Widening the Frame: Unaccompanied Youth

by Lauren Heidbrink & Michele Statz

In the past few weeks, New Mexico’s Artesia Family Residential Center has become the most recent flashpoint in the media coverage of child migration. As one of two family detention centers holding more than 1000 women and children, the news is troubling: limited food, unsanitary conditions, verbal abuse from guards, and temperatures so cold that the facility has earned the nickname hielera (icebox) are some of the complaints from the women and children held there. Attorneys describe limited access to their clients, an absence of confidentiality, and no due process—subjects of a recent ACLU lawsuit against the federal government. As attorneys scramble to screen, prepare, and represent women and children for newly-implemented rocket dockets—expedited removal proceedings the Obama Administration has rolled out across the country—they must ask mothers to recount in detail the violence that spurred their migration. Due to facility protocols, this is an interview that occurs in front of a woman’s children.*

Only this summer, the public confronted the reality of an estimated 90,000 unaccompanied children entering federal detention facilities in 2014. As attention increased, the media first grappled with the idea of children as agents of migration, then reported on the botched emergency response to this humanitarian crisis—pausing only momentarily to explore the root causes of this migration or reflect upon the role of the United States in those causes. Now, the focus has shifted once more, with stories like Artesia at the forefront of coverage.

Government reception center for children deported to Guatemala. The Secretary of Social Welfare processes returned young people, releasing them to family who must present a series of documents in Guatemala City to regain custody. Photo credit: Lauren Heidbrink

As anthropologists who study unaccompanied child migration from Central America and China, we are uniquely aware of the complex reasons for migration and the contradictory management and “care” afforded to migrant youth in the U.S. Accordingly, we are deeply troubled by the grave, intimate effects of detention and deportation on the lives of young people and their families. What is less intelligible to us, and increasingly distressing, is that anthropological knowledge—expertise developed through sustained ethnographic engagement with migrant youth, their families, and relevant stakeholders—remains peripheral to so many frenetic and abbreviated media portrayals. This has consequences for the public, for policymakers, and most importantly, for the individuals at the center of our research—youth who are often reduced to the all-too-familiar, xenophobic tropes of vulnerable victims of parental or criminal malfeasance, delinquents and gang members, or carriers of disease in public discourse.

Anthropologists who specialize in childhood and youth are singularly positioned to identify, challenge, and expand these narrow images. Take for example ethnographic research on the rapid repatriation of unaccompanied children. At the most basic level, the apprehension and removal of youth may thwart efforts to seek and maintain family reunification, disrupt future employment or educational plans, and limit a youth’s ability to support family, escape poverty, and ensure safety. With limited institutional support, the conditions which spur the migration of young people and adults alike are often compounded by financial debt enlisted to migrate clandestinely, resulting in cycles of migration and deportation that place young people at risk of trafficking, abuse, or death. News from a Honduran morgue attests to the tragic consequences of deportation, with the deaths of five recently returned youths. Critical, ongoing attention to the impacts of these cycles of migration and deportation provides a necessary, often absent component to the limited representations and similarly short-lived “solutions” like rapid repatriation.

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While youth often identify the repayment of debt as a valued marker of adulthood, they simultaneously recognize their opportunities for safe and lawful employment as limited, no matter their legal status. By attending to the multiple transitions of age, legality, and labor these young migrants experience in the U.S., anthropology is distinctly suited to widen the frame of what constitutes solutions and success.

Street scene in Little Fuzhou, Manhattan’s ‘New Chinatown’. From here, many young Fujianese migrants seek out private immigration assistance and employment opportunities throughout the U.S. Photo credit: Michele Statz

Despite the value of and clear need for research, the questions remain: How can anthropologists respond quickly with our knowledge and expertise, particularly when the headlines will surely shift in short-order? How can we affect change?

We consider the following as a few essential steps:

  • Enhance the accessibility of childhood and youth scholarship to a diverse audience.

    From the general public to media pundits to non-governmental organizations to policymakers, anthropologists of childhood and youth must make efforts to communicate our research findings to a broad audience. While certainly challenging to encapsulate complex social phenomenon into more compact formats such as blogs or policy briefs, we must persistently pursue sensitive presence and assertive accessibility—even, or especially, when the data we collect involve such private and consequential realities.

This is achievable: After all, as anthropologists, we are trained to be ethical, consistent, and creative in our methods and modes of representation. This training likewise facilitates sensitive, compelling public contributions in the form of op-eds, radio interviews, or meetings with community organizations and schools struggling to provide services to migrant children and families. It may include writing affidavits to contextualize the issues impacting young migrants (which, incidentally, AILA is actively seeking). As well, these contributions must be directed to policymakers who complain of a dearth of information—and solutions—regarding phenomena like the recent influx of “unaccompanied” children.

  • Organize and mobilize our expertise.

    With nearly 1200 members, many of whom are scholars on migration and childhood, ACYIG members might enlist the listserv or post announcements in the newsletter to create ad-hoc working groups for this and other critical social issues affecting young people. A recent letter to President Obama from scholars of Central America and migration serves as a powerful example of how scholars can rapidly mobilize our shared expertise to advocate on behalf of the communities to which we have committed our professional lives.

  • Foster interdisciplinary and regional collaborations beyond U.S. anthropologists.

    Scholars around the world—and often in very different disciplines and professions—are conducting valuable, rigorous research on childhood and migration. This research enhances our own work, lending a comparative perspective and challenging us to reconsider our frameworks, theories, and what we imagine are the bounds of advocacy. In addition to urgent, issue based actions, anthropologists must continue to pursue transnational, interdisciplinary collaborations with experts in and beyond academia. Collaborative research networks, inter- and multidisciplinary volumes, co-authored publications, and participant action research co-led by international scholars, transnational organizations, and communities broaden the accessibility of our respective research across regions. Likewise, they privilege the voices of local scholars, activists and especially young people in venues that consistently overlook their contributions.

We believe these steps are doable, and, at the risk of still more ad-hoc “solutions” like Artesia or rocket dockets—and, correspondingly, more frenzied media representations of young migrants—we must take these steps with concerted effort. Many of our ACYIG colleagues are experts in advocacy and activism, and all of us have unique, hard-won knowledge and far reaching networks. Taken together, our responsibilities and our influence are likely broader than we can imagine.


Lauren Heidbrink, PhD, MA is Assistant Professor and Co-Director of the Public Policy program at National Louis University. Her recent ethnography Migrant Youth, Transnational Families, and the State: Care and Contested Interests (University of Pennsylvania Press 2014) traces the experiences of unaccompanied youth within immigration detention and beyond.

Michele Statz, MA is a doctoral candidate in sociocultural anthropology at the University of Washington. Her research explores the rights and representation of young people who migrate alone from China to the U.S.

Stay tuned for the October 2014 launch of our website: www.youthcirculations.com: Tracing the real and imagined circulations of global youth.

*Guards do not permit young people to be separated from their mothers, even while discussing something as traumatizing as abuse and rape.

Photo credit: Foreign Ministry of Guatemala  Caption: Children deplane a Justice Prisoner and Alien Transportation System (JPATS) flight at the Guatemalan Air Force Base. From January to June of 2014, an estimated 1500 unaccompanied children have been deported from the United States to Central America. Site: http://www.speroforum.com/a/LPMGKNPJRX59/75048-Guatemala-receives-second-group-of-children-deported-by-US#.VBJk1vldX0Q

Children deplane a Justice Prisoner and Alien Transportation System (JPATS) flight at the Guatemalan Air Force Base. From January to June of 2014, an estimated 1500 unaccompanied children have been deported from the United States to Central America. Photo credit: Foreign Ministry of Guatemala

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