Tracing the real and imagined circulations of global youth
Just as migrant youth are decontextualized in image and text, so too are youths' own selves. Rather than serve to respect the privacy and confidentiality of the individual child, the disembodied images powerfully suggest a fragmentation of identity. At the same time, depictions of incomplete or partial bodies coincide with an emphasis of children in the process of becoming, rather than focusing on being social agents in their own right.
Folded into the pervasive rhetoric of the “illegal alien,” the migrant child is portrayed as one who must be apprehended, controlled, and removed from the state. With minimal distinction between children and adults in immigration law, there is little difficulty in identifying unauthorized immigrants exclusively in terms of illegality and deportability, rather than distinguishing markers of difference along the lines of age, gender, race, or ethnicity or as having any specific need for rights.
At a practical level, the apprehension and removal of youth may disrupt future employment or educational plans, thwart efforts to seek and maintain family reunification, and limit a youth’s ability to support family, escape poverty, and ensure safety. While a child’s removal might imply an end to his/her narrative, the violence inflicted upon the individual body reverberates into the families and communities to which children and youth are removed. The tentacles of deportability extend beyond the individual’s physical removal from the state and grab hold of transnational spaces.
Young migrants are caught between competing narratives related to poverty. Images of deprivation and squalor in “undeveloped” or “underdeveloped” nations illustrate the dire conditions that spur dangerous journeys. Yet significantly, upon arrival youth may be dismissed as economic migrants, which limits the forms of legal relief available to them under immigration law. Such reductionary explanations not only disempower youth but also decontextualize the complex and overlapping reasons for migration. In contrast, Laura Agustín (2003) argues, “Individual personalities play their part, differences such as self-confidence, willingness to take risks and adaptability in the face of change. Being in a structurally less powerful position than people in the First World does not mean that one is not making decisions, and that those decisions are influenced by a vast multiplicity of circumstance, including individual desire. Being poor does not make people poor in spirit”(32).
Recently, policy makers and the media have tapped into public anxieties through the use of deliberate metaphors -- a surge or invasion (militarized); a flood, catastrophe, or disaster (natural disasters). This imagery and corresponding language suggests a need for repression, containment, and removal. Of course, the strategy is not new: Metaphors of the surge, flood, or invasion of child migrants forcing open the proverbial American gates is similar to one of European migrants at the turn of the twentieth century, or of contemporary flows of adult migrants today.
While the expectations for and experiences of youth migration are often heavily gendered (see Liu 2011; Smalkoski 2014), the images included here decontextualize gender, presenting it as unambiguous and implicitly connected to age. Similarly demonstrated in the Threatening and Dependent galleries, the male is almost always a young man; the female a young girl. This is misleading: Over the past decade, unaccompanied children have primarily been boys ages 15 to 17. While increasingly younger children and girls migrate, in 2014 the average age of unaccompanied children is 14.5 years old. 72.3% are boys and 27.7% are girls.
As Saskia Sassen (1999) argues, migrations are highly selective, structured processes in which migrants travel along specific routes for specific reasons. These images correspondingly recognize youth as active and creative subjects who engage with their peers, family members, communities, and the state.
Young people’s creation and circulation of relevant knowledge facilitates and gives social value to a culture of migration. “For young men, and in many settings young women as well, migration becomes a rite of passage, and those who do not attempt to elevate their status through international movements are considered lazy, unenterprising, and undesirable” (Massey et al. 1993: 452–53). Liberating social agency from either moral dimensions of dependencyand victimizationor from criminality allows for a recognition of young people’s essential contributions to global society.
As transnational actors, migrant youth move between and maintain a variety of cultural identities. Some images reflect young people’s deliberate efforts to signal valued cultural membership through identification with home, peers, or communities of destination. Depending on the source, other images perpetuate cultural stereotypes. Rather than illustrate young people as contributing members of rich cultural contexts, images isolate, reify, or decontextualize culture (Kuper 1999). For example, “traditional” cultural norms such as filial piety, nomadic movements, or child labor become justifications for rescuing victimized children from “backward” cultures and “uneducated” or neglectful parents.
Transnational migration strengthens, shifts, and at times disintegrates kinship ties--yet as evidenced in relatively sparse nature of this gallery, young migrants are rarely portrayed as enmeshed in meaningful family systems. More often, youth are presented with their peers or alone (see “Unattached”).
As Deborah Boehm (2008) argues, it is critical to recognize the changing character of these relationships against a backdrop of state power. Children, whether unaccompanied or within mixed-status families, feel the profound impact of the law and state policies in their private and public lives. The heavy hand of the state enters into everyday life, shaping family integrity, custody arrangements, educational opportunities, occupational choices, access to public benefits for qualified family members, and involvement in the child welfare system. The contradictory values and practices enshrined in state structures that aim to unify families, whether immigration law, family courts, or ORR sponsorship practices, demonstrate how the state can construct, (re)produce, and divide families.
Independent, or unattached, migrant children bereft of family or kinship networks threaten the notion of how children can and should act. Their unauthorized presence and exercise of “independent” agency threaten the state’s reliance on the nuclear family as the site for producing future citizens. Thus, migrant children become a problem to be solved.
As transnational actors, many young migrants manage multiple networks of economic obligation, social expectation and personal aspirations. Yet in certain contexts, particularly that of nonprofit advocacy, youth tend to be cast as children vulnerable to social ills, victims of neglectful or abusive parents, dependent on the welfare state, and especially reliant upon an (adult) advocate’s expertise and personal support. The child victim in need of saving usurps power from the child and places it in the hands of the advocate “to give voice” to victimized children and to define the “proper” childhood.
Many of the photos included here are featured on the websites of nonprofit advocacy organizations or corresponding policy reports. Humanitarian and advocacy organization counter imaginaries of threatening or delinquent youth with images that present the child migrant as the “ideal victim”—“a person or a category of individuals who—when hit by crime—most readily are given the complete and legitimate status of being a victim” (Christie 1986: 18).
The portrayal of a child victim in need of saving usurps power from the young person and places it in the hands of the advocate “to give voice” to victimized children. As Laura Agustin (2003) argues, victimization as a strategy has become a way of characterizing people with structurally less access to power. In the context of migrating children, this strategy explicitly ignores that children make decisions and that those decisions are influenced by a variety of factors and relationships.
In the context of U.S. immigration law and the federal custodial system, migrant youth are largely framed as either victims in need of saving or as delinquents requiring containment and rehabilitation. In these images, youth are imagined as unruly, delinquent, and somehow dangerous to society and the nation-state. We also see the presence of authority; this person’s (larger, male) body is nearly always foregrounded. Correspondingly, it is presumably his gaze, not the photographer’s, that signals the power to control and define those existing outside the law.