Centering Humanity within Dehumanizing Spaces: Challenges in Trauma-Informed Immigration Work

By Laurie Cook Heffron and Ana Hernández

Against a backdrop of increasing dehumanization and criminalization of migrating families, social work students aim to address trauma within a setting that often serves to reproduce trauma, the Karnes immigrant family detention center.

The role of the United States government in the dehumanization and criminalization of migrating families is by no means new, yet recent changes in policy and practice [1] facilitate its expansion. On any given day, more than 50,000 migrating individuals are detained and incarcerated in one of a variety of facilities funded by and operating within an entanglement of governmental and private entities, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and private prison corporations, among others.

A GEO Group flag flies alongside the United States, Texas, and Department of Homeland Security flags at the immigrant detention center in Karnes, City, TX. Photo credit: Laurie Cook Heffron

A GEO Group flag flies alongside the United States, Texas, and Department of Homeland Security flags at the immigrant detention center in Karnes, City, TX. Photo credit: Laurie Cook Heffron

Immigrant detention may last a few days or be indefinite, and the consequences of either are often long-lasting. The harmful impact of incarceration is well documented and includes increased risk of self-harm, suicidal ideation and suicide attempts, depression, traumatic stress, and anxiety. Detention also causes disruptions to the family unit, can create role reversal between parents and children, and undermines attachment relationships critical to child development and family wellbeing. When considering this impact within the context of longstanding and recent acts of interpersonal violence and systemic oppression, the result is even more harmful.

As Texans and social work students and professionals, we live in a region heavily impacted by this context. Set against the expanse of Texas-Mexico borderlands and the high number of detention facilities in the state, we work closely with clients, friends, and families enduring the direct results of detention. We are also working within a profession whose code of ethics and professional directives require us to be informed about, engaged in, and actively resisting inequity and oppression. In the same breath, we recognize that our profession has been complicit in and facilitated the creation and maintenance of oppressive structures and are mindful to not repeat such errors.

Over the last several years, a central site of this struggle has involved working with parents incarcerated with their children at the immigrant detention facility in Karnes City, Texas [2]. The first team of social work student volunteers began work in the winter of 2016, with the goal of supporting the efforts of RAICES (involved in this work since 2014) in providing parents with information and resources, helping parents understand the system they were navigating, and identifying and protecting any options and choices available to them. In particular, volunteers provide information about the purpose and logistics of the Credible Fear Interview process and assist in identifying and acting on any indication of abuses taking place. Over time the two separate but parallel projects (graduate and undergraduate student engagement and faculty supervision from both social work and law) merged into a joint effort with shared coordination. The goal is to build capacity, cross-train, and utilize legal expertise coupled with honed attention to the backdrop of trauma.

Inter-disciplinary team of social work students and law students stopping for breakfast tacos in Seguin, Texas, on the way to Karnes immigrant detention facility. Photo credit: Ana Hernández

Inter-disciplinary team of social work students and law students stopping for breakfast tacos in Seguin, Texas, on the way to Karnes immigrant detention facility. Photo credit: Ana Hernández

Overall, the project aims to embody a trauma-informed approach. Approaches and settings that make recovery from trauma possible (including those endorsed by federal agencies) clearly involve the elimination of practices of seclusion and isolation. These elements are decidedly not existent, nor possible, in the contexts of detention in which we work. By centering the knowledge that human connection and relationships can be healing in and of themselves, we work to provide a sense of support and wellbeing in a space that so often cannot feel safe for those detained. Building off recent research and the experiences of social work student volunteers, we explore four main aspects in which volunteers operate in a trauma-informed manner despite a setting that is isolating and often serves to reproduce trauma.

First, physical and psychological safety, as defined by those who've experienced trauma, may not be possible in the detention center as a result of the constant threat of deportation. Frequent intercom calls for individuals by their inmate number, nighttime bed checks, and regular cases of sexual harassment, sexual abuse, and deaths in detention enhance the climate of instability and danger.

One example of promoting wellbeing in this hostile environment is the simple strategy of grounding exercises, techniques designed to respond to trauma survivors who may feel distress, re-experience trauma, and have difficulty regulating their responses. Grounding activities aim to help someone find calm, to center oneself in the current time and space, and to prepare for re-entering a fear-inducing system. Volunteers also engage in safety planning and resource identification with those who will be returned to their home countries and face considerable danger upon arrival. Finally, this work also offers an opportunity to identify abuses within the system (alongside a larger network of advocacy organizations and immigrant detention visitation programs).

Sunflower along Texas-Mexico border. Photo credit: Ana Hernández

Sunflower along Texas-Mexico border. Photo credit: Ana Hernández

Second, a trauma-informed approach also necessitates actively pursuing the goal of building and maintaining trust and transparency. Frequently shifting policies and procedures within, and external to, the detention context create a setting in which those detained often do not know who they can trust. Those detained also receive little to no reliable information from immigration officials about immigration procedures, applications, hearings, and timelines.

Our volunteers always explain their role, limits to their role, and the purpose of the interaction with women at Karnes for maximum transparency in the process. Additionally, our work at Karnes exists within a larger patchwork of efforts by outside NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] whose goal is to provide information about rights and immigration procedures, individual case consultation, preparation for release from detention, preparation for deportation, and referral to low-cost immigration legal services.

Third, tending to trauma also involves promoting and protecting empowerment, voice, and choice. Traumatic experiences may have left people feeling as if they have little choice or control over what happens to them, coupled with incarceration in an atmosphere that removes most choice from daily living (when to wake up, which side of the hallway to walk on). Particularly around parenting, this setting inhibits mothers’ authority and decision-making related to sleeping, feeding, clothing, and disciplining, and restricts their responses to the social, educational, and medical needs of their children.

We work with women to navigate the new contexts within which they are situated. Our work within the detention setting aims to recognize and give choice and control – where to sit in a visitation room, when and what part of their stories to tell, whether or not to have a child present. Information-giving is connected to this effort to give choice and remove barriers to self-advocacy.

Finally, a trauma-informed approach must utilize a cultural, historical, and gender lens by actively resisting bias, providing gender-responsive services, supporting traditional healing practices, and recognizing historical trauma. In detention, cultural stereotypes are often enforced through insults by guards, and the considerable gender-based violence previously experienced by many asylum-seekers remains unaddressed. Likewise, the short- or long-term historical context that contributes to families’ trauma exposure and the dehumanization and criminalization of migrating families is largely unrecognized by the system.

In supporting women to prepare for their credible fear interviews, volunteers are mindful of the opportunities and limitations within asylum law and ever-changing federal policies regarding asylum claims. By incorporating an understanding of historical trauma, cultural differences, and gender-based violence, volunteers are able to validate the lived experiences of oppression while providing guidance for how women can understand their unique history within the limited context of immigration law. To validate one’s fear as “credible” regardless of policies is a hugely important reinforcement of their humanity and rights.

Ultimately, the individuals we have spoken with around the country who aim to support those in detention often feel that they are not able to see enough people, do enough, or circumnavigate physical and legal barriers in effective ways. We also cannot dismiss the toll on volunteers of entering such oppressive spaces or witnessing the undermining of human rights that occurs in detention centers on a daily basis. While immigrant detention is a particularly challenging space within which to implement trauma-informed practices, it is important not to minimize the powerful impact of every positive human interaction – no matter how small it may seem. This is the underpinning of trauma-informed work and it is the basis upon which our volunteers can understand the impact of their efforts at a fundamental level. Out of the dozens of volunteers who have gone with us to detention centers, we now have a group of social workers armed with the knowledge of the detrimental impact of immigrant detention and determined to make systems change. We know they will do this through individual clinical work; community organizing; and policy advocacy in order to create a system that does not rely on immigrant detention and instead creates trauma-informed integrative systems of support for those seeking refuge in this country.

[1] While the population of those incarcerated at Karnes has recently shifted, it has been primarily used as a family detention facility during our work there. 

[2] These include, but are not limited to, challenges to the Flores settlement, a host of family separation practices, changes in eligibility for asylum, expansion of expedited removal, and the Migrant Protection Protocols/Remain in Mexico program

Laurie Cook Heffron, PhD, LMSW is an Assistant Professor of Social Work at St. Edward’s University. Her research and social work practice focus on the intersections of interpersonal violence and immigration and the impacts of immigrant detention on survivors of violence.

 Ana Hernández, MSSW, MA is the Program Coordinator of Girasol at the Texas Institute for Child & Family Wellbeing at the University of Texas at Austin. Her advocacy, social work practice, and research are centered around work with immigrants in detention and the immigrant community in Austin, Texas.

Birth Migration and the Politics of Seeking Safety Abroad

by Sarah Smith

Women embrace obstetric technology—often migrating transnationally to seek what they perceive as safer birthing options—only to face the social stratification inherently embedded in biomedicine, putting their bodies at risk. I explore Chuukese women’s desires to migrate to Guam for higher-tech births, despite suffering disproportionately poor birth outcomes upon arrival. I ask: what is it about obstetric technology that gives people so much faith, even in the face of stratified reproduction? 

Where is the best place to give birth? Feminist anthropologists have examined this question, in all its iterations, for decades. We have explored the birth experiences of women across the world, questioned the biomedical control of women’s bodies, and critiqued development initiatives that deny credibility to traditional midwives. While we spend time critiquing the reach of biomedicine, many increasingly mobile women throughout the world leave their own perceived “unsafe” spaces for “safe” biomedical births. However, upon traveling to “modern” facilities in wealthier city-centers or nations, women face the institutional racism, classism, sexism and poverty ingrained in biomedical environments, putting their birthing bodies at risk. I spent two years conducting an ethnographic study of Chuukese women’s reproductive health in Guam, including women birthing in Guam despite facing these risks, and wrote about this phenomenon in Medical Anthropology.

Guam is an unincorporated territory of the US, and Chuuk is one state of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), a country in a unique relationship with the US, formed after decades of these islands being designated post-WWII “trust territories.” This relationship allows FSM citizens the ability to freely travel, live and work in the US without a visa. Since this relationship was codified in 1986, FSM citizens began moving into the US for better education, jobs and access to health care; particularly for those from Chuuk’s 23 inhabited islands, migration often starts with nearby Guam. As this began, anti-immigrant resentment and discrimination toward Chuukese migrants grew in Guam, and rhetoric about the Chuukese arriving only to give birth for citizenship, food stamps and welfare is widespread. Yet, women continue to seek what they see as safer births in Guam.

Childbirth in Chuuk

This was not the first shift in Chuukese women’s birthing choices over the last century. Older anthropological accounts portrayed birth as a reason for women to go home to their familial land, where they would be cared for by an expert midwife and older female kin who were the primary support system. This first changed when a hospital was built in the main island in the mid-20th century; women were encouraged by newer colonizers to birth in this shiny new biomedical space. At this point, many women who could afford the boat ride left their home islands and midwives and headed to the hospital. Ingrained in this new mentality was that biomedical professionals were necessary, “just in case” something bad happened; more technology meant better outcomes. Anthropologist Melissa Cheyney calls this phenomenon the “obstetric imaginary,” an unyielding belief and trust in the biomedical establishment to improve lives and to reduce suffering in all circumstances. Biomedicine often contributes to saving lives and reducing suffering, but we also know that a) sometimes it does the opposite, for a variety of reasons; and b) care is highly stratified, often reflecting community inequalities.

Chuuk State Hospital Maternity Ward

Chuuk State Hospital Maternity Ward

In Chuuk, development funding is not sufficient to support the high expenses of biomedicine, and the hospital declined dramatically over the years. Chuuk’s hospital grew to be a place known for a shortage of staff and supplies in a deteriorating building with holes and leaks throughout. Locals call it “the place to die.” As a result of this decline and loss of trust in Chuuk’s biomedicine, women didn’t return home to trusted midwives; they went transnational. They started to leave Chuuk for safer birthing spaces with more technology, beginning with Guam.

This ethnographic study included life history interviews with 15 Chuukese women, semi-structured interviews with 24 health care workers providing reproductive health care, and the shadowing of over 100 women seeking care in Guam’s reproductive health clinics. Of the women I shadowed in Guam, the majority were there for prenatal care. While these women were often residents, many were also visiting Guam for birth. These women wanted to live in Chuuk, but did not feel safe birthing there. When I asked women why they chose to leave, they said things like “a lot of babies die in Chuuk, and a lot of mothers.” Others described a bad experience with a previous birth, and some complained of giving birth with no attendants, a symptom of a very underfunded and understaffed system. So, those pregnant women with families who could afford the airfare traveled to Guam to give birth.

Arriving at Guam’s Airport

Arriving at Guam’s Airport

Is Guam better? Safer?

Women regularly told me Guam was a much safer option. Nelly told me, for example: “It’s a really big difference. Health care here [Guam], it’s really, very good. It’s not, there’s nothing I can compare to the one in Chuuk.” Yet, I wanted to conduct this research because Chuukese women suffer the worst reproductive health outcomes on the whole island of Guam. They have more C-sections and higher rates of complications, including maternal and infant mortality. Of course, Guam Memorial Hospital (GMH) is suffering from its own neo-colonial existence as well—with scarce funding, limited skilled personnel and a large indigent population—the hospital has a reputation for inadequate care. Its financial woes are inevitably blamed on the migrants seeking care without insurance, and these feelings are transferred to Chuukese patients birthing in Guam, further stratifying their reproduction.  

Stratified reproduction is an anthropological concept which delineates how stratification in society is shaped and maintained by reproduction. Chuukese women’s reproduction was stratified through local policies meant to slow the flow of federally sanctioned migrants, and through treatment by hospital personnel. First, to qualify for Guam’s Medically Indigent Health Insurance Program for non-U.S. citizens, applicants had to be Guam residents for six months. This meant women who arrived just a few months before birth did not have time to get insurance. Without insurance, women could only register at GMH if they had a large (about $200) down payment. Because of this, many lower-income women waited until they were in labor to arrive at the emergency room, often with no records, thus bypassing the required fee.  

Guam Memorial Hospital

Guam Memorial Hospital

Women also experienced resentment and discrimination from health care workers. Women told me again of giving birth without attendants; some were given C-sections without understanding what was happening; others were sent home despite high blood sugar or blood pressure—complications that led to poor and sometimes lethal outcomes for them and their babies. Women felt hospital providers treated them worse because they were Chuukese. They told stories of providers lecturing women—while in labor—that they should stop having so many babies. 

Health care providers had their complaints as well. They complained about Chuukese women’s silence in labor, because they could not assess how far along these women were in the birth process. They also complained that Chuukese women reached the hospital too late. Conversely, several Chuukese women I spoke with proudly told me that by the third or fourth child, they could time it just right: arriving as they were pushing the baby out. This demonstrated their strength in the birthing process, allowing them to avoid a discriminatory atmosphere until they absolutely had to be there. Because—while Guam was perceived as much better than Chuuk—it was not ideal for a Chuukese woman. Women who could afford to get further to Hawai’I or to the west coast—left Guam for what they saw as more technology and thus “better” biomedicine. Yet, for those who could only afford to get to Guam, they believed it was much better than their home island or Chuuk State Hospital. Care was stratified by the cost of a boat ride or plane ticket.

As with the rest of the world, the cultural power of almighty biomedicine has made its way to Chuuk and Guam. Communities still appreciate and respect local medicine, and often integrate methods from both medical traditions for pregnant women, but for childbirth,  people have embraced the obstetric imaginary. Chuukese women and their families trust that obstetric medicine is the safest option and yet, it continues to fail them. In spite of their best efforts to circumvent the low-technology options in Chuuk and their deleterious effects through pursuing the “best” care transnationally, Chuukese women migrate only to confront the worst birth outcomes in Guam. What is unique is not the pervasive power of global biomedicine, or the obstetric imaginary. This trust in obstetric technology is pervasive throughout the world. The unique element here is that obstetric medicine continues to invoke a sense of trust in saving lives in the context of stratified reproduction. This imaginary is so powerful that it persists even as biomedicine’s unequal distribution of care endangers women’s lives.


Sarah A. Smith is Assistant Professor of Public Health and Co-Director of the Health Disparities Institute at SUNY Old Westbury. Her research examines sexual and reproductive health at the intersection of US colonial policy, gender, and migration in Micronesian communities. Her research has been published in Social Science and Medicine and Medical Anthropology.

On the Deliberate Traumatization of Migrants’ Children

by Sarah S. Willen

In Israel, as in the United States, children have become pawns in government efforts to expel migrants -- despite clear evidence that arresting, detaining, and deporting children violates their human rights and has long-term traumatic effects. Policies like these demand our swift, strong, and emphatic condemnation.


“We’ve lost our minds,” 80-year-old Holocaust survivor Shalom Janakh said through tears in a short video condemning Israel’s move to deport children born to unauthorized migrant parents. Janakh’s beloved young neighbors, 9-year-old Michael and 5-year-old Shira, were recently arrested and detained by the Israeli immigration authorities along with their mother, Ishora, who came to Israel from Nepal to work as a caregiver. “This is a shame and a disgrace,” Janakh choked in his heart-rending appeal to Israeli Minister of Interior Aryeh Dery and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “In my opinion, there should be a 6- or 7- meter wall with the Minister of Interior inside, not these children.”

Large Hebrew banner reads, “Don’t deport children.” Smaller sign reads, “Why do you want to deport me?” Source: United Children of Israel.

Large Hebrew banner reads, “Don’t deport children.” Smaller sign reads, “Why do you want to deport me?” Source: United Children of Israel.

A 12-year-old student had similar things to say about the detention of her friend Mika, also 12, who was born in Israel to Filipino parents. Like other families targeted for deportation, Mika was arrested at home along with her 9-year-old sister, Maureen, and their parents, Sheila and Randy. What kind of people are we that we’re deporting children?” Mika’s friend asked in a television interview, clearly aware of the weight of her words. “What kind of people have we become? We ourselves were strangers in other countries, and now we’re deporting foreigners from our country?”

Left: Twelve- year-old Mika and her family at their court hearing. Right: A letter from Mika, in Hebrew, in which she describes her family’s arrest and subsequent detention as “the most frightening thing that’s happened to me in my entire life.” Sources: Oren Ziv for ActiveStills (left) [1] and United Children of Israel (right).

Left: Twelve- year-old Mika and her family at their court hearing. Right: A letter from Mika, in Hebrew, in which she describes her family’s arrest and subsequent detention as “the most frightening thing that’s happened to me in my entire life.” Sources: Oren Ziv for ActiveStills (left) [1] and United Children of Israel (right).

Sheila and Randy came to Israel 25 years ago, like 60,000 of their conationals, with visas permitting them to work as caregivers for elderly Israelis. All of their children were born in Israel and, till now, educated in Israeli public schools. In August, families like theirs became targets of a deportation campaign launched just before the new school year that began on September 1 -- and in the political vacuum preceding the upcoming elections on September 17. As it has in the past, Israel’s right-wing leadership is trying to deport vulnerable migrants in an effort to re-assert sovereignty and curry favor with their political base. And once again -- as in early 2018, when Netanyahu tried to deport asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan, and failed -- a growing group of Israelis are fighting back.

In recent weeks, thousands of Israelis -- schoolchildren and educators, famous artists and former government officials, mental health professionals and Holocaust survivors like Shalom Janakh -- have made a clear demand of their government: Stop arresting migrant parents and their Israeli children. These Hebrew-speaking children, they insist -- who attend Israeli schools, celebrate Israeli holidays, and often want to perform the same military service required of their peers -- are Israeli “in every way.” Parent associations at a dozen different public schools have led efforts to prevent their deportation. Private attorneys have represented families in court. And new groups have emerged to strategize and lend support.

One of several petitions from prominent Israelis. Maureen is pictured on the right, together with a friend from Balfour Elementary School in Tel Aviv. The title: “Don’t deport the children!” Source: United Children of Israel.

One of several petitions from prominent Israelis. Maureen is pictured on the right, together with a friend from Balfour Elementary School in Tel Aviv. The title: “Don’t deport the children!” Source: United Children of Israel.

Mika, Maureen, and their parents were detained for eleven days and nights. The girls’ friends, their families, and their broader community rallied in their support -- at demonstrations and in TV interviews, on social media and outside Givon Prison where they were detained until they were released on bond, pending appeal.

Supporters fear that the fate of Mika and Maureen -- or Shalom Janakh’s young neighbors, Michael and Shira -- could parallel that of families like 13-year-old Rohan and his mother, Rosemary, who were deported to Manila in August. An Israeli journalist who visited Rohan and Rosemary a few days after their expulsion painted a devastating portrait of the deportation and its traumatic impact on both mother and son. Rohan, struggling to understand why he had been cut off from the world he knew, put it this way: “My dreams are shattered.”  

In my work as an anthropologist, I’ve spent a good deal of time with women like Sheila and Rosemary -- women who came to Israel in search of work opportunity, and eventually became pregnant. I first started meeting new migrant moms and moms-to-be in 2000, while laying the groundwork for the book, Fighting for Dignity: Migrant Lives on Israel’s Margins.

For a few of the women I got to know, pregnancy was planned and eagerly anticipated. But for many -- especially for women from the Philippines -- it was not. Unlike most of the migrant workers who came to Israel in the late 1990s and early 2000s, nearly all Filipinos arrived with legal authorization. The Israeli authorities defined pregnancy as “incompatible” with the arduous and underpaid work of 24/6 caregiving, so authorized migrant workers who became pregnant in that period automatically lost their legal status -- and often their jobs. (Since then, the law has changed: now migrant women who give birth must leave Israel within three months of their baby’s birth -- or send the child to the Philippines to be raised by relatives.) For these migrant women, an unplanned pregnancy can destroy their plans and dreams for the future.

Israel has no birthright citizenship provision. Neither can adult migrants become naturalized, even if they have lived and worked in Israel for decades. For the most part, only people with a bureaucratically legible tie to the Jewish people, or to an individual Israeli citizen (i.e., through marriage), can become citizens themselves.

The current deportation campaign is not the first time Israel has moved to round up and expel unauthorized migrants. In 2002, as I describe in Fighting for Dignity, the Israeli government launched a mass deportation campaign of unprecedented size and scale that wrought havoc on Tel Aviv’s newly established communities of global migrants and, within three short years, led to their collapse. What is new, however, is the state’s eagerness to deport children and families. Twice since 2005, Israel threatened to deport kids -- but in each case, plans ground to a halt, largely in response to intensive activist effort. On both of those occasions, small groups of children were granted permanent residency and their families temporary status. If these children serve in the Israeli army, which is mandatory for Jewish citizens, they can even obtain citizenship and their immediate families can receive permanent residency.

This time, however, things are different. Children like Maureen and Mika are being arrested, detained, and in some cases deported from the only country they know. Like Rohan, they are in danger of being expelled to a place they have never visited, far from their friends and teachers, where they may not speak the language -- and where no one will speak the lingua franca of their everyday lives, the colorful, slang-filled Hebrew of Israeli schoolchildren.

Holocaust survivor Shalom Janakh, whose young neighbors Michael (9) and Shira (5) were arrested along with their mother and are currently detained. Janakh described Israel’s new policy of deporting families as “a shame and a disgrace.” Source: United Children of Israel.

We don’t need sophisticated science to understand that arrest, detention, and deportation can traumatize children, with far-reaching effects. But for those who want data, the science is clear and strong. Last week, a group of Israeli mental health professionals consolidated the evidence in a position paper that details how “Arrest, detention, and deportation of children is a clear and serious danger to their mental health and future development.” These experienced clinicians acknowledge that children of migrants already belong to a vulnerable community, and that the stress of arrest, detention, and deportation has clear traumatic potential. They warn of severe consequences, including depression, anxiety, PTSD, and behavioral disorders. They note that organizations of health and mental health professionals, in Israel and around the world, staunchly oppose the deportation of children -- and that children facing deportation would be unlikely to get the care they need, especially given their particular linguistic and cultural needs.

Meanwhile, more evidence of how deportation campaigns harm health is mounting on the other side of the Atlantic. Just last week, two social scientists published a New York Times op-ed opposing the detention of children in the U.S. under very different circumstances, but for similar reasons. Their conclusion is equally clear:  “No detention center is safe and healthy for children.”

There’s plenty of room for disagreement about what fair and just immigration policies would look like. But deliberately traumatizing children is wrong. Policies that violate children’s rights and impugn their dignity -- whether in Israel, the U.S., or anywhere else -- demand our swift, strong, and emphatic condemnation. We live in deeply troubling times, and we cannot afford to lose our minds, or our moral compass.

[1] For one-time use, not for archive use.

Sarah S. Willen, PhD, MPH is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Research Program on Global Health and Human Rights at the University of Connecticut, USA. She is editor of Transnational Migration to Israel in Global Comparative Context (Lexington Books, 2007) and author of the newly published Fighting for Dignity: Migrant Lives at Israel’s Margins (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019).

On the Immigration History Research Center Archives, or: What fuels you?

By Michele Statz

As a scholar of migration and global youth, I came to the Immigration History Research Center (IHRC) woefully late. Only last September did I first visit it, let alone hear of it, for the “Migration across Global Regimes of Childhood Symposium.” In December I returned, this time to learn about the Immigration History Research Center Archives and the Upper Midwest Jewish Archives, and all they offer you, our readers.

Part of the University’s Migration and Social Services Collections, the Immigration History Research Center Archives and the Upper Midwest Jewish Archives work closely with the IHRC, the oldest and largest interdisciplinary center devoted to documenting and understanding im/migrant and refugee life in North America. The Center and all of the University’s Archives and Special Collections are located in the Anderson Library.

Andersen Library at the University of Minnesota. PHOTO BY:

Andersen Library at the University of Minnesota. PHOTO BY:


I’m proud of the work we showcase on this site, and as a co-editor it challenges and fuels me in all the right ways. Accordingly, when I met with the archivists in the Migration and Social Services Collections in December, it was with very pragmatic questions: What are you doing here? What is it like to work here? How can our readers use this resource? How can this inform my own work? I had described some ongoing research projects ahead of time, and when I arrived the archivists set me down with a cart of boxes they had selected from the general archive and the Upper Midwest Jewish Archives. They were informative, patient, and, above all, experts.

Still: I didn’t know where to start, or how to start. Frankly, I knew very little. And perhaps most important: I did not know that this would be restorative.

I began working my way through so many file folders in the quiet reading room and was quickly absorbed. Hours passed as I filtered through meeting minutes and newspaper pages, family photos and immigration documents, letters, church bulletins, colorful pins. Truthfully, I had no idea what I was looking for.

File from the Jews in Northern Minnesota papers, Upper Midwest Jewish Archives, University of Minnesota Libraries. Photo by Michele Statz.

File from the Jews in Northern Minnesota papers, Upper Midwest Jewish Archives, University of Minnesota Libraries. Photo by Michele Statz.

One file titled “Friedman, Newton. Naturalization papers, ports of entry, Duluth Jews, address book. 1913-1948” held a pages-long list of Jewish arrivals to Duluth, Minnesota, where I now live.

The list included:

#16843 Siegbert Wollstein, bookbinder, not married. Roll 28 v. 36

 #16846 Alex Feuer res. 420 N. 3rd Av.E. Student. 18 yrs. Born Aug.1 1929. Stu-Mare, Rumania. Last foreign address Munich Germany. Came thru Breman to NY on SS Marine Flasher Oct 2 1947. Decl.Intent.Mar1 1947. Roll 28…

 #16847 Israel Alfred Zyroff res.312 E.8th laborer. Born Jan 24 1920 Zablotow, Russia. 28 yrs. Stateless.

 #16830 Peter Semanovic RES.705 W.Sup.laborer. born June 16 1871 Tazuni, Wilno, Poland. “Shrapnel scars on top of head” Widower. Son born 1903 in Tszuni. “Not known if alive.”

 Max Kleinman… tailor. B. June 29, 1922 Czestochowa Poland. Tatoo on left arm concentration camp. #1553. Stateless.

Along with the papers and some narrow yellow forms there was a small, chestnut-colored notebook. I picked it up and quickly paged through it, then stopped.

 It was clearly a day planner, not much different than the one I still use. Someone had filled in the spaces with to-do lists and names and addresses in careful, if now somewhat illegible, penmanship. The pages were soft and worn. And in the very center of it, sometime on or long after December 12th, 1915, a small person had scribbled in the days’ spaces with what I suspect was a great deal of focus and intention.

Notebook from the Jews in Northern Minnesota papers, Upper Midwest Jewish Archives, University of Minnesota Libraries. Photo by Michele Statz.

Notebook from the Jews in Northern Minnesota papers, Upper Midwest Jewish Archives, University of Minnesota Libraries. Photo by Michele Statz.

I suspect this because my day planner, and indeed, most of my research notebooks, feature something quite similar:

Photo by Michele Statz

Photo by Michele Statz

I sat very still for a moment, realizing that this was the thing I needed to find.

 I don’t know anything about the owner of this planner other than that she or he was an immigrant and more specifically, gauging from the rest of the material in this file, a Jewish refugee. Perhaps this person was one of the individuals listed. He could have been the tailor, or the bookbinder. He might have had the shrapnel scars on his head or a number tattooed on his body.


 When I read the descriptions on that list it was with sadness, and with a kind of tired anger. It’s fairly safe to think that anyone who lives or studies mobility, displacement, and the frenetic, violent, brazen disenfranchisement of im/migrants and refugees right now is generally pretty angry. Stunned. Tired. Mobilized. Overwhelmed. Committed. Still angry. And of course, anyone paying attention was probably feeling this way long before Trump.

 But when I opened up that day planner, I felt something else. It has taken me months to sit down and write this post, largely because that feeling was in some ways more vulnerable than my (or our) oft-default sadness and anger. I held that day planner and ran my finger along the thoughtfully-scribbled page, and for a moment experienced a marked and almost sacred absence of spatiotemporality, a deep sense of knowing that made me ask: Why is this not under glass? I couldn’t believe I could actually touch something so precious, something that transcended its 100+ age and felt so profoundly familiar. Because after all: Who among us with a small child in her or his life hasn’t done the same? Who hasn’t scrounged in a pocket or bag for some paper, a pen, a phone, a stick of gum—anything to keep little bodies and minds busy—while waiting in line or trying to speak with another adult? Or trying to conduct research?

 Without expecting it, it was at the Immigrant History Research Center that I found a different kind of fuel. Rather than urgency or responsibility, those scribbles surfaced an abiding and sweet, absurd sense of desperation that I totally understood. It was not so much a call to action as it was a quiet affinity, a tiny break that I wish for everyone here.

 So: Maybe start at the archives.

Michele Statz is an anthropologist of law and Assistant Professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Biobehavioral Health at the University of Minnesota Medical School, Duluth. Her work explores global youth and public interest immigration advocacy; rural access to justice; and reproductive health rights. She is the co-editor and co-curator of Youth Circulations.


The uncontained violence against unaccompanied Central American minor migrants in the U.S.

Asylum-seeking procedures compound existing traumas unaccompanied children face in the U.S.—and have unintended consequences for service providers.

By Stephanie L. Canizales and Samuel De León

As attention remains on unaccompanied, asylum-seeking children on the border and in federal custody, thousands of children are resettling in counties throughout the U.S. Asylum-seeking children arrive in highest numbers to traditional immigrant gateways like Harris County in Texas and Los Angeles County in California, respectively. It is important to consider how life in the U.S. may reinforce trauma from prior exposure to violence by enacting new forms of violence that compound the suffering of unaccompanied minor asylum seekers in the U.S. Recent interviews with legal, health, and education service providers in Harris County, Texas starting in January 2019 elucidate the effects of uncontained violence against unaccompanied minors seeking asylum in the U.S. and suggest priorities in addressing its containment.

Honduran boy playing in Catholic Charities Respite Center crossed with his father in McAllen, Texas and separated under zero-tolerance.   Source

Honduran boy playing in Catholic Charities Respite Center crossed with his father in McAllen, Texas and separated under zero-tolerance. Source

Seeking Asylum in Harris County, Texas

In Harris County, service providers recognize the challenge of achieving formal legal, educational, or economic protections when a child’s conditions of migration are silenced through trauma and fear. Matters are made worse when youth are exposed to violence in sponsoring in the U.S., which compounds prior experiences. A Houston-based organization working toward the legal protection of migrant women and girls estimates that 70-75% of their clients experience violence in the U.S. Certainly, this violence can include domestic and sexual violence at the hands of household or community members (see Gloria Gonzalez-Lopez’s Family Secrets for more on this) or gang violence. Equally alarming are the ways in which violence is enacted by formal institutions charged with protecting immigrant families and children and its widespread effects.

As youth move through detention, resettlement shelters, sponsoring households and schools, they also navigate the U.S. immigration system and its bureaucracy. Youth face the outcomes ranging from legal protection to deportation and the various temporary and fragmented statuses in-between. The possibilities of protection for children are narrowing. Indeed, numerous restrictive measures that enact legal violence on youth have been introduced in response to the rise of unaccompanied minor migrants arriving in the U.S., including proposals to mark youth from non-contiguous border countries as immediately removable upon apprehension, redefine the bounds of ‘unaccompanied’ status to exclude children with parents living in the U.S., and allow for the indefinite detention of children, among others. The separation of family units and the deportation of parents without children unwittingly grows the population of unaccompanied minors which federal departments are unprepared to account for, resettle, and reunify with their families. Several months past their July 2018 deadlinethe federal government continues to work toward the identification and reunification of families separated through zero-tolerance. Evidently, attempts to make the immigration system more efficient can intensify youths’ exposure to violence.

For example, since 2014, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services scheduled asylum interviews in the order they were received, a policy known as First In, First Out. An Obama-era tactic known as rocket dockets aimed at fast-tracking backlogged applications through the prioritization of unaccompanied children or families with children in response to the ‘surge,’ which presented a challenge for attorneys assembling evidence necessary for asylum. In 2018, the federal government introduced a new tactic—Last In, First Out—as a counter to Last In, Last Out. Referred to as a “legal black hole,” this new strategy of placing the most recent arrivals at the top of the immigration courts’ priority list significantly reduces the amount of time that attorneys have to prepare cases and makes asylum less attainable. According to attorneys and other service providers in Houston, Last In, First Out places earlier-arrived children in limbo, or liminal legality, for longer periods of time.

12-year-old Mayeli Hernandez from Honduras cries as she testifies before Congress in 2014.   Source

12-year-old Mayeli Hernandez from Honduras cries as she testifies before Congress in 2014. Source

One of the primary effects of fast tracking is the challenge it creates for attorneys and other stakeholders to serve unaccompanied minors as they are unable to build rapport with children. Some suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and are forced to relive these experiences as attorneys work to “craft the ‘perfect victim,’” as one family counselor described. In addition, they are asked to constantly repeat their story to multiple adult figures as they construct their “paper lives that appeal to immigration court judges. This is “hard work” for kids, according to a social service advocate, because they are “retraumatized” throughout the process. Another interview participant described court hearings as “a theatre for survivors [because] attorneys and judges want to see kids cry.” The ever-changing policies that govern the fate of children in the U.S. immigration system can induce further violence on immigrant children.

Although we have not yet interviewed children at this stage in our fieldwork, the re-traumatization migrant children experience is evident in conversations with stakeholders who speak of second-hand or vicarious trauma. “Revictimization occurs in all spheres and service providers are not exempt,” an interview participant said. “This work… it’s emotionally draining, especially listening to stories and providing services. It affects you as a person because you wonder, ‘am I doing enough? What am I missing?’” Stakeholders are pressed to learn as much as they can about a child and the conditions of their migration in a short amount of time. Large caseloads desensitize stakeholders to the severity of their cases. Many worry that the structure of asylum application procedures, hearing scheduling policies, and the normalization of violence against children is affecting the health and livelihoods of advocates:

“They work so much even when they are supposed to have days off. They don’t take breaks; they work on weekends. And then you see they talk about cases like they are winning some kind of competition. They talk about rape, human trafficking like they are happy they have a really severe case because they are going to win.”

Case managers and others who deal with the social integration of unaccompanied minors’ in the U.S. agree that children are most injured by legal policies and procedures.

Unaccompanied boy defends himself in court without attorney or caretaker.  Source

Unaccompanied boy defends himself in court without attorney or caretaker. Source

In Harris County, geography has much to do with this. One paralegal reported, “The kids don’t have rights, especially in Texas”—referring to Texas’ position in the notoriously conservative Fifth Circuit, which exacerbates the vulnerability of migrant children legal protection. Importantly, two Texas Immigration Courts—Houston and Arlington—host the largest number of backlogged immigration cases (9048 and 7203 cases, respectively) nationwide, which exacerbates time pressures that contribute to trauma-reinforcement. That many agree that Houston is among the most welcoming cities in the state points to a grim future for many unaccompanied minor migrants seeking asylum in the state.

Containing violence against unaccompanied minor asylum-seekers

Violence against children prompts their migration and moves beyond their individual lives to affect others within their communities and networks and has long-term implications on the development, health, and integration of unaccompanied youth.  Research finds that post migration experiences exacerbate previous trauma and induce toxic stress into the lives of individuals and communities. When experienced by children, and at young ages, violence and trauma can cause or contribute to mental health challenges in adulthood. Thus, we suggest that containing violence against unaccompanied minor migrants should be observed as a public health concern.

Houston residents protest expansion of Southwest Keys facilities in city.  Source

Houston residents protest expansion of Southwest Keys facilities in city. Source

There are multiple ways policymakers can address this concern:

  1. Prioritize migrant child and adult health, especially in cases of long-term custody;

  2. Enforce oversight of federal agencies;

  3. Secure legal counsel and timely asylum hearings as access to legal counsel increases chances of protection from 15-73%;

  4. Provide wraparound post-release services to children and sponsoring families, with a focus on health, education, and economic stability of households; and

  5. Establish trauma-informed procedures for those working in the legal, health, education areas of child resettlement.

As the unaccompanied minor migrant population grows inside and outside of federal facilities, violence is rearing its head.  Failing to contain it promises lasting health, social, economic, and political challenges for generations to come.

Stephanie L. Canizales is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Texas A&M University. Her book manuscript, Sin Padres Ni Papeles, examines how undocumented and unaccompanied Central American and Mexican youth experience incorporation as they come of age. Her research has been published in Ethnic and Racial Studies and the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies.

Twitter: @stephcanizales

Samuel De León is an undergraduate student majoring in Political Science and Sociology at Texas A&M University. His research interests are Latinx migration, immigrant integration, race/ethnicity, and Latinxs and the law.

 Twitter: @samdeleon_

Vengeance Drives Trump Immigration Policy

by Angela Stuesse

This year has seen an uptick in retributive ICE arrests.

Movement leaders have been targeted by the US Department of Homeland Security, according to recent reports.  Source .

Movement leaders have been targeted by the US Department of Homeland Security, according to recent reports. Source.

Recently, it came to light that the Trump administration has been pressuring U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to release immigrant detainees to “sanctuary cities” in order to target the president’s political opposition.

On at least two occasions, the White House pushed ICE to transport detained immigrants across the country and release them in small-to-medium sized municipalities that have refused to cooperate with ICE’s deportation regime. They reportedly proposed to target Democratic strongholds, including and especially House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s district in San Francisco.

“It was retaliation, to show them, ‘Your lack of cooperation has impacts,’ ” a Department of Homeland Security official told the Washington Post.

On March 1, 2017, just a month into Trump’s presidency and exactly two weeks after her father and brother had been taken in a raid at her family home in Jackson, Mississippi, Dany Vargas was arrested by ICE following an impassioned speech she gave at a press conference organized by the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance. The afternoon before, Vargas rehearsed her speech with me on the phone, hopeful that her family’s story might make a difference.

Retribution as motivator of policy only results in chaos – and calls for more destructive emergency action.

What we couldn’t foresee at that time was that she was to become one of the first in a growing chain of immigrant rights defenders targeted with retaliatory detention and deportation. As the Washington Post reported, high-profile organizers and movement leaders have been detained and deported in New York, Colorado and Washington. Lawsuits alleging the targeting of immigrant leaders have been filed in Washington and Vermont.

Most recently, on April 2, Argentine activist Claudio Rojas, who speaks out in the documentary film “The Infiltrators,” was deported just as the film was beginning its run on the festival circuit.

Documents leaked to a news outlet in San Diego reveal that journalists and social media influencers are also being targeted, in a secret database maintained by the Department of Homeland Security. It is used to subject these individuals to additional levels of screening and harassment when they travel abroad or seek reentry to the United States.

The will to enact revenge is also on display in the uptick of community raids on neighborhoods and workplaces. Just days after Vargas’ arrest, a federal judge in Texas confirmed that an ICE raid in Austin, Texas, had been carried out in response to the local sheriff’s adoption of a “sanctuary” policy. Since then, news stories have continued to surface linking community raids to municipalities that adopt “sanctuary” policies to promote community safety and create a more welcoming environment for newcomers.

In March, immigration raids across central North Carolina, the place I call home, targeted the counties of four newly-elected Democratic sheriffs who are refusing to cooperate with ICE, detaining more than 200 community members. The American Civil Liberties Union called it a “retaliatory detention rampage.”

Following the operations, ICE spokesperson Sean Gallagher confirmed, “This is the new normal. … It is the direct conclusion of dangerous policies of not cooperating with ICE,” he told the press. “This forces my officers to go out on the street to conduct more enforcement operations.”

We have long known that President Trump is vengeful in many spheres of his life – his business dealings, his personal life, and even his interactions with members of his own cabinet. We now see his desire for retribution is driving this major policy arena of his administration as well, with disastrous consequences.

Looking forward to the 2020 electoral campaigns, let us push all candidates to present agendas that are well-reasoned, humane, and in the best interest of all. Retribution as motivator of policy only results in chaos – and calls for more destructive emergency action.

A policy driven by vengeance endangers immigrant and non-immigrant communities alike, chills free speech, and, ultimately, erodes our democracy.

This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by the Tribune News Service.

Angela Stuesse is a cultural anthropologist at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and author of Scratching Out a Living: Latinos, Race, and Work in the Deep South.

Global Supply Chains of Risk and Desire: Migrant Youths and the Fast Fashion Exchange in Guangzhou, China

By Nellie Chu

In the mega-metropolis of Guangzhou in southern China, millions of migrant youths arrive in the city’s wholesale market for “fast fashion”—to try their luck at becoming bosses of their own labor. Ultimately, however, their participation in the fast-paced market heightens their sense of emotional and financial insecurity, even as they strive to achieve wealth and social mobility.

 In the heart of Guangzhou, China, a multi-storied wholesale market for low-cost fast fashion towers above a line of low-lying buildings. Inside, thousands of stalls cram along narrow hallways. Fast fashion is the “just in time” delivery of trendy and low cost fashion garment and accessories. Transnational supply chains for fast fashion rely on informal labor practices and mass manufacture capabilities in regions across the Global South. Young migrant entrepreneurs operate these stalls, serving clients from Seoul, Moscow, Abu-Dhabi, Mexico City, and Singapore.

Amid this whirlwind of fast-paced buyers, roving carts, and changing styles, millions of hopeful young migrant women in their late teens and early twenties leave their families and homes in the rural regions of China’s interior provinces, such as Sichuan, Human, Guangxi, and Henan. They arrive in this fashion wholesale market in Guangzhou to start their businesses in the hopes of gaining access to the transnational economy of fashion. These women of the post-1980s generation have come of age after Deng Xiaoping’s introduction of market reforms in 1978. Since then, advertising campaigns and mass consumption of multinational brands and fashion luxury items in Chinese cities have spurred these female youths to aspire for femininity, cosmopolitanism, and urbanity as ideals of beauty and womanhood. In contrast to the images of the Iron Girls, symbolic of heavy industry and national strength during the Mao era, young women today disparage peasant livelihoods and factory work, which once served as sources of personal pride and class-based collectivity. Instead, migrant women of this generation strive to become entrepreneurs in the hopes of achieving financial autonomy and secure livelihoods.

With modest amounts of starting capital in hand, these migrants converge upon these market spaces to buy and sell mass volumes of low-cost fast fashions. Fueled by the circulation of foreign and domestic fashion magazines such as Marie-Claire, Vogue, and Cosmopolitan, as well as TV shows including Korean dramas and Gossip Girl, migrants borrow images from magazines or websites, and modify them according to what they imagine their consumers desire. Their self-professed claims to consumerist expertise lead them to aspire to become bosses of their own labor, despite limited prior knowledge about design, garment construction, and merchandising. They scour the Internet and exchange ideas through blogs, creating virtual platforms via Wechat, Taobao, and other social media upon which they can expand their clientele. Inspired by the aura of glamour and style, they ascribe beauty and style as conduits of experimentation, and use fashion as an outlet to achieve their dreams of financial independence.

Sample image of a social media platform featuring fast fashion garments and accessories in China.

Sample image of a social media platform featuring fast fashion garments and accessories in China.

Sample image of a social media platform featuring fast fashion garments and accessories in China.

Sample image of a social media platform featuring fast fashion garments and accessories in China.

Their stories are part of a larger anthropological project that I have conducted since 2010. My ethnographic project follows the lives of Chinese, South Korean, and West African migrants in Guangzhou, who labor to become worldy citizens through their experiences of entrepreneurship. I trace the rhythms of anticipation among these intermediary agents as they move in and out of factories spaces, showrooms, boutiques, and warehouses. Through techniques of participant observation and semi-structured interviews, I show how the global supply chains for fast fashion are forged by the continuous de-linking and re-linking of class and labor mobility across trans-regional and temporal scales.

A narrow hallway lined by fashion showrooms in Guangzhou’s wholesale market for trendy, low-cost garments and accessories. Photo credits: Nellie Chu

A narrow hallway lined by fashion showrooms in Guangzhou’s wholesale market for trendy, low-cost garments and accessories. Photo credits: Nellie Chu

Despite their aspirations for economic self-reliance, individualistic expression, and social mobility, many of these Chinese women desire a future that remains intimately tied to familial relationships as well as to gendered norms with respect to romantic love, marriage, and motherhood. Indeed, the majority of small-scale businesses in garment wholesale and manufacture within Guangzhou’s fast fashion niche involve partnerships with married couples in the form of shared labor or a mutual pooling of investment capital. Young, unmarried women co-invest with their parents, siblings, close friends, or other unmarried partners. Many youths claim a combination of personal independence, self-fulfillment, and family honor as the primary motivations for engaging in their risky business ventures.  Such claims are well-documented by other anthropologists and observers of China, including Lisa Rofel and Sylvia J. Yanagisako; Xia Zhang; Minhua Ling; and  Jeroen de Kloet and Anthony Fung. In fact, the topic of migrant entrepreneurship has been endorsed and celebrated in popular culture through soap operas, including Legend of Entrepreneurship (Wenzhou Yi Jia Ren) on Chinese state-sponsored television. Through their everyday work lives in the fast fashion sector, migrant youths learn to negotiate their personal aspirations for economic self-reliance with the business of marriage, family, and motherhood.

A migrant saleswoman and a model stand among a crowd of eager onlookers as they anxiously juggle several transactions at a time. Photo credits: Nellie Chu

A migrant saleswoman and a model stand among a crowd of eager onlookers as they anxiously juggle several transactions at a time. Photo credits: Nellie Chu

For example, Anna, a 23-year-old migrant woman from Dongbei, operated a highly successful teeshirt wholesale business in the market in 2011. As our friendship deepened, she recounted how she gained a foothold in Guangzhou’s fashion wholesale industry as a young teenager a decade earlier. Anna began laboring as a wage-worker in a shoe factory in Dongbei, which was operated by a Sichuanese businessman. After she had proven to the boss her willingness to work, she encouraged him to enroll her in a shoe design program in Sichuan. She stated, “When I requested this from my boss, I promised him that I would improve his business. And I did. Initially, he had no idea that I had so much drive and ambition. He merely saw me as a young girl – innocent and unmotivated. He didn’t know that I had a tireless ambition.”

Anna spent several months in the design program before leaving Dongbei for Guangzhou. At that time, transnational migrants from Korea, Japan, and Nigeria swarmed upon the fashion scene in Guangzhou in order to establish trading and manufacturing networks. As a newly arrived migrant, Anna fell in love an older Korean businessman who operated a shoe wholesale outlet near the railway station in the eastern part of the city. Their romance lasted for about eight years, during which Anna learned and perfected the skills necessary for running her own fashion wholesale business. Their relationship, however, was eventually mired by distrust and even jealousy between them. She elaborated,

Over the years, I had saved up vast amounts of money from our business without his knowledge. I did this because I had to support my parents and me. I knew that he never believed in me…that I could possibly out-succeed him. The years that I had saved up money on my own, he would spend it all away. After our relationship ended, I used my money to start my own business. Years later, after he realized that I had become more successful than he, he begged for me to return to him. At that point, it was too late.

Anna’s rise to entrepreneurial success as a young migrant woman involved a romantic and business partnership with her former lover. Her narrative impressed me not only because of the incredible drive and persistence she displayed as she strove to accomplish her entrepreneurial dreams, but also because of the subtle power dynamics that underlie her encounters with businessmen in positions of authority. Fully aware of her relatively vulnerable position as a young woman, she followed in these men’s footsteps in order to gain the skills and knowledge necessary for running a fashion enterprise. She knew, however, that to out compete them, she had to emotionally distance herself from them.  

Anna’s story reveals the entanglements of entrepreneurial risk and intimate desires, particularly among couples who share the responsibilities of running their own businesses. In China, the risks of losing one’s business are almost as certain as the risks of failed marriages and relationships. The highly competitive business environment in Guangzhou, where profits among small-scale businesses quickly come and go, heightens the sense of emotional and financial insecurity that market participants face in their efforts to achieve wealth and financial independence. In Anna’s case, struggling migrant entrepreneurs like herself sometimes cannot differentiate between business competitors and collaborators. Furthermore, these tensions reveal underlying gender inequalities. Bonds of trust with powerful men are thus difficult to bridge and sustain among migrant women like Anna, who has spent most of her life struggling to achieve financial independence.

A young customer takes a break from the hustle that often characterizes this fashion market. Photo credits: Nellie Chu

A young customer takes a break from the hustle that often characterizes this fashion market. Photo credits: Nellie Chu

Nellie Chu is an Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Duke Kunshan University in Kunshan, China. She has published in Chinoiresie, Modern Asian Studies, Culture, Theory, and Critique, and the Journal of Modern Craft.  

“Lo Que Nos Une”: Refugee Youth and Integration in Costa Rica

by Caitlin E. Fouratt

Through digital storytelling, refugee youth in Costa Rica challenge xenophobia and assert that, for migrant and refugee youth, “what unites us” are common experiences of isolation and discrimination.


Over the last 30 years, Costa Rica has been the primary destination for economic migrants within Central America. However, in the past five years, the country has seen a dramatic increase in asylum seekers. Asylum applications grew from just under 1,000 per year in 2012 to 500 per month in 2017. On paper, Costa Rican law welcomes refugees. Asylum seekers are not detained, have a right to a work permit, and can attend public school while their cases are decided. In practice, however, long delays create a social and economic limbo, while xenophobia isolates and ostracizes asylum seekers.

Here, I share the digital narratives of asylum-seeking youth in Costa Rica, where I have conducted research since 2016 alongside a refugee youth association. These narratives reveal how young people encounter delays, isolation, and financial pressures from their families. So too, they problematize divisions of “deserving” refugees and “undeserving” economic migrants. In doing so, they highlight what unites both migrant and refugee youth in the face of difficult transitions to life in Costa Rica.

Digital Storytelling Methodology & Ethnography

As a method, digital storytelling builds on traditions of participatory research, adapting testimonio and oral history practices to new digital media. The process includes sharing stories, developing scripts, storyboarding, production and editing. In collaboration with two undergraduate students from CSU-Long Beach, a colleague from CSU-Northridge, I worked with five young people to develop digital narratives about their experiences. We concluded the week with a screening and discussion of the videos with the rest of the youth association.



According to participants, the decision to migrate was largely out of their control. Peter, who left El Salvador when he was 16 years old, explained: “Well, the decision was made. I didn’t want to come here but it was one night when we sat down to talk, and both of them my mom and dad got serious and said that even though I didn’t want to, I had to come here. And the decision was made.”

Three days later, he and his mother snuck out of the house at one in morning to catch a bus to Costa Rica. He emphasized how conflicted he felt about leaving – not wanting to leave behind family and friends while also recognizing the danger he was in because of the gangs.

Like Peter, many asylum-seeking youths see migration to Costa Rica as one of a series of disruptions to their daily lives that begin long before migration. Almost all of the Salvadorans I interviewed had been explicitly threatened by maras. Prior to migration, they risked their safety by crossing into rival gang territories to work, go to school, or visit relatives. One young man finished his last two years of high school from home because it became unsafe for him to attend his school in a rival gang territory. In this context, crossing international borders to migrate to Costa Rica seemed uneventful. When asked about the journey, Peter responded, “Eh, it was normal.” Still, the contrast between the confinement by internal borders within El Salvador and life in Costa Rica is striking. Alex’s video Historias Invisibles evokes both this contrast and the grief youth feel when leaving behind loved ones.

Family Tensions

Families choose Costa Rica as a destination for a number of reasons. For Salvadorans, the journey to Costa Rica is much cheaper and faster (36 hours) than attempting to make it to the US. Because Costa Rica received tens of thousands of Salvadoran refugees in the 1980s, many already have relatives established there. However, delays in the asylum process contribute to new tensions within family networks, as delayed applications mean delayed work permits. Asylum seekers become almost completely dependent on relatives who are often struggling financially themselves.  

21-year-old Juan Carlos talked about conflicts with his aunt, who had urged his parents to come to Costa Rica. In close living quarters with 8 family members, and only his aunt and uncle with regular employment, frustrations mounted. Juan Carlos felt enormous pressure to work rather than pursue a university degree, even though that had been a major goal of migrating. Staying late at the workshop to avoid spending time with his cousins, he explained, “Lately there’ve been a lot of problems. I mean, sometimes I fight with my cousins about nothing, or sometimes my aunt causes problems because of money.”

These dynamics and family conflict may be exacerbated because Salvadoran asylum seekers often arrive as a family, meaning more economic pressure given the number of relatives to house and feed. Whereas, according to NGO and government officials, Colombians and Venezuelans often arrive in a chain, with one or two members arriving, establishing themselves, and then sending for other family members.  


For young people, family responsibilities isolate them from their Costa Rican peers. For example, one of the NGO staff attributed the absence of young women in the workshop to gendered expectations for them to help at home and care for younger siblings. With little financial support, many asylum seekers begin their lives in Costa Rica in marginal urban neighborhoods already populated by immigrants. Peter, for example, notes in his video that his barrio is called Managuita, or little Managua, for its large immigrant population. Such places often lack access to quality services and institutions and are seen as insecure and unsafe.

Delays in schooling also isolate asylum-seeking youth from their Costa Rican peers. Asylum applicants have temporary legal status, but until they complete the process, they are unable to access public services or otherwise integrate. For example, at 14 years old, Diego’s parents tried to enroll him in high school but were told he missed the matriculation date and had to submit official transcripts. Refugees are legally exempt from such requirements, but local school officials often refuse to waive them for asylum seekers. Even when enrolled, Salvadoran students face other challenges, including adapting to a new educational system given difficulties with the language, vocabulary, and accents in Costa Rica.


Despite such barriers, young people continue to foster connections in Costa Rica. The youth association and their sponsoring NGO developed and led a public campaign called “Lo Que Nos Une” (“What Unites Us”) to bring awareness to xenophobia and the connections between refugees and Costa Ricans. However, the main impact of the campaign for the young people themselves was to reinforce connections among youth within the organization. Indeed, many of the young people involved turned to the association because of their exclusion from the Costa Rican educational system and job market. None of the young people interviewed professed to have close friendships with Costa Ricans, other than two Costa Ricans who form part of the youth association.

Most avoided referring to themselves as refugees or asylum seekers. Instead, they referred to themselves as migrants. The explicit use of the term migrant, instead of refugee, serves to highlight these young people’s connections to Nicaraguan economic migrants, who also face discrimination, difficulties in finding employment, and exclusion from the education system.  Peter argued that is logical for migrant and refugee youth to form deeper bonds because they have had similar experiences that most Costa Ricans cannot relate to, including homesickness and feeling like outsiders.

These digital stories illustrate the exclusion and xenophobia that young asylum seekers must navigate. Several group members commented that, despite having lived in Costa Rica for five years or more, they felt out of place and permanently homesick. In the context of their social isolation, exclusion from formal education, and the job market, these young people felt they were still suspended in a moment of transition, connected to each other and to their new home by experiences of exclusion and uncertainty.


About the author

Caitlin E. Fouratt is assistant professor of International Studies at California State University, Long Beach. Her work has examined transnational families and shifting immigration policies within Central America. Her current research focuses on the experiences of asylum seekers in Costa Rica and state responses to increasing asylum applications. Her work has appeared in PoLAR, the Journal of Latin American Studies, and others.



Moving "Beyond Trump" with YC Contributor's New Book

We first featured Julie Keller’s important work in 2015 with “Beyond Trump: America's Dairyland and Multiple Regimes of Mobility.” We’re thrilled to announce the publication of her new book, Milking in the Shadows: Migrants and Mobility in America's Dairyland (Rutgers University Press).


Milking in the Shadows offers an in-depth look at the lives of undocumented migrants working in the American dairy industry. Based on research she conducted in Veracruz, Mexico and in the Upper Midwest, U.S., Keller traces the paradoxes of mobility that migrant dairy workers face as they make the perilous journey north, manage fears of arrest and deportation, and adjust to a life of milking in the shadows. Roughly half of the workers Keller interviewed were men under 30 years old. The stories of their hopes, dreams, and experiences of isolation in the rural Upper Midwest contribute much to our understanding of the new workers that keep the dairy industry afloat.

Julie Keller is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Rhode Island in Kingston.

“We’re the Gay Farmworkers:” Advancing Intersectional Im/migration Activism in Central Florida

By Nolan Kline

On June 12, 2016, Omar Mateen walked into the Pulse club in Orlando Florida and fatally shot 49 people. The shooting happened at Pulse’s Latin Night, and it disproportionately affected LGBTQ+ Latinx patrons and other LGBTQ+ people of color.  After the shooting, Florida Governor Rick Scott and Florida Attorney Pam Bondi initially failed to acknowledge the attack happened at a gay bar or that the shooting particularly affected LGBTQ+ people of color in Orlando. In response to these erasures, several local LGBTQ+ Latinx organizations demanded increased political rights and worked to dismantle social divisions based on im/migration status, sexual orientation, race, and other markers of social difference.  One organization in particular emerged as a youth-led initiative of the Farmworker Association of Florida (FWAF): The LGBTQ+ farmworker group.

A meeting facilitated by leaders of the LGBTQ+ farmworker group. Photo by Yesica Ramirez.

A meeting facilitated by leaders of the LGBTQ+ farmworker group. Photo by Yesica Ramirez.

The LGBTQ+ Farmworker Group meets monthly and serves as a support and action group for LGBTQ+ youth who live in families with farmworkers, engage in farmwork, or live in farmworker communities. I got to know the group through my current research exploring LGBTQ+ Latinx activism following the Pulse shooting, but I have known the FWAF for several years, collaborating with organization leaders while I was an undergraduate student at the institution where I’m now a faculty member. The group is entirely led by teenagers and is largely organized by Gabi [1], a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient and recent high school graduate. At monthly meetings, the group discusses issues unique to LGBTQ+ Latinx people living in farmworking families, such as the challenges in finding LGBTQ+ social and health services, routine racism, and homophobia in their local communities. The group meets in Apopka—an Orlando exurb with an agricultural history that is rapidly changing as sprawl continues to reshape Orlando’s metropolitan landscape. Although Apopka is approximately a 30-minute drive from downtown Orlando, where numerous LGBTQ+ organizations exist, many of the LGBTQ+ farmworker youth group participants lack a personal vehicle, and a seventy-minute bus ride in one direction limits the feasibility of easily getting to Orlando and back home on a school night. Moreover, LGBTQ+ organizations in Orlando have limited understanding of the concerns that weigh on many of these youths, including the ongoing precarity related to their im/migration statuses and the threats of family separation and deportation.

The LGBTQ+ farmworker group was not formed in a vacuum, however. It is largely supported by local LGBTQ+ Latinx organizations that emerged following the Pulse shooting, and two existing farmworker organizations that have been in Apopka for decades, including FWAF and the Hope Community Center. After the Pulse shooting, leaders of both organizations recognized a need to provide services to young people. A leader from the Hope Community Center explained, “one of the guys who was killed, Arturo—we’ve known his family forever. I saw his name on the news and I immediately went to his parents’ house. When I got there, his father came right out of the house, and he came up to me, and he said, ‘You know, Arturo wasn’t gay.’ And I just thought, ‘Wow. Wow. Your son just died and that’s the first thing you want to tell me? Wow.’ And I knew then we were in trouble and needed to do something more for our LGBT youth, but it couldn’t be from us—it had to be from them.’”

Members of the LGBTQ+ farmworker group at a local restaurant. Photo by Yesica Ramirez.

Members of the LGBTQ+ farmworker group at a local restaurant. Photo by Yesica Ramirez.

Leaders from FWAF, Hope Community Center, and newly-created LGBTQ+ Latinx organizations wanted to keep the LGBTQ+ Latinx farmworker group youth-led as a way to advance intersectional social justice ideals and promote new leadership. For example, the LGBTQ+ Farmworker group received financial support from the Contigo Fund: an organization created after the Pulse tragedy to, among other things, support LGBTQ+ Latinx social justice organizing and to foster new leaders. The LGBTQ+ Farmworker group is one of such organizations. The group’s name arrives out of the group wanting to be explicit about its membership. At a meeting where the group tried to decide what to call themselves, they considered multiple options. After brainstorming names, one member said, “I think we should just be the LGBTQ+ Farmworker group—that’s what we are—we’re the gay farmworkers. Farmworker needs to be in the name.”

Though in its infancy, the LGBTQ+ farmworker group provides support to people at the intersection of unique and overlapping forms of marginalization. At meetings, members discuss xenophobia in school following the election of Donald Trump; how to navigate challenging family dynamics during the holidays as a gay, bisexual, or transgender teenager; and how to best represent LGBTQ+ farmworkers at local pride events. The group has discussed immigration enforcement matters and increasingly aggressive local police tactics, and how such efforts are especially concerning for LGBTQ+ Latinx youth who experience multiple overlapping vulnerabilities. Further, Gabi has also appeared in public forums and was a speaker on a panel at my institution focused on LGBTQ+ intersectional activism following the Pulse shooting.

The emergence and ongoing activism of the youth-led LGBTQ+ Farmworker alliance reveals how im/migrant youth continuously move through numerous social spaces and challenge artificial social boundaries that attempt to organize people based on sexual orientation, documentation and migration status, race, ethnicity, and language ability.  Rather than remaining in such silos, however, leaders of the LGBTQ+ Latinx farmworker group find ways to dismantle them. For example, at Orlando’s pride event, the LGBTQ+ farmworker group used the farmworker association logo to create a rainbow banner, effectively queering the organization’s logo and complicating limited understandings of farmworker and LGBTQ+ identity. Moreover, the group continues to contemplate ways to make LGBTQ+ services more accessible to Central Florida’s farmworker community.

Breaking down artificial silos between LGBTQ+ and im/migration-related groups are especially needed on a global scale, as LGBTQ+ interests and white nationalist interests can align to promote xenophobia and Islamophobia. As I argue in my forthcoming book Pathogenic Policing, one necessary way to combat xenophobia is for groups like LGBTQ+ activists and others to unite and to refuse to be divided based on arbitrary notions of difference, like im/migration status, race, and sexual orientation.


Nolan Kline is Assistant Professor of Anthropology and the Co-Coordinator of the Global Health Program at Rollins College. His book, Pathogenic Policing: Immigration Enforcement and Health in the U.S. South, examines the multiple, hidden, health-related consequences of immigration enforcement policies in the United States. His newest project examines LGBTQ+ Latinx activism following the Pulse shooting in Orlando, Florida.

[1] All names, except for organization names, are pseudonyms.

Io Sono Qui, a film that upends narratives of “crisis” through the voices of migrant youth

By Megan Carney

(Traduzione italiana qui sotto)

Since early 2013, I have been studying local responses to migration in the Mediterranean with a regional focus on Sicily. As an anthropologist, I have conducted several phases of ethnographic fieldwork with various NGOs, government agencies, humanitarian workers, and grassroots activists as they organize around an ethos of social solidarity, even as they risk being criminalized in the process. One aspect of this research has entailed examining the ways that migrant youth engage with or resist state-sponsored and institutionalized forms of reception, as well as how they enact solidarities with each other and siciliani.

“I enrolled into school, something that I would have never been able to do in Africa. I finished high school thanks to them. Who knows? Tomorrow I might become a great doctor in Europe!”  — 18 year-old Omar, addressing a Palermo audience following the screening of Io Sono  Qui, a documentary in which he is one of the main subjects.

A poster for  Io Sono Qui  at its second screening in Palermo, May 2017. Photo credits: Author.

A poster for Io Sono Qui at its second screening in Palermo, May 2017. Photo credits: Author.

With the impending closure of migrant reception centers across Italy  – such as the one at Castelnuovo di Porto that is displacing more than 500 residents and 100 center workers –anxieties abound over where evicted residents will go next, what employment alternatives will exist for center workers, and what the future will look like for Italy’s entire reception system. It is precisely in this context of heightened uncertainty, and hostility toward migrant populations more broadly, that forms of media seeking to highlight other aspects of migration have gained newfound significance. The film Io Sono Qui by Sicilian director Gabriele Gravagna represents one such form.

The film tells the story of three migrant youth – Omar, Dine, and Magassouba – who arrived to Sicily as migranti minori non accompagnati (unaccompanied migrant minors) after long and difficult journeys through the Saharan desert and across the Mediterranean. The three youths narrate their own experiences of migration; of Palermo youth reception centers; and of adjusting to life in Italy.

You cannot begin to imagine the significance… of me beginning to recount this experience.”

A trailer for the film begins with one of the three youth narrating in Italian, “You cannot begin to imagine the significance… of me beginning to recount this experience.” Translated as I am here, the title Io Sono Qui suggests that the voices of the three migrant youth shape the narrative of the film. Rather than being relegated as secondary characters within the narratives of “crisis” that have defined much of the mainstream coverage on recent migration into Italy and the EU, these three youths are the central focus of the film.

Palermo in particular and Sicily in general have been extremely vocal in opposing anti-immigrant legislation proposed and enforced by Italy’s populist government. In early January 2019, the mayor of Palermo, Leoluca Orlando announced that he would not be enforcing the new “security decree” that had been approved by the national government in December 2018, citing concerns that it will exclude migrants from health care, jobs, and schooling. Several mayors across Italy have since followed in his footsteps.

In May 2017, I attended the second public screening of Io Sono Qui at one of Palermo’s theaters. I had met the film’s protagonists some hours prior to the screening, as they were all residents at one center for youth reception where I had been conducting research. They came looking for the director of the center, who had promised them a ride to the screening that day as they were invited to participate in a question-and-answer session after the film. They appeared before us freshly showered, dressed in white linen shirts and slacks, and grinning from ear to ear in anticipation of the screening. While visibly excited, they showed no signs of nervousness. This would be their second public appearance; the film had already screened to a sold-out audience at Palermo’s majestic Teatro Politeama the month prior.

The film's three protagonists speak during a Q&A session. Photo credits: Author.

The film's three protagonists speak during a Q&A session. Photo credits: Author.

Omar’s playful proclamation that he “might become a doctor in Europe!” elicited widespread applause, as did much of what the three migrant youth shared on the stage that day.

Gravagna, the film’s director, also participated in the question-and-answer session, during which he restated his motives for making the film. “Thinking of the coverage on television, in the news, and most else, I realized that it was doing injustice to this population. I thought we should make something else, to help show what happens after migrant youth arrive. Migration is natural. I migrated to Rome, others have migrated to Sicily, others to elsewhere in Europe or the world. So, it is something very natural, but mistakenly perceived as an invasion or emergency. The story I wanted to show here is very different – that many organizations are intervening in a way that is intelligent and consistent with the values of solidarity.”

Since its debut in Palermo, Io Sono Qui has screened at several national and international film festivals, and garnered an award for Best Documentary Short in 2018 at the Los Angeles Film Awards. In addition, schools across Italy have shown the film to students as a means to examine stereotypes around immigration and to humanize the experiences of young people seeking better futures in Italy.

Io Sono Qui, un film che capovolge le narrative di “crisi” con le voci di giovani migranti

Di Megan Carney

(English above)

Dall’inizio del 2013, sto studiando le risposte locali alla migrazione nel mediterraneo, specificamente in Sicilia. Come antropologa, ho svolto molte ricerche sul campo con varie ONG, agenzie di governo, operatori umanitari e attivisti di base; mentre loro si organizzano attorno ad una etica di solidarietà sociale, rischiano anche di essere criminalizzati. Un aspetto di questa ricerca ha incluso l'analisi dei modi in cui i giovani migranti collaborano con lo Stato o resistono a esso ed alle sue forme di accoglienza, e anche come si realizzano pratiche di solidarietà, sia tra di loro sia con gli stessi siciliani.


            “Ho iscritto nella scuola, una cosa che non ho mai potuto fare in africa. Ho finito il liceo grazie a loro. Chi sa? Domani forse diventerò un medico in Europa!” --Omar, 18 anni, ha detto agli spettatori palermitani dopo la proiezione del film Io Sono Qui, un documentario in cui lui è uno dei soggetti centrali.

Una pubblicità per  Io Sono Qui  alla seconda proiezione del film a Palermo, maggio 2017. Crediti fotografici: Autore.

Una pubblicità per Io Sono Qui alla seconda proiezione del film a Palermo, maggio 2017. Crediti fotografici: Autore.

Con la chiusura imminente dei centri di accoglienza in tutta Italia – come il centro a Castelnuovo di Porto che sta spostando circa 500 residenti e 100 operatori –, legata a delle modifiche della legge sull’immigrazione, è cresciuta l’ansia rispetto a dove andranno i residenti dei centri, quali opportunità esisteranno per gli operatori e che futuro esiste per il sistema di accoglienza in Italia. È precisamente in questo contesto di precarietà, unito alla ostilità verso la popolazione migratoria, che alcuni media stanno cercando di sottolineare altri aspetti di migrazione e questi stanno avendo nuovi significati. Il film Io Sono Qui del regista siciliano Gabriele Gravagna rappresenta questo tipo di media.

Il film tratta la storia di tre giovani migranti – Omar, Dine, e Magassouba – che sono arrivati in Sicilia come migranti minori non accompagnati dopo viaggi lunghissimi e difficilissimi fra il deserto del Sahara attraverso il mediterraneo. Questi giovani migranti narrano le loro esperienze della migrazione, dei centri di accoglienza a Palermo e dell’adattamento alla nuova vita a Palermo.

Non puoi capire che significa…per raccontarlo…

Il trailer per il film comincia con il racconto di uno di loro: “Non puoi capire che significa…per raccontarlo…”. Il titolo del film suggerisce già che le voci di questi tre giovani migranti formeranno la narrativa del film. Invece di presentarli come protagonisti secondari delle storie che hanno definito la maggioranza delle notizie sull’immigrazione, questi giovani migranti occupano un posto centrale nel film.

Palermo in particolare e la Sicilia in generale sono estremamente attivi nel rifiuto della legislazione del governo populista di Salvini. Nel gennaio 2019, il sindaco di Palermo, Leoluca Orlanda, ha annunciato che non applicherà il nuovo “decreto sicurezza” che il governo ha approvato nel dicembre 2018, mostrando le sue preoccupazioni rispetto ai diritti dei migranti in materia di assistenza sanitaria, lavoro e istruzione. Alcuni altri sindaci in tutta Italia hanno fatto lo stesso.

Nel maggio 2017, ho assistito alla seconda proiezione di Io Sono Qui in un teatro di Palermo. Ho incontrato i protagonisti alcune ore prima, perché loro risiedevano nel centro di accoglienza dove stavo facendo la mia ricerca. Sono venuti a trovare il direttore del centro, che ha promesso di portarci all’avvenimento. Sono stati invitati a partecipare a una sessione di Q&A dopo il film. Vestiti con camicie bianche e pantaloni neri, e molto sorridenti, sono apparti molto preparati all’evento. Nonostante fossero emozionati, non mostravano nessun segno di timidezza. Questa è stata la loro seconda apparizione in pubblico. Il film aveva già avuto una proiezione sold-out al Teatro Politeama il mese precedente.

I tre protagonisti del film parlano durante una sessione di Q&A. Crediti fotografici: Autore.

I tre protagonisti del film parlano durante una sessione di Q&A. Crediti fotografici: Autore.

La dichiarazione di Omar che un giorno forse sarebbe diventato un medico ha ricevuto un gran applauso, come anche le dichiarazioni di altri giovani migranti.

Anche il regista Gravagna ha partecipato alla sessione Q&A, durante la quale ha ribadito i suoi motivi per fare questo film. “Occupandomi di documentari per la televisione, notiziari e quant’altro, mi rendo conto che si parla sempre male di questo argomento, o comunque passano sempre le solite immagini senza spessore. Penso che dobbiamo andare oltre, capire cosa accade dopo lo sbarco. Andando oltre, vai verso un futuro, verso una prospettiva che questi ragazzi devono avere necessariamente, perché penso che questo problema non si risolva, non credo che troveremo mai delle modifiche adeguate per evitare che avvenga una evento, tra l’altro naturale, come la migrazione. Io sono migrato a Roma, altri migrano in Sicilia, altri in Europa e in altre parti del mondo. Quindi è una cosa molto naturale, percepita ovviamente come un’invasione o un’emergenza: è un’emergenza, ma va gestita in maniera intelligente, solidale, come fanno altri centri.”

Dal suo debutto a Palermo, Io Sono Qui è stato mostrato in molti festival nazionali ed internazionali, e ha vinto un premio per Best Documentary Short in 2018 a Los Angeles Film Awards. Inoltre, molte scuole in Italia fanno vedere il film agli studenti per esaminare gli stereotipi che esistono verso l’immigrazione e per umanizzare le esperienze della gente giovane che spera in un futuro migliore in Italia.


Megan A. Carney is assistant professor in the School of Anthropology at the University of Arizona and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project. She is the author of The Unending Hunger: Tracing Women and Food Insecurity Across Borders (University of California Press, 2015) and director of the UA Center for Regional Food Studies. Her second monograph, Island of Hope: Migration and Solidarity in the Mediterranean is forthcoming. She conducts research on transnational migration in the US and Italy. Follow her on Twitter @megan_a_carney and the Collective Digital Archive of Migrant Solidarity @IOHmedandbeyond.

“Help Them Back Home”: From neoliberal integration to neo-fascist responses to the reception of unaccompanied forced migrant children in Italy

By Valentina Migliarini

(Traduzione italiana qui sotto)

Two months after the implementation of the new Italian Immigration and Security Law, the piece reflects on the shift from neo-liberal to neo-fascist forms of inclusion of unaccompanied migrant children.

As I write, evictions at one of Italy’s largest refugee center (Centro di Accoglienza per Richiedenti Asilo, CARA) in Castel Nuovo di Porto, the northern suburban area of Rome, are underway. In the south of the country in eastern Sicily, 50 people, including 8 unaccompanied minors, are aboard the Sea Watch 3, waiting for the authorities to permit them to disembark. This follows the death of a total of 170 migrants last week, of which 117 died when the Libyan coast guard refused to provide assistance to their sinking dinghy.

This sequence of events has sparked outrage, especially among members of the Italian Democratic Party (PD), the Pope, and civil society. Despite increasing criticism of Decree-Law on Immigration and Security (Decree Law no. 113/2018), colloquially known as Salvini Law, and the performance of a superficial and color-evasive solidarity towards migrants and refugees a significant number of Italians, especially using social media, reiterate the neoliberal mantra of “helping them [the migrants] back home. Over the course of this last week (21st to 27th January), members and supporters of the Democratic Party rushed to affirm a seemingly anti-hegemonic perspective on the importance of not shutting down CARA, as it represents a “good example of successful integration” of migrants, adults and children alike.

Based on a three-year study in Rome, which included interviews with professionals and asylum seeking and refugee youth across 9 reception centers, I conclude that the model of “integration-style inclusion,” promoted largely by the Left before the change of government and the publication of Salvini’s law, is based on a neoliberal vision of integration.  This vision considers migrants as risky and disposable bodies; as irredeemably illiterate; and as only to be employed in low-paid, blue collar jobs, in spite of their expectations and life goals.

The executive director of a renewed service for refugee integration in Rome, who I call Participant D, told me: “Integration for us is to promote social inclusion, which means finding a job, learning the language, getting into a profession, finding a house and getting out of the government’s shelter”. Participant D details the five main elements that are necessary to become ‘autonomous’, functioning and normalized subject within the Italian society. None of these elements are bad, per se; they simply are incomplete as conceptualization of inclusion that fail to focus on the emotional trauma affecting youth migration and how it shapes their adjustment in a new country. Most crucially, inclusion-only approaches lack an understanding of systemic racial and class inequities perpetuated by the model itself.

As risky bodies subject to a de facto differential inclusion, young forced migrants in Italy are labeled as  “disabled” in order to facilitate access to quality ‘inclusive’ classrooms in public schools. Put differently, they are identified as having Special Educational Needs for their “linguistic, economic and cultural disadvantage” (MIUR, Ministerial Directive, 2012; MIUR, Circular n. 8, 2013, emphasis added). They are reified as different .

Participant N, a neuropsychiatrist in charge of disability certifications of most migrant children in Rome, described this process of manufacturing disability and the deviant subject:

“Last Thursday we saw, with a cultural mediator, a boy. He is 16 years old and he came here because of a suspected dyslexia, but we don’t have a specific diagnostic material standardized, so we had to do an evaluation with some classic tests, the Cornoldi’s tests, with the help of the cultural mediator and with tests in Arabic, and, more or less, we have confirmed the hypothesis of the previous diagnosis of dyslexia within a situation in which the boy never went to school nor his parents, so it is hard to establish if the disorder is caused by environmental or structural factors […]. This evaluation is anyway useful because it gives the boy, his family and his teachers at school a strategy and an indication to develop an individualized education program, to prepare him for a certain autonomy […].”

These efforts at ‘inclusion’ were often accompanied by color-evasive approaches to race.  Most of the Italian professionals I interviewed would say profoundly racist things. Yet, driven by implicit biases towards migrants, they lacked self-awareness, describing themselves as “treating everyone the same, because we do not see the differences here” (extract from Participant D interview).

Women with Children being evacuated from Castel Nuovo di Porto .   Source

Women with Children being evacuated from Castel Nuovo di Porto . Source

Perhaps it’s the lack of self-criticism from the Left on the limits of inclusion-only models, or an indifference towards discussing our own whiteness, problematic constructions of race and implicit biases, fueled by a continuous economic crisis that has led to the election of a populist, far right government. The league that rules in coalition with the M5 has begun dismantling inclusion initiatives developed by the political Left. By effectively abolishing humanitarian protections, refusing or withdrawing international protections, the Decree Law no. 113/2018 will negatively impact unaccompanied asylum-seeking minors turning 18 in 2019 who seek humanitarian protection (Save the Children, 2018). Currently there are almost 8,000 pending asylum petitions of migrant minors in Italy. In most cases, they are children and adolescents alone, without relatives or a legal guardian, who in 2017 accounted for 65% of all asylum seekers under the age of 18 in Italy. Of the over 11,300 unaccompanied foreign minors currently in Italy, almost 6 out of 10 (59.9%) will turn 18 in 2019. This will have a devastating effect on their lives and futures as they will be unable to access needed support services (housing, education, training) for two years after officially becoming adults.

It seems very difficult to find an optimistic conclusion when the battle is between hegemonic and counter-hegemonic perspectives and leaves very little space for a more grounded, research-informed and critical reflection of inclusion. Without doubt our Democratic Party has lost several important occasions to address the problematic aspects of models of inclusion, and to pass the IUS SOLI, the law that would have given citizenship and voting rights to migrants born and raised in Italy from migrant parent. In such times of political crisis, Gramsci’s words seem appropriate: “Fascism presented itself as the anti-party, opened its doors to all candidates, gave way to an inordinate multitude to cover with a varnish of vague and nebulous political ideals the wild overflowing of passions, odes, desires. Fascism has thus become a matter of custom, identified with the antisocial psychology of some strata of the Italian people” (Gramsci, The New Order, April 26, 1921).


About the author

Valentina Migliarini research focuses on increasing access to equitable education for historically marginalized students and communities, particularly children identified with disabilities and migrant and refugee children in primary and secondary education. Valentina was a Fulbright Schuman Visiting Scholar in the Special Education Department at the University of Kansas. She is the author of 'Colour-evasiveness' and racism without race: the disablement of asylum-seeking children at the edge of fortress Europe.

“Aiutiamoli a Casa Loro”: dall’integrazione neoliberista alle risposte neofasciste sull’accoglienza dei minori non accompagnati richiedenti asilo in Italia

Di Valentina Migliarini

(English above)

Due mesi dopo l’attuazione del Decreto Sicurezza, il pezzo riflette sulla transizione da un modello neoliberista a risposte neofasciste per l’inclusione e l’accoglienza dei minori non accompagnati richiedenti asilo.

Mentre scrivo, è ancora in corso lo sgombero di uno dei maggiori centri di accoglienza per richiedenti asilo e rifugiati (CARA) a Castel Nuovo di Porto, nella periferia a Nord di Roma. Nel frattempo, nel Sud Italia, vicino alle coste della Sicilia orientale, cinquanta persone, tra cui otto minori non accompagnati, sono ancora a bordo della Sea Watch 3, in attesa che le autorità permettano loro di sbarcare. Tutto ciò avviene conseguentemente alla morte, nella scorsa settimana, di centosettanta migranti, di cui centodiciassette deceduti in seguito alla decisione, da parte della guardia costiera libica, di fornire assistenza all’imbarcazione che stava affondando.

Questa serie di eventi ha suscitato l’indignazione soprattutto fra i membri del Partito Democratico (PD), il Papa e la società civile. Nonostante le crescenti critiche al Decreto Legge sull’immigrazione e la sicurezza (Decreto Legge 118/2018) - noto come legge Salvini - e l’esternazione di una solidarietà superficiale che non tiene effettivamente conto delle conseguenze materiali del razzismo contro i migranti, un numero significativo di Italiani continua a ripetere il mantra di origine Renziana “aiutiamoli a casa loro”, soprattutto sui social media. Nella scorsa settimana (dal 21 al 27 Gennaio) diversi membri e sostenitori del PD si sono affrettati a delineare una prospettiva apparentemente anti-egemonica in risposta allo sgombero forzato del CARA e al trattamento dei migranti.  Gli stessi sostenitori si sono schierati a favore del CARA come esempio di “buona integrazione” dei migranti, adulti e bambini, nel territorio italiano.

I risultati ottenuti dal mio recente progetto dottorale concentrato nella città di Roma, durante il quale ho intervistato operatori e minori non accompagnati richiedenti asilo ospitati in nove centri della città, evidenziano come il modello d’integrazione promosso e sostenuto dai partiti di sinistra negli ultimi anni si basa su una visione fortemente neoliberista d’inclusione. Secondo questa prospettiva i migranti vengono percepiti come corpi generatori di rischio, da sfruttare, impossibili da educare e buoni solo per essere impiegati nei lavori manuali e a basso reddito. Tutto questo, nonostante le alte aspettative e gli obiettivi di vita dei minori stessi.  

Il dirigente di una organizzazione presente sul territorio romano e rinomata per il suo lavoro d’integrazione dei richiedenti asilo e rifugiati, che io chiamo “Participante D”, afferma durante l’intervista: “L’integrazione per noi vuol dire promuovere l’inclusione sociale, il che significa trovare lavoro, imparare la lingua, trovare lavoro e una casa, per poter uscire dal sistema di supporto e accoglienza dello stato”. Il Partecipante D descrive i cinque elementi principali necessari per diventare soggetti “autonomi” nello stato italiano, dunque funzionanti e normalizzati all’interno della società ospitante. Nessuno di questi elementi è negativo di per sé: essi semplicemente rispecchiano una visione incompleta che ignora il trauma emotivo che colpisce i minori che arrivano nel nostro paese e che influisce sulla loro modalità di adattamento. Soprattutto, questo modello condiviso dal Partecipante D non considera le disuguaglianze e il razzismo sistemico radicati nella società italiana e che sono di fatto riprodotte dal modello stesso.  

Come corpi portatori di rischio e soggetti ad una inclusione differenziale o subalterna, i giovani richiedenti asilo e rifugiati vengono spesso etichettati come disabili per via della loro situazione sociale, economica e linguistica. Per le nostre istituzioni e per molti dei professionisti intervistati nel mio studio, questa etichetta serve ai giovani migranti per ottenere un’educazione di qualità in contesti scolastici e in classi inclusivi (MIUR, Direttiva Ministeriale, 2012; Circolare n.8, 2013). Questo processo porta alla reificazione della loro differenza e dunque conduce ad un’ulteriore marginalizzazione.

Il partecipante N, un neuropsichiatra responsabile delle certificazioni delle disabilità dei minori migranti risiedenti nel comune di Roma, descrive particolarmente bene il processo di costruzione della disabilità e, di conseguenza, del soggetto deviante:

“Lo scorso giovedì abbiamo visto, con un mediatore culturale, un ragazzo egiziano. Lui ha 16 anni ed è venuto qui a causa di una sospetta dislessia, ma non abbiamo materiale diagnostico specifico e standardizzato, quindi abbiamo dovuto fare una valutazione con alcuni test classici, i test di Cornoldi; con l’aiuto del mediatore culturale che traduceva il test in Arabo, più o meno, abbiamo confermato l’ipotesi della precedente diagnosi di dislessia, in una situazione in cui né il ragazzo, né i suoi genitori, sono mai andati a scuola per cui è difficile stabilire se il disturbo sia causato da fattori ambientali o strutturali. Questa valutazione è comunque utile perché fornisce al ragazzo, alla sua famiglia e ai suoi insegnanti una strategia ed un’indicazione per sviluppare un programma educativo individualizzato al fine di prepararlo a una certa autonomia.”  

Donne con bambini evacuate da Castel Nuovo di Porto .    Crediti fotografici.

Donne con bambini evacuate da Castel Nuovo di Porto. Crediti fotografici.

Questi sforzi ‘inclusivi’ sono spesso accompagnati da approcci che ignorano le conseguenze materiali del razzismo: nonostante prestino servizio nei centri di accoglienza per i minori migranti, molti di questi professionisti hanno mostrato molti pregiudizi impliciti, spesso con affermazioni intrinsecamente razziste. Sovente, sembravano non avere nessuna consapevolezza riguardo al razzismo e questo è particolarmente evidente in affermazioni come: “noi qui trattiamo tutti egualmente, siamo tutti uguali, non vediamo le differenze” (Participante D, estratto dall’intervista).

La totale mancanza di autocritica da parte della sinistra e dei suoi elettori ritengo siano i limiti del modello d’inclusione da essa stessa proposto; così come credo che l’indifferenza verso uno studio critico sulla storia della “bianchezza degli italiani” e delle nostre relazioni col “concetto di razza” come costrutto sociale e la dirompente crisi economica abbiano portato all’elezione di un partito populista e, di fatto, neofascista: qualcosa di impensabile fino a un decennio fa.

Invece di risolvere le problematiche suddette, la Lega in coalizione con il Movimento Cinque Stelle ha iniziato a smantellare qualsiasi iniziativa di inclusione: la protezione umanitaria è stata abolita, il riconoscimento dello status di rifugiato ridimensionato. Ma il decreto n. 113/2018 avrà un impatto decisamente negativo sui minori non accompagnati richiedenti asilo che compiranno diciotto anni nel 2019 e che hanno avanzato la richiesta di protezione umanitaria (Save the Children, 2018). Attualmente ci sono quasi ottomila domande di asilo presentate dai minori migranti in Italia; nella maggior parte dei casi sono bambini e adolescenti soli, senza parenti o tutori legali, che nel 2017 rappresentavano il 65% di tutti i richiedenti asilo di età inferiore ai diciotto anni in Italia.  Degli oltre 11.300 minori stranieri accompagnati, attualmente presenti in Italia, quasi sei su dieci (59,9%) compiranno diciotto anni nel 2019. Ciò avrà un effetto devastante sulla loro vita e sul loro futuro in quanto non saranno in grado di accedere ai servizi di supporto necessari (alloggi, educazione, formazione) per due anni dopo essere diventati ufficialmente adulti.  

Sembra molto difficile trovare una prospettiva ottimista in mezzo a questa battaglia di forze politiche egemoni e anti-egemoni che lascia molto poco spazio ad una riflessione più approfondita e orientata a prospettive epistemologiche di inclusione più radicali, ancor più quando si ha la consapevolezza che il Partito Democratico ha perso una sfida importante nel dibattito e nell’attuazione della legge dello Ius Soli, legge che avrebbe concesso la cittadinanza ai migranti nati e cresciuti in Italia da genitori migranti che avessero completato con successo il ciclo di studi.

In questo momento di profonda crisi politica e sociale, le parole di Gramsci mi sembrano davvero appropriate: “Il fascismo si presentò come l’antipartito, aprì le porte a tutti i candidati, lasciò il posto a una moltitudine smisurata per coprire con una vernice di vaghi e nebulosi ideali politici il selvaggio traboccare di passioni, odi, desideri. Il fascismo è diventato così una questione di costume, identificata con la psicologia antisociale di alcuni strati del popolo italiano” (Gramsci, L’Ordine Nuovo, 26 Aprile, 1921).  


La ricerca della Dott.ssa Valentina Migliarini si concentra sull’accesso ad un’educazione equa per bambini e comunità di studenti storicamente marginalizzate, in particolare minori migranti e rifugiati e minori identificati con disabilità nella scuola primaria e secondaria. E’ stata Fulbright Schuman Visiting Scholar presso il Dipartimento di Educazione Speciale dell’Università del Kansas. E’ autrice di molteplici articoli, pubblicate in riviste peer-reviewed internazionali, fra cui ‘Colour-evasiveness’ and racism without race: the disablement of asylum-seeking children at the edge of fortress Europe.

Discovering truth in art: The Nasher Installation by Dima Karout

By Cora Siré

Before experiencing the Nasher Installation, what did I know about Syria?

Words and images derived from headlines on a country imploding before our distant eyes. Aleppo attacked, Homs destroyed, Damascus under siege. Journalists write of food shortages, power outages, checkpoints, armed militia, and chemical warfare. Photographs depict children on stretchers, rubbled streets and refugee camps. The news feed is nonstop, the facts abstract and hard to process. Millions affected by death, injury and displacement caused by the violence of Syria today.

An installation by Dima Karout changes my perceptions. During her solo exhibition at Montréal Arts Interculturels (MAI) in 2014, I encounter a stunning visual and textual interpretation of the Syrian experience that transcends statistics and facts. An artist and writer from Damascus, Karout studied in Paris and was living in Montréal at the time, before relocating to London.


Who are you after you lose your home?

The gallery in MAI is cavernous, but Karout’s clever use of space gives viewers the sense of a personal encounter and the privacy of a journey to confront the direct experience of war and exile.

It begins with a montage of texts and photographs of Old Damascus walls. The artist introduces two unnamed characters – ‘She,’ a Syrian traveller, and ‘He,’ a Syrian refugee. Presented separately, each of the characters comes to life as Karout delves deeply in exploring their internal conflicts and the walls, or isolation, of their shattered identities. ‘She’ left before the conflict and her memories of Syria are vibrant and colourful. ‘He’ left during the conflict and his are bloody and grey. Both are haunted by survivor guilt as they process the ongoing death and destruction in their former country. Where they meet, metaphorically, is in exile, trying to find answers to the artist’s searing question, “Who are you after you lose your home?”

Dreams summarized in a few drops of water.

In addition to the fraught circumstance of exile, the roles of memory and imagination in overcoming loss are expressed in the Nasher Installation, a collaborative feature of Karout’s exhibition and her most impressive achievement.

Two rows of massive canvas-like fabrics hang in pairs, like laundry, from wires suspended in the gallery’s high ceiling. Each canvas tells a story hand-written in beautiful script – black and occasionally red lettering – presented in Arabic and English. Here I pause to read verbatim excerpts of the many stories the artist collected from a diverse group of Syrians, some in exile, others not, including women and men, many young.

The visual effect is that of textile art. The fabric comes alive as it wafts to the air circulating in the gallery. The amplified size of the canvases conveys the magnitude of individual suffering and resilience in stories told by witnesses from their varying points of view.

On the canvasses, I read firsthand accounts by Syrians such as Jean who remained in Aleppo. He tells of the impact of the conflict on the city’s children. Before the war, they played carefree in the parks and streets. Now they are obliged to collect water in containers for their families which the children do with pride and touching dedication, struggling to carry the jugs and bottles home. “All their dreams summarized in a few drops of water!”

Another canvas tells of Ibrahim’s struggle to adjust to his new life in Paris. He sees the Eiffel Tower as his wall of suffering but yearns to find something positive in this symbol. “It is a metal wall with plenty of voids ... maybe there is a glimpse of hope.”

The best way to reach peace is art.

The personal accounts bear witness to the consequences of the war, transcending political or religious affiliations. Sawsan describes having to leave Damascus after a massive explosion. Now in Beirut, she misses her workshop, her tools and the inspiration her former city always brought her. As to the way forward, Sawsan affirms, “The best way to reach peace is art.”

Karout’s installation juxtaposes two meanings of the Arabic word, Nasher. It refers to both the act of hanging clothes outside to dry and the publication of words, texts, or statements.

The account by Soulaf integrates both meanings as she recalls a scene from Damascus. While driving through the city by car during heavy bombing and sniper attacks, she sees laundry hanging outside a third floor balcony. “Terrified as I was, that scene filled me with the strangest sense of peace.” Another bomb explodes and “the laundry disappeared along with the ones who washed it.” After she returns to her home in Indiana, the scene haunts her – not the erasure caused by the bombing so much as the questions of who had washed the laundry and whether they’d planned a second load.

Speaking over the facts of the conflict in Syria, Nasher gives voice to its impact on the human family. Karout’s installation does not sag in sadness but soars with authenticity and visual ingenuity. After many hours, I leave the gallery feeling I’ve discovered truth in all its complexity, not abstract but heart-achingly real.


Cora Siré is the author of two novels, Behold Things Beautiful and The Other Oscar, and a collection of poetry, Signs of Subversive Innocents. Her essays, short stories and poetry have appeared in anthologies and literary magazines in Canada and Mexico.


by Dima Karout


Nasher is an art installation of suspended canvas first presented in Montreal in 2014 at MAI-Montréal Arts Interculturels as a part of a solo exhibition entitled “Damascus Walls.” It combines a collection of images and true stories. I created the installation’s idea and title around the double sense of the Arabic word Nasher. It makes reference to the act of hanging something outside to dry, often laying clothing on cords and suspending them from balconies. It also means to publish texts, books, or statements. I collected the stories and images via calls and emails, then I hand-wrote the stories on canvas human size (200×100 cm each) and sewed the photos alongside the texts. By sharing these images and stories in their own words, and by using hanging laundry as a familiar concept, I wish to bring Syrians’ experiences closer to the public’s heart. 


We are scattered across the planet, by circumstances. We don’t know what our future will be. All we have left are our hearts willing to maintain hope.

War is concrete, but Hope is abstract.

These are our stories as humans struggling with the walls of life. These true stories made their way here from Syrians who stayed in Syria and Syrians who had to leave and are spread out across different countries. What we have in common is our redefined humanity, and what these stories have in common is the loss of home.

With Nasher, we share our stories in an attempt to recreate a piece of home and to overcome the wall introduced to our lives in 2011. These are the stories that can be told; other stories we cannot hear as they are buried under the rubble.


Soulaf Abas. She is 30. She moved from Damascus to Terre Haute, USA.

On July 23, 2012, I said goodbye to my family after a 10-week visit to Syria. My flight back to the U.S. was cancelled from Damascus because the airport was bombed. I had to drive to Lebanon with a friend, fly to Jordan, and then catch the rest of my flights.

On our way out of Damascus, there was heavy bombing and snipers, so I had to watch the right side of the highway and my friend had to keep his eyes on the left side as he drove. We were both sinking in our seats trying to protect ourselves from random bullets.

I saw buildings go down and I saw cars swaying and crashing after the drivers were sniped. Then my eyes were fixed on a three-story building that had laundry hanging outside the balcony on the 3rd floor. Terrified as I was, that scene filled me with the strangest sense of peace. I thought about the laundry being a small but significant indication of life going on amidst the chaos.

It was only a few seconds before a bomb exploded in the building to interrupt this very thought and shatter my peace. Black smoke filled the air. The laundry disappeared along with the ones who washed it.

45 hours later, I arrived to my house in Indiana with that moment haunting me. And now two years later, I still wonder: what was the last thought on his/her mind, the one who did the laundry? I still wonder if they’d planned on a second load…


Shaza Koussa. She is 35. She moved from Homs to Damascus, Syria.

Leaving my home in Homs three years ago was a huge relief. It was the only way to escape confusing details. After the death of my younger sister, it was the best opportunity to get away from everything that reminded me of her.

A few months later, when I got used to the idea of her absence, I started to seek the end of the combat in my city. I wanted to go back and gather some of our shared memories, maybe some photos or a painting on the wall. I knew that our house was burnt because of the missiles, but I had some hope that I could fix something.

After the neighborhood was liberated, everything was destroyed. I didn’t have the courage to go back and face the new reality. I asked my brothers to get me anything that was dear to us. After a long wait, they got me a photo of our ruined room. When I asked them about family photos they told me that they were all burnt. Nothing remained. Only damaged walls and metal bed strings… Our room looked like a prison cell.

How much we had laughed and cried in this room, how much we had rejoiced and grieved, and how many stories we had whispered as kids at night… The extent of destruction was enormous, destruction of memories, dreams and hope.

In that room, stayed our conversations… Only the rubble can listen to them now.


Jean Hanna. He is 33. He stayed in Aleppo, Syria.

During the holidays this year, the streets of Aleppo were different. I saw children standing in rows for hours not to play on swings or to buy ice cream, no, but carrying big containers to be able to fill some water.

Our Syrian kids were denied their hobbies. They grow up before their time. Today, their dreams are transformed. The only wish they have is to be able to live like other kids around the world, to see water getting out of the tap… All their dreams summarize in few drops of water!

Despite their struggle, I see innocent smiles drawn on their faces when they succeed to get some water for their families.

We can understand everything except that we deny each other water to see who will die of thirst first.

Why should children pay for adult’s war?


 Rana Nezam. She is 32. She moved from Damascus to Ankara, Turkey.

I woke up that morning talking to myself imagining my way to work. Life in itself is hard, so how about life in war? Have you ever imagined yourself living in the middle of a war? I never did, but I am there now.

The road to work used to take me about ten minutes. I used to rush to get there on time. Minutes were a big deal. I used to feel that those minutes were a part of my bright future.

The situation is no longer the same. War influenced our awakening like it influenced everything else. The good thing is that I still wake up every morning, but I am no longer in a hurry to get to work early. What’s important today is that I get there safely. I’m now used to waking up to the real sounds of explosions, before they get broadcasted on TV. Then, the search begins for the safest road that I can take.

Sitting in my car, late, I comfort myself and say, a few more checkpoints and you’ll get there. Two hours later and I’m still imprisoned in the traffic. I try not to get angry. I think to myself: at least you are alive.

At the same exact moment, I hear an extremely loud explosion. I hold my breath.

I look around and thank God that the bomb falls three meters away. Then I continue on my road and in my day as if nothing happened.


Yara Dababneh. She is 32. She moved from Damascus to Amman, Jordan.

I readjusted my seat in front of my computer, and I stared at the ceiling for a long while… I tried to look away from the horror photos of school bags shreds that blended with the blood of their carriers…

I suffocated; I opened my window. I saw my neighbor, a kid, pulling the hand of his bag to drag it behind him, ready for his school day. We shared a morning smile. His eyes were big and courageous. I wished safety for him and his parents. But his innocent look was enough to make my feeling of oppression reach its maximum.

I took my scarf; I rolled it well over my chest full of pain… Each atom of air seeping inside of me increased my suffocation. I felt helpless.

I still can’t imagine that there are people sharing with us our country, planned, facilitated and collaborated to produce death that will take away innocent school kids.


Rita Karout. She is 26. She moved from Damascus to Dusseldorf, Germany.

She used to send me a message each morning at eight, another one at noon and a last one in the evening. I’m far away from her, but I don’t have a choice. My sister lives alone in Damascus. She goes to the university every day on her feet due to lack of transportation. The fear fills my heart because of the big number of attacks and falling bombs on the road she takes daily.

One morning, I heard on the news that the sky is pouring rockets on Damascus. I rushed and called asking her not to go; but her academic ambitions surpassed any fear for her life.

She sent me a message confirming her arrival to the university, so I calmed down a little bit. But then hours passed, and I didn’t hear from her. The news on my screen didn’t help: attacks on Dweilaa and Bab Sharqi resulting deaths and injuries. It is the same road she used to take. I was anxious, scared and desperate. I felt for a second that my “Rawaa” faded away.

I called and called only to get the answering machine. Even my family and her friends; all “Out of coverage”.

I sat at the corner of my bed and I prayed. I cried tears of despair and exile. I waited and waited. The only way I found to keep hope was to pick up my pencil and inflame my “Rawaa” on a white page. My drawing was her in our home in Old Damascus.

The evening came, the phone rang. I ran to it. I heard her voice. I felt that despite my suffering in exile, despite murder and death in my country, despite all the ugliness … I was the happiest person on earth.


Firas Saleh. He is 32. He moved from Damascus to Doha, Qatar.

There always have been two sides: the side of Al-Hamidiyah Old Souq and the side of the Modern Shaalan Souq; the Qassaa area and the Abu Rumaneh area; the Naher Aiesha part and the Malki districts; along the side of the Citadel of Damascus and the other side across the Barada river.

I used to walk with my friends along the Citadel Wall. Every time life got too noisy, we went there to enjoy the peaceful river view at night with all the lights reflecting on its surface.

Today, I remember the smart humble man, who used to sell crafts there. His shop was on the other side of the Barada river. The people would pass near the citadel, see him, and admire his handmade leather bags and golden metal objects but have no access to him. He created a way to communicate with the other side of the river, with us. An ingenuous solution. He suspended a small basket that slide on strings to link the two opposite river banks where he could send the merchandise and people could send him the money in return. He was the one who simply created a bridge.

Hopefully, one day we will be able to break the Wall of our dark emotions and start to build bridges.



I created this installation in 2014 with a total of 13 stories. Some of the Syrians who shared their experiences moved again, trying to create / find a place to call home. This work was later presented in Paris in 2016, and in London in 2018. These canvases are travelling as their authors, in the hope of building more bridges. All narratives shared here are republished with participants’ consent.


About the author

Dima Karout is a visual artist and art educator. She works with mixed media and creates images, texts and installations. In her research, artwork and classes, she advocates for socially engaged art. Her latest projects focus on the evolution of identity beyond borders, the metaphor of home, the human experience of migration and exile, internal and external conflicts and the relation between people and places. It also shed light on the greatness of the human soul and its invincible force to survive.

Dima grew up in Damascus, Syria. After finishing a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) degree in visual communication at the Fine Arts University of Damascus, she started an international journey. She has a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in contemporary art from Paris VIII University, France and a certificate in creative writing from Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. In the past 15 years, she exhibited her work in Damascus, Leipzig, Paris, Montreal and London.

Today, she lives and works in London. She is artist and curator in residence at the Migration Museum during “Room to Breathe” exhibition and working with the British Museum to create a participatory art installation “Our Library of Humanity.”

A Space to Belong: Newcomer migrant youth in Hartford

by Sophia Rodriguez

In this piece, migrant newcomers reflect a conflicting narrative of home and (un)home, and of belonging and (un)belonging in Hartford, Connecticut. This project involves an asset-based program at Hartford Public Library that is specifically tailored to increase newcomer migrant youth belonging utilizing the library as a safe space amid hostile political times and unwelcoming city and school environments. The library space has social significance. It is both an alternative to newcomers’ experiences of being othered in school and directly deepens their educational knowledge and belonging.

Caption: Welcome quilt the newcomers made in October of 2017, Hartford Public Library. Photo credits: Sophia Rodriguez

Caption: Welcome quilt the newcomers made in October of 2017, Hartford Public Library. Photo credits: Sophia Rodriguez

Hartford has long been a destination for immigrants. Recently, patterns of immigration have changed, bringing newcomers from increasingly varied home countries and an increased number of undocumented, unaccompanied, and refugee youths into the high schools. Newcomers may arrive in Hartford’s schools with limited education in their own countries or interrupted schooling because of their refugee or displaced statuses. Many have experienced trauma, such as adjusting to reunification with their families after long separations or leaving family members behind. Some have come from war-torn countries or from communities where they experienced severe deprivation, violence, or a constant threat of violence.

01HPL Demographics overview.jpg

Currently, Hartford newcomers represent 31 native languages, with the largest groups speaking Spanish, Karen, and Arabic languages, and have been in the country for less than 30 months. Additionally, the minoritized population in Hartford Public Schools has increased; in the wake of Hurricane Maria in 2017, a significant number of high school-age students (over 130) arrived to Hartford from Puerto Rico. Connecticut also has the largest gap in achievement in the country between its English learners and their English-speaking peers. More specifically, Hartford receives the majority of language learners in the state. In Hartford, schools struggle to support newcomers due, in large part, to decades of assimilationist and “English only” approaches to immigrant incorporation (Peguero, Bondy, & Hong, 2017). To address the newcomers’ needs, the Hartford public library has partnered with the school district to provide a unique program to increase newcomer belonging, data from which this post draws.


Home and belonging

Participating newcomers originate from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Peru, Syria, Rwanda, Guinea, Togo, Tanzania, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, and Cote d’ Ivoire. Many express conflicted feelings about where “home” is and what it means, especially because some escaped violence, civil strife, and extreme poverty. Newcomers’ responses to the question, “What does home mean to you?” include the following themes: united with family, a safe place, and places [they/I] can’t go back.

Art project: What is community? Photo credits: Sophia Rodriguez

Art project: What is community? Photo credits: Sophia Rodriguez

From these responses, many youths commented on how learning English and being a new arrival presents many challenges for them even in the Hartford community and in their schools. Interviews and focus groups reveal feelings of belonging and (un)belonging, and specifically how schools are contested spaces—and how the library with its asset-based programming has become a safe space. Youth commented on their shared struggles as newcomers in school, how the library space was “different,” and how they felt a sense of belonging because of their shared solidarity of being different. Many youths connected with each other out of necessity because they reported feeling ostracized at school by teachers and peers.

When asked how the library-based program was different than school, a Togolese youth explained: “It’s like school, but not really. We can express ourselves. In school, it’s testing, memorizing, English only, rules. We don’t speak English well. It’s embarrassing. Here, all students are new immigrants, and no one will laugh at you.”

Reasons for this comfort varied. A Dominican youth shared how she feels the library allows her to express herself and be more “social,” noting, “We are all English learners.” A Togolese youth explained, “We come here to escape the poverty and violence but are still struggling here. We get made fun of for our English.” A Burundian youth commented, “Teachers ignore us or think we can’t talk about anything. Sometimes, I don’t say anything in school.” In response to feeling as though school focuses on testing rather than the student, a youth reported, “It’s better here [library] because we can know each other. We are all new.”

In the library program, youth learn about civic engagement and leadership in their schools and communities. Newcomers explained how the curriculum increased their belonging. A youth articulated, “We designed a project for other newcomers like us to help them when they arrived so we can make the school better for kids. It was the best thing I ever did in my life. And, we translate it, too, into different languages since we have so many here. That’s how we become local leaders here.” This aim to become leaders is significant.

‘We become leaders’ is the phrase most often heard from migrant youth who participate in the library program.

To this point, youth recognized their uniqueness as newcomers and wanted to develop tools for other newcomers to facilitate belonging in school since the schools offered minimal support. Youth designed a digital library for newcomers that included tours of the school, how to navigate class schedules, descriptions of “what it’s like” to be at the high school. They also researched local community organizations that offer services for refugees and newcomer immigrants. They presented their projects in a “gallery walk” final presentation to library staff, teachers, parents of newcomers, and peers at the end of the program. Evidence suggests that newcomers benefitted from engaging in program curricular activities in ways that increased their belonging and relationships with others.

Newcomer from Togo explained, “People don't, like, get it. They don't get the pain. But, they also do, especially at school. I try to explain that I know English, and school says, ‘we gonna test today.’ and you have no choice. It’s like isolation.” (Photo from a story in the   Connecticut Mirror   about the program.)

Newcomer from Togo explained, “People don't, like, get it. They don't get the pain. But, they also do, especially at school. I try to explain that I know English, and school says, ‘we gonna test today.’ and you have no choice. It’s like isolation.” (Photo from a story in the Connecticut Mirror about the program.)

Newcomers develop a sense of solidarity and belonging from participating in the library program. One youth shared, “Even if you come here [to the library], but you don't know that country where everyone is from, it’s ok. We are all in the same boat, not knowing English. You can be from anywhere and still belong here [at the library].” While newcomers expressed feelings of isolation at school, the library-based program created a space to cultivate a positive sense of self, relationships, a sense of civic awareness, and a desire for action. Developing a curriculum rooted in the strengths and knowledge of newcomers, the library program meaningfully cultivated belonging and integration for youth.

The data from this ongoing project suggests that a generative, rather than assimilationist, framework of belonging maintains the potential to meaningfully integrate newcomers. This library-program is indeed a promising practice.

Sophia Rodriguez is an Assistant Professor of Cultural Foundations at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Her scholarship has appeared in the peer-reviewed journals Educational Policy, Education Policy Analysis Archives, Educational Studies, The Urban Review, and The Journal of Latinos and Education.


An Undocumented College Student’s Journey of Hyperdocumentation in Drawings

by Aurora Chang and Espiritu*

Espiritu, an undocumented college student, narrates her journey of hyperdocumentation – the excessive production of documents, texts, and papers in an effort to compensate for undocumented status or feelings unworthiness – through her own drawings. Her story is one among so many that need to be told.

Doing research, or storytelling, in this age of post-truth feels entirely demoralizing and … necessary. In a time when any utterance of text is suspect, it can be downright frightening at most and risky, at least, to document anything. When we see powerful leaders spewing personal beliefs and emotions in lieu of facts and evidence, and people embracing this approach to the world, what are we left with?  But the irony of all of this is that right when we find ourselves discouraged to speak is the same time when we must bring our stories to the forefront because they are most threatened. We must also find and provide outlets for young people to share their stories – telling our truths is still the best defense against despair.


Espiritu’s Journey

Espiritu’s big, round, enveloping eyes are dark brown, almost black. Her shiny hair, done up in the most precise tresses, hangs easily below her waist. Soaking wet, she is maybe one hundred pounds. There is a shyness to her toothy smile and an eagerness for knowledge that is palpable. An unaccompanied minor, she hyperdocumented her way through high school, community college and then to a prestigious four-year university on full scholarship. “Hyperdocumentation” is a term I use to define the excessive production of documents, texts, and papers in an effort to compensate for undocumented status or feelings of unworthiness - something I experienced and continue to experience as a once undocumented immigrant myself.

 I met Espiritu four years ago. Amidst a heavy, anti-immigrant backdrop coupled with the everyday struggles of living undocumented, Espiritu was full of critical hope - as was I. Even though the world wasn’t looking good, there was still possibility in the air. Trump had been elected. She didn’t get DACA. She was struggling financially. Yet, time seemed to be on her side. She was a freshman with four big years of potential in front of her.

 Espiritu remembers every detail of her immigration. She was fifteen when she made the trek. Living in Guatemala, she and her family were in imminent danger, living in constant fear of the violent gangs that regularly terrorized them and any youth in their pueblos that refused to join them. Death threats against her and her sisters began, so the family strategically began to move from rural location to rural location, running from the inevitable death threats that would follow them. If you are unfamiliar with the politics of Guatemala, this may seem dramatic and unusual. But, for someone like me, who was born in Guatemala and whose family members predominantly still live there, kidnappings, killings, ransoms and death threats are the stuff of everyday life. I have had cousins and uncles who have been kidnapped for ransom. My own family received death threats. While Espiritu and I grew up at different ends of the socioeconomic spectrum and in distinctively different rural and urban context, the violence across Guatemala still impacted us both.      

Espiritu and her sisters spent months trying to figure out how to cross the U.S./Mexico border. Finally, she found someone to facilitate her little sisters’ crossing. The coyote said that he was willing to cross them because of their young ages. Because of their small sizes and their ability to pass as children of another family, they were convenient candidates for crossing. The problem was Espiritu. Few wanted to cross with her because she was older, fifteen years old. Those who  were willing charged US$10,000. Espiritu and her sisters wanted to cross together, so they stayed in Tijuana.

They slept in different houses, wherever they could find shelter or people who were kind enough to take them in. They garnered the courage to cross with a group of people. Upon reaching the border, Mexican border patrol agents stopped the group. They deported those with them but left Espiritu and her sisters alone. Border Patrol agents didn’t ask for documentation. Espiritu figured that they avoided being checked because they did not “look Mexican.” Another Border Patrol agent said, “I’m going to let you cross. It’s fine. You are going to cross with someone.” She was relieved. But at the last minute, he reneged, “No, you are going to cross alone.”

Espiritu tensed up. As she froze, she noticed the girl in front of her who had just crossed – she looked like her, was about the same age. At that moment, Espiritu summoned the courage, saying, “Okay, I’ll go across.” Espiritu was nervous but when she crossed over, a remarkable calm overcame her. Little did she know how this familiar rollercoaster of emotions would become a constant in her life.

The ups and downs of being undocumented in this country have taken a toll on her emotional well-being. As hard as she tries to keep it together, her time, once seemingly on her side at the beginning of her college career, now, as graduation creeps closer, feels as if it is quickly slipping away - sand through an hourglass. Trump is still in office. Espiritu does not have DACA and she continues to struggle to make ends meet. She is one semester away from graduating college.


In her own words and images

Here, Espiritu shares drawings and explanations that represent her experiences of being undocumented.

“Being an undocumented student made me feel different even though I was doing great at school, I always had a feeling of not doing enough. The first years were the hardest because I was trying to protect my identity by not telling anyone my status.”


“I became an advocate of myself, by joining organizations like Dreamers and Allies Student Organization or Student Organization for the Access Bill in Illinois. This was another phase in my life because I realized that there were a lot people like me that were afraid of speaking up, and that someone had to do it. After the first time I shared my story and saw the impact it caused on people, I started to share it more and even shared it in Springfield to the Illinois Senators.”


“The two last pictures are my current situation. As I approach graduation the feeling of not able to work because I don't have a social security number keeps making me feel bad. And it's a constant reminder of what my status is stopping from doing, and all the opportunities I have no option but to walk away from. I see my classmates already applying for their future jobs and I just keep thinking about that number that is stopping me. This ties to the first picture because [it] does not matter how hard I work I am still feeling different.”


“The last picture shows that my future is not in my hands but in an immigration judge’s hands. I have a court day coming soon and the feeling of not being able to choose what my future is going to look like is just inexplicable.”



 What will Espiritu do now?  She asks. I ask. We must ask.

 For the time being, none of us have a satisfactory answer, but my hope is that by creating spaces, opportunities, and outlets for undocumented students to share their stories, we will feel further compelled to find one that is dignified and worthy of their humanity – through our activism, advocacy, and political will.


Aurora Chang is a scholar, a counter-storyteller, and an academic coach. Once an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala and raised in Richmond, California in a family of eight, Aurora Chang is now a hyperdocumented academic activist serving as the graduate program coordinator and assistant professor of Higher Education at Loyola University Chicago.

* Espiritu is a nom de plume.

Pan American Dreams: Youth in the Americas Pursue Globalized Pathways for Change

By Elena Jackson Albarrán

Latin American youth leaders come to the U.S. every summer to gain skills to take back to their home countries. Over the twentieth century, American nation-states cultivated children and youth as cultural diplomats to promote capitalist-oriented development under the guise of hemispheric brotherhood. But upending the historical flow of knowledge production, this generation is prepared to engage and to defend their local realities and traditions.


A Virtual Reunion

From Panama, Nathanael—Natha, for short—leaned into his headset microphone, his face projected on the wall of a Miami University classroom bursting beyond capacity: “You all have a beautiful campus, wonderful working infrastructure, and incredible access to resources,” he affirmed. The Ohio students nodded—they’ve been told this since first setting foot on Miami’s campus. Indeed, institutional lore attributes an oft-repeated quote to Robert Frost, who hailed it as “the most beautiful campus that there ever was.”  “We don’t have that here in Panama,” Natha emphasized, “but we do have ideas for social and political change.” 

SUSI 2018 alumni Militza, in Emberá Querá, Panamá, December 2018. Photo credit Lois Iglesias.

SUSI 2018 alumni Militza, in Emberá Querá, Panamá, December 2018. Photo credit Lois Iglesias.

Roger chimed in to the virtual session from Ecuador, affable but pressing: “We have great projects going on, but our resources are constantly imperiled. Find ways to partner with us so that we can work together to effect change at the local level.” A political science major at the Universidad Central de Ecuador, Roger is also a member of the Colectivo Nueva Democracia, which encourages political engagement premised on fomenting cultures of dialogue and consent among emerging young leaders from differing political ideologies. On the side, he’s developing an app to promote eco-tourism in the Ecuadorian Amazon.

Roger and Natha are alumni of the Summer 2018 social entrepreneurship branch of the Studies of United States Institutes for Student Leaders (SUSI) program, an initiative of the U.S. State Department. SUSI brings together cohorts of the best and the brightest young leaders from around the world in an immersive experiential summer program designed to expose them to local business and government practices, and to inspire and equip them in their initiatives in their home countries. The 20-person cohort spent three weeks at Miami University’s campus, where faculty affiliated with the Latin American, Latino/a and Caribbean Studies Program provided academic workshops. They finished their trip with whirlwind experiences in Chicago, New York City, and Washington D.C. Their fellow program participants boasted equally impressive profiles and projects; for example, Dominican participant Ismael founded the organization Política Cool to promote citizen action—one of their pilot initiatives is the online platform Involucrao, designed to solicit and promote concrete ideas for change among young people.  

Back in the virtual reunion, Kat, a political science major, joined the Google Hangout from Managua, Nicaragua. Her internet connection was choppy, and she is soft-spoken, but she conveyed her urgency nonetheless. She’s developing an app for employers to remotely interview job candidates to boost employment opportunities for young people fearful of leaving their homes. This is a timely innovation; since April 2018, Kat’s generation has been besieged by the ruling Sandinista government forces, headed by the once-revolutionary, now jarringly neoliberal Daniel Ortega, apparently lashing out against university students in his political death throes. She reported that more than 500 students have been killed since the spring, though official estimates of death tolls range. Classes have been interrupted, of course, and classmates with connections and means are seeking academic asylum abroad to be able to finish their studies. She’s chosen to remain—she feels a moral imperative to improve conditions in her community, and there’s much work to do.    

From Colombia, Adrian had to sign in from several different locations before he was able to secure a stable connection. A telecommunications engineer major at the Universidad Tecnológica del Chocó, Adrian is also the co-founder and CEO of the Quibdó Leadership Academy, which cultivates skills and provides scholarships and mentorship, especially among the Afro-Colombian population. But universities have been on strike across Colombia for the past two months to protest the massive cuts to education being undertaken by the Duque administration. These types of strikes have historically been common among public universities, but now the private college students have begun to take up arms in solidarity, signaling the gravity of the crisis that their generation faces.

These Latin American students, momentarily reunited through tenuous fiberoptic connections zig-zagging the hemisphere, shared the effects of privatization and budget cuts that threaten their educational prospects in very tangible ways, and that has driven them to political action.

Historical Legacies of Youth Diplomacy

SUSI participants Kat (Nicaragua) and Doménica (Ecuador) at the Oxford Farmer’s Market, July 2018. Photo credit Ricardo Sosa.

SUSI participants Kat (Nicaragua) and Doménica (Ecuador) at the Oxford Farmer’s Market, July 2018. Photo credit Ricardo Sosa.

It is easy—perhaps necessary—to see these Latin American students’ sojourn north on Uncle Sam’s dime as part of a longer trajectory of officially-sponsored Pan American exchanges between exceptional youth. In particular, it is worth examining the tension between political symbolism and meaningful exchange that these young people’s mobility can signal. The history of academic exchange between young people in the Americas began auspiciously, recorded as none other than the nephew of Simón Bolívar, El Libertador himself. In 1822, twelve-year-old Fernando Bolívar appeared at the doorstep of a Philadelphia Quaker academy with his indigenous manservant, and earnestly set about the business of being an average student of high pedigree. The manual labor skills and bucolic setting of his hosts charmed him, but before long he preferred to return to the more bustling metropole of his native Venezuela (1). The younger Bolívar’s junket north offered him respite from the wars for independence, but he astutely saw that his fortunes were best sought in the nation-making processes that were unfolding at home. Yet over the course of the nineteenth century, the hemispheric balance of power shifted as the sleepy United States awakened to the potential of its southern neighbors and began to plumb their riches through might or through diplomacy.     

In the Good Neighbor Era in particular (much of the 1930s and 1940s), young people’s exchanges became built into the programming efforts of the Pan American Union, particularly through its Office of Intellectual Cooperation. Children and youth from grade school to college assumed the mantle of Pan Americanism—carefully tailored for them in D.C. offices—and enthusiastically embraced the exchanges set up for them through curriculum guides, essay competitions, speeches, and pen pals. Some historical studies have examined the origins of sustained student exchange programs that got their start in this good-neighborly climate. But the exchanges were uneven. U.S. youth learned that their Pan American neighbors possessed troves of coffee, silver, wheat, sugar, timber, diamonds (diamonds!). Latin Americans, the northern Americans learned, were happy to dance and create arts and crafts—a friendly, unambitious lot, easily represented by dolls: for New Mexico junior high-schoolers building a Latin American tableau, "[t]he dolls themselves were bought in Mexico, and were, of course, Mexican dolls, but almost any brunette doll is suitable for this purpose" (2). Children in the U.S. looked to Latin American for raw materials, while their Latin American counterparts sought out exchange programs in the U.S. to bolster their technical skills. Developmentalist discourse became ingrained into a generation, as binary constructs divided the hemisphere into “the two Americas.” In 1940, local anti-imperialist Carleton Beals criticized State Department-sponsored cultural exchanges as doing little to mask the prevailing view of “our southern countries merely as our oyster to be devoured” (3).

But if we don’t attend to the ways that these SUSI alumni are navigating the opportunities and resources through their own political lenses and operating networks, we miss the chance to see something greater unfold.

It would be easy, given the intervening track record of U.S. hemispheric policy between the Good Neighbor years and the present, to dismiss current State Department efforts to expose Latin American youth to the (North) American way of life with a heavy measure of skepticism. But if we don’t attend to the ways that these SUSI alumni are navigating the opportunities and resources through their own political lenses and operating networks, we miss the chance to see something greater unfold. Roger, Kat, Natha, and Adrian have made effective and savvy use of social media and technologies of a globalized economy, faltering as they may be, to effect change in their respective communities on their own terms.

De-centering US Visions of Development

SUSI students in the Social Entrepreneurship program come from a range of social backgrounds, though they do not represent the technocratic elite that have historically risen to the top of political hierarchies in the neoliberal era. On one hand, they are all relatively privileged by the simple virtue of being university students. But on the other, they all attend public universities, and as such, share the expectation that their respective governments should guarantee a basic set of public services to their citizens. Prior to the SUSI program, some had traveled abroad, most had not. Some had a degree of proficiency in English, others did not see Spanish-language monolingualism as an inhibiting factor in globalizing entrepreneurial expansion in their respective local contexts. Ideologically, they have no problem with conspicuous consumption; most had set up Amazon Prime accounts within hours of setting foot on US soil. Though the State Department-funded initiative is clearly designed to orient students toward a certain model of development, and while the visiting Latin Americans certainly spent several weeks gaining exposure to U.S. institutions and local governance (and engaging in retail and entertainment with vigor), they consistently interjected perspectives grounded in their own realities. Furthermore, the faculty who designed the local program for them in Ohio introduced them to models of sustainability, small business culture, and social entrepreneurship that reflect innovative strategies for survival in a nearly post-capitalist world.

SUSI 2018 Miami University cohort at the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Cincinnati, Ohio. Photo credit Ricardo Sosa.

SUSI 2018 Miami University cohort at the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Cincinnati, Ohio. Photo credit Ricardo Sosa.

The networks forged and technologies engaged through these young people’s mobilities transcend Pan American political binaries of the developed/undeveloped world. This generation of youth has a heightened sensibility of the distinct and unique value of their local cultures and realities. Militza, a member of the dwindling Emberá ethnic group of coastal Panamá, returned to her village days after a playful photo shoot with SUSI friends in Times Square, to be named by her father as the village’s next chief—the first woman to assume this title. She, and her peers, see the global pathways of development as circuitous and reciprocal, not the linear trajectory imagined by modernization theorists of the past century.

Roger concluded the evening’s session with a poignant invitation: “Hey guys, I have to go to class. But on Monday, at 9:00 a.m., Ecuadorian students from across the country are going to join in a protest march against the draconian budget cuts. Please, find a way to join us in solidarity, to strengthen our numbers and our resolve, even if only in some symbolic way. Monday, 9:00.” 


(1)  “Visitas y una conversación,” Correo v. 28 (marzo de 1944): 25. Columbus Memorial Library, Organization of American States, Washington D.C.

(2)  Irvin, N. E. An Approach to the Teaching of Latin American Culture to the Junior High School Children of Deming, New Mexico. M.A. Thesis (State College, New Mexico: New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, 1951): 13.

(3)  Carleton Beals, Pan America (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1940): 429.


Elena Jackson Albarrán is associate professor of history and global and intercultural studies at Miami University of Ohio, and a member of the Latin American, Latino/a and Caribbean Studies faculty. She is the author of Seen and Heard in Mexico: Children and Revolutionary Cultural Nationalism (Nebraska 2015). Her current work undertakes post-colonial interpretations of transnational exchanges of youth culture in the Americas in the first half of the twentieth century.

Constitutional Crisis in Guatemala and the U.S. Must Denounce It

By Giovanni Batz

Protestors at the airport in support of CICIG and to denounce the detention of Osorio.   Source

Protestors at the airport in support of CICIG and to denounce the detention of Osorio. Source

Guatemala is currently undergoing a constitutional crisis as fears and concerns of a possible coup, and even a return to dictatorship, by President Jimmy Morales. On Saturday January 5, 2019, Colombian national Yilen Osorio, investigator of the UN-sponsored anti-corruption commission known as International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), was detained and prevented from entering the country. The United States is the largest contributor and provides 40% of CICIGs budget, and with the increasing migration of Guatemalans, the US public should be concerned about the political situation in Guatemala.

A former comedian whose campaign slogan was “neither corrupt, nor a thief”, Morales has attempted to discredit, eliminate and persecute investigators of the CICIG throughout his presidency. The CICIG is currently investigating him for corruption and illicit campaign financing during the 2015 presidential election. On August 31, 2018, while surrounded by 68 uniformed military members, Morales announced that he would not renew the mandate of CICIG (set to expire September 2019). More concerning was that on the same morning, military vehicles (J8 Jeeps) equipped with gunners donated by the US Defense Department for anti-narcotic operations, drove past the offices of CICIG, the homes of human rights defenders, and even the US embassy as a means of intimidation and psychological warfare. The use of these vehicles was condemned by many, including eight members of US Congress who wrote to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to express their concerns. Despite these actions and against US personnel, the Trump administration donated dozens more military vehicles to Guatemala.

Morales with Military announcing the end of CICIG Mandate on Aug. 31.   Source

Morales with Military announcing the end of CICIG Mandate on Aug. 31. Source

The political war against CICIG continued to escalate days after Morales announced that the Commissioner of the CICIG, Ivan Velazquez, was banned from reentering Guatemala. The Constitutional Court ordered the lifting of the ban, but Morales has since defied this order. Instead, on December 18, 2018, he ordered the Foreign Affairs Ministry to revoke the visas and diplomatic clearances of eleven CICIG workers and gave them 72 hours to leave the country. The Constitutional Court again ruled in favor of CICIG and ordered the restoration of their work visas. The Justice Department then presented impeachment proceedings against three of the Constitutional Court judges accusing them of violating the Constitution and abusing their power. Observers and critics have warned that Morales constantly is threatening a coup as a political tactic and has violated the law by disobeying rulings from the highest court.  

Thus, when migration officials held Osorio and tried to deport him, Guatemalans were concerned that this could trigger a coup and plunge the country into further political turmoil and violence. US Congresswoman Norma Torres (D-CA) issued a press release stating she was “shocked and disgusted” by the detention of Osorio and attributed these actions to a “mafioso government...afraid of facing justice” who held a “blatant disregard for judicial rulings.” Civil society groups, indigenous ancestral authorities, human rights observers, and protestors gathered at the airport in support of Osorio and CICIG. The Attorney General exerted considerable pressure. After a 25-hour stand-off, the Constitutional Court ruled that Osorio was allowed to enter Guatemala. This incident was viewed as a victory for the rule of law, but Guatemalans prepared for backlash. The following day, the Minister of Foreign Affairs visited UN headquarters to announce they were unilaterally shutting down CICIG and giving the commission 24 hours to leave the country. In response, the UN stated that the mandate would not end, a decision later backed by the Constitutional Court which ruled that Morales did not have the power to end CICIG. During these tense moments, CICIG workers decided to leave the country out of security concerns. Guatemala is currently at a crucial political juncture, and many are concerned that we are witnessing a self-coup in the making.

Since 2007, CICIG has operated in Guatemala and works in collaboration with the Attorney General’s office. It has been involved in the prosecution of over 1,000 individuals involved in illegal activity, but it has been during Velazquez’s tenure that it has seen the most drastic results. This includes the 2015 La Linea corruption scandal that led to the resignation of former president Otto Perez Molina, who is currently under trial, along with other former high-level government officials. Allies of Morales include members of congress, the oligarchy, politicians, businessmen, and military officials, all who have continued to defame the commission and have worked towards its expulsion. Many congresspeople and other public officials are also under investigation from CICIG. In contrast, the Guatemalan public overwhelmingly supports CICIG. A recent survey found that 75.3% support its work and that only 14.4% approve of Morales job as president. The discontent with Morales and his allies is evident on social media with hashtags in Spanish such as #CICIGSeQueda (#CICIGStays), #NoAlMoralazo (#NoToMorales), #PactodeCorruptos (#PactOfTheCorrupt), #NoMasGolpesALaDemocracia #NoMoreBlowsToDemocracy), among others.

Today, the United States finds itself in a similar situation either to condemn or to condone violence and the violation of the rule of law in Guatemala.

While some Americans know Guatemala to be one of the countries with the highest sending rates of migrants, many are unaware of the United States role in Guatemala’s political history and current situation. The US has historically supported military governments and dictatorships in Central America. In 1954, the Central Intelligence Agency overthrew democratically elected Jacobo Arbenz after he passed much needed agrarian reform that sought to rectify land inequality. During the Guatemalan Civil War (1960-1996), the US aided the military in committing genocide against the Maya through massacres, kidnapping, sexual violence among other human rights abuses. In 1999, Bill Clinton apologized for the US’ role in this violence and repression and said “the United States must not repeat that mistake.” Today, the United States finds itself in a similar situation either to condemn or to condone violence and the violation of the rule of law in Guatemala.

Trump remains silent on Morales’ corruption investigation, which in some ways mirrors his own. Instead, Trump has focused his energy on separating children from their parents at the border, criminalizing Central American asylum seekers, caravans and migrants, turning a blind eye to the deaths of two Guatemalan children while in detention by Border Patrol, and shutting down the government to pressure funding for his imprudent border wall. Congresswoman Torres, born in Guatemala, has been one the most vocal US official in denouncing the rising political tensions. In her press release regarding Osorio’s detention, she appropriately asks, “How can the Trump Administration remain silent while these thugs undo years of progress? This is why children leave their homes and risk their lives to come here.” Torres, a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Rules Committee, has also condemned the move to end CICIG and has “introduced the Guatemala Rule of Law Accountability Act, which would require the U.S. President to impose sanctions on individuals who have undermined the rule of law in Guatemala.”

The US should continue and increase its support for CICIG as well as openly and clearly condemning Morales’ actions. Guatemala has historically suffered from impunity, coups, state-sponsored violence, and repression of human rights activists and indigenous peoples. The Guatemalan president’s war on the CICIG should be viewed with strong concern. US failure to denounce Morales’ actions would implicitly condone them, and this must not occur. The US public can do their part and contact their congressperson to urge them to support CICIG and to condemn the actions taken by Morales who is threatening the rule of law in Guatemala.


Giovanni Batz is a social anthropologist who specializes in Guatemalan politics, history and migration. His publications can be found in Latin American Perspectives and several edited volumes.