Obama! Don’t deport my mama!” I marched alongside dozens of protestors as they shouted these words from outside the Northwest Detention Center (NDC) in Tacoma, Washington, on March 11, 2014. Some 1,200 detainees at NDC had initiated a hunger strike four days earlier, issuing a handwritten list of demands to GEO Corp, the private prison company responsible for overseeing site operations. At the top of their list: better food.


In publicizing the protest, El Comite Pro-Reforma Migratoria Y Justicia Social[1] said hunger strikers were “putting their bodies on the line” for both better food (better, that is, than the bare potato served cold almost every day) and better treatment, better pay, lower commissary, and fairness. The number of huelgistas de hambre (hunger strikers) declined to 750 on day 2, 330 on day 3, and continued to spiral downward until only a handful of strikers remained at the time of the protest. GEO Corp had previously warned strikers that if they continued to refuse food for more than 72 consecutive hours, they would be put on medical watch and possibly force-fed. Immigration attorney Sandra Restrepo, speaking through a megaphone to an audience of protestors, shared her suspicion that detainees had likely withdrawn from the strike as a result of intimidation by guards. Read more…

Anthropology Afflicting the Comfortable: A Review of Seth Holmes’s “Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies” – Rachel Stonecipher

March 17, 2014 1 comment

Rachel Stonecipher

Having cut my teeth in anthropology while living in the state of Texas, I am accustomed to trying to explain what, exactly, this discipline is. At Thanksgiving, distant family members ask me whether I have anything interesting to tell them about the dinosaurs. When I correct them and confess that I neither dig up artifacts (certainly not T-Rex) nor analyze crime scenes, but rather practice “cultural” anthropology, I watch their shoulders sink and eyes wander away.

Seth Holmes’ book Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies[1] is here to change that, and in the best of directions. In a tight 200 pages, Holmes lays out a call to action for social scientists, practicing physicians, and average readers to identify and combat the structural violence perpetrated against migrant farmworkers. By accompanying his companions as they migrate, work, and seek health care, Holmes sheds light on the “ethnicity-citizenship hierarchy” that shapes the health outcomes of indigenous Triqui migrant workers on a farm in the Skagit Valley of Washington state. His goal is to perform a “critical and reflexively embodied anthropology” that will “confront the ways in which certain classes of people come to be written off or deemed less human” (40-44). The idea of reflexive embodiment is to think about one’s own ways of sensing the world – such as feeling pain, love, or success – in critical comparison to how others sensorially experience. Holmes is on a trail parallel to the recent ethnographic movement, led by Sarah Willen,[2] to interrogate the social inequality (re)produced when undocumented migrants come to embody their abject status. However, as I argue below, his approach is more akin to discourse analysis than Willen’s “critical phenomenology,” though it would be strengthened by more of the latter. Read more…

Defects in the Safety Net: When the Emergency Option is the Only Option – Sural Shah

February 27, 2014 Leave a comment

Sural Shah
Cambridge Health Alliance & Harvard School of Public Health

Ana, age 29, came to the clinic for a sore throat, her two energetic children in tow. While her kids darted around the clinic space, which was donated by a local academic medical center, I introduced myself as a volunteer physician and began asking about her medical history. As Ana moved from her chair to the exam table, she told me she had traveled from Mexico to the United States as a teenager and now was living here illegally, a familiar story among patients in the largely Latino and impoverished Philadelphia community our non-profit clinic[1] serves. Moving my stethoscope around her chest, I was surprised to hear a harsh murmur suggesting problems with the blood flow through her heart.  Read more…

Prison Break: African Asylum Seekers Claim Their Place on the Israeli Political Map – Haggai Matar

December 26, 2013 Leave a comment

Haggai Matar

Saturday night was something no one in Israel had ever seen before. It was supposed to be a small demonstration – a quiet march of several hundred Israeli activists and African asylum seekers, coming on the heels of two Marches for Freedom earlier in the week, to protest a new amendment to Israel’s Anti-Infiltration Act. Legislated after the High Court scrapped an earlier amendment, the new version authorizes the automatic detention of asylum seekers for up to one year in an ostensibly “open” detention facility, including asylum seekers already living freely in the country. Since the earlier marches were intercepted and suppressed by immigration authorities, initially it didn’t seem that Saturday’s march would get much (if any) media attention. But from the second it began, it was clear to all present that this time was different.

Asylum seekers marching under a crowd of classical music lovers at Tel Aviv’s “Culture Palace.” (Oren Ziv / Activestills)

More than 2,000 asylum seekers, all in danger of immediate and permanent imprisonment following the passage of the new amendment, marched in the streets of south and central Tel Aviv. The asylum seekers, who had likely seen pictures or heard stories of their friends’ desert marches, were in high gear and bursting with energy. They started running through the streets, chanting just two slogans over and over again: “No more prison!” and “we want freedom!” Read more…

The U.S. Border Patrol’s “Low-Intensity War”: Ill-Conceived and Inhumane – Rachel Stonecipher

October 21, 2013 Leave a comment

Rachel Stonecipher

In a previous AccessDenied post, I considered how the institutional culture of the U.S. Border Patrol often neglects the medical needs of migrants. Despite policies calling for “humane treatment,” agents regularly destroy humanitarian water bottles in the desert, allow overcrowding in detention, deny medications, and commit acts of physical violence. Moreover, as Seth Holmes writes in a recent post, the Border Patrol’s stated policy of “prevention through deterrence,” which aims to deter future migration by making the journey north as difficult as possible, is inhumane.

As the agency predicted, and as Holmes notes, the increase in Border Patrol personnel and surveillance since 1994 has forced migration routes into the remote desert, increasing suffering. Read more…


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