Love and Fear among Rural Uyghur Youth during the “People’s War”

By Darren Byler and Eleanor Moseman

This is the second of a two-part series by Darren Byler, who with photographers Nicola Zolin and Eleanor Moseman, powerfully document how the bodies of migrants are marked, just as their communities are erased, in the often unconsidered spaces of China's "People's War on Terror." 

Since the beginning of the “People’s War on Terror” in May 2014, the everyday life of Uyghurs has been transformed by the presence of intense security measures, regular home invasions, and the mass detention of thousands of young Uyghurs suspected of so-called religious extremism. Although many young Uyghurs are simply interested in practicing a form of pious religiosity, or what in other contexts might be referred to as a Hanafi form of Sunni Islam, the state has determined that this is a threat to the sovereignty of the Chinese nation. In order to exert its authority, the state has required that Uyghur Muslims practice their faith only as permitted by social workers and police monitors. As education policies and religious regulations demonstrate, the state would prefer that Uyghurs embrace Han cultural values and forget about their centuries-old practice of Islamic piety altogether.

In order to enforce this human re-engineering project, the Uyghur homeland has been turned into a police state. Most Uyghur rural-to-urban migrants have been forced to return to their home villages, and the state has instituted strict security regulations across the Uyghur homeland in Chinese Central Asia (Ch: Xinjiang). In their hometowns, public life has been filled with imagery reminding rural Uyghurs that their way of life is being transformed. The streets are filled with Chinese flags that each home and business owner is asked to raise to demonstrate their loyalty to the Chinese state and their hatred of “bad” forms of Islam and political ideology. Checkpoints stand at the entrance of every county border, the entrance of every town, every market, every housing development. Those without the proper legal documentation are not permitted to cross these checkpoints. This means that Uyghurs who live in one part of town are sometimes not permitted to travel to the other side of town to visit relatives or buy groceries. Han settlers and tourists, on the other hand, are permitted to move through checkpoints without any restrictions.

Below, a series of recent images taken in late-summer 2017 by the photojournalist Eleanor Moseman demonstrate the effects of the security state on family life in rural areas of the Uyghur homeland. This series represents the way love and fear are woven through the everyday lives of two young people, who we call Gulnar and Memetjan, and the community that surrounds them. Many Uyghur farming families, from Turpan to Khotan, have lost a husband, son, or father to the Chinese prison system. Thus, the responsibilities of providing for families now primarily falls on women (and the men who have managed to not yet be noticed). Young people who have not yet been taken by the state mourn those who have been detained or disappeared, and they fear that they will lose still more of their loved ones.  The effects of the police state reach deep into the most intimate parts of their lives. The ongoing “war” on their way of life makes coping with the stress of trauma an unending struggle.

The great leaders of the People's Republic of China (from Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping) look over all those that walk through a local bazaar in Southern Xinjiang.

The great leaders of the People's Republic of China (from Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping) look over all those that walk through a local bazaar in Southern Xinjiang.

In every town in Southern Xinjiang, the red flag of China, bright red banners, and posters of Communist Party Leaders have come to dominate the aesthetic of the Uyghur public sphere. To enter a small-town bazaar, a Uyghur must show his or her state-issued ID and have all bags x-rayed by armed police dressed in riot gear. The new police presence is now a part of every facet of public life.

A woman who owns a woman's clothing shop in a rural bazaar sits listens to the messages of a WeChat group.

A woman who owns a woman's clothing shop in a rural bazaar sits listens to the messages of a WeChat group.

At the same time that this hard infrastructure of control and surveillance is being put in place, Uyghur interpersonal communication is also increasingly being filtered through the smartphone application WeChat, which provides authorities with records of what Uyghurs say to each other and post in private chat conversations. Thousands of young Uyghurs have been arrested for things they have said or written on the Internet or because they are not actively using their phones to communicate with other Uyghurs. Many of them are accused of being “two-faced” (Ch: liang mianzi) people who perform their patriotic duty during political struggle sessions, but then privately complain about government policies with their friends. Since March of 2017, thousands of young Uyghurs between the age of 15-55 have been detained and placed in reeducation camps. Many of these young Uyghurs, particularly young men, are subsequently given 5 to 10 year prison sentences for “subverting the public order” or being “two faced.” They are told that because they are suspected of listening to unapproved Islamic teachings on pious practice or advocating that Muslims should pray five times per day, they are “extremists” and must be reformed through hard labor.

A Uyghur child sells sunflower seeds on the back streets of Ürümchi. Behind her propaganda posters from the Ürümchi Ministry of Culture describe the ideals of the political regime: civilization, harmony, prosperity, justice, rule of law, freedom, honesty, friendship, patriotism.

A Uyghur child sells sunflower seeds on the back streets of Ürümchi. Behind her propaganda posters from the Ürümchi Ministry of Culture describe the ideals of the political regime: civilization, harmony, prosperity, justice, rule of law, freedom, honesty, friendship, patriotism.

During our fieldwork and visits between 2014 and 2017, many Uyghurs told us that they worry that the growing number of abandoned or neglected children will have a devastating effect on Uyghur society. After one of the parents of a child are taken by the police, government workers often come to the family and take the children of the family. This removal of children from the home is referred to as a “Rectification of Islam” policy that is justified by the existence of “extremist” ideology in the home. The child is thus separated from his or her family and raised as a ward of the state. In other cases, after a father is taken, children are immediately sent to live with relatives in order to keep them “safe” from the state. Often, conditions of poverty force the children to work in the cash economy in order to earn their keep as an extra mouth. Reports indicate that the state orphanage system is overrun with children who have been taken from their parents. Many Uyghurs talk about how these children are being housed like animals.  The deepest fear of many of the Uyghur men and women we spoke with was that their children will be taken or left behind in the streets without family.

On June 24, 2017, the day Ramadan ended, locals lined up to enter a local theme park in order to celebrate Eid in a small town in Southern Xinjiang.

On June 24, 2017, the day Ramadan ended, locals lined up to enter a local theme park in order to celebrate Eid in a small town in Southern Xinjiang.


Time has slowed during the “People’s War.” In order to move across town or enter a local institution, ranging from gas stations to hospitals, Uyghurs must wait. On busy days, these security checks can add an hour to one’s commute or excursion to the park. Crossing a checkpoint requires that one’s ID be scanned, all bags be inspected, and that the person walk through an X-ray machine. Any sign of abnormality results in additional checks of the person’s phone, interrogations, and possible detention. These checkpoints remind people native to the region that they are always under suspicion of “extremist” beliefs and “terrorist” ideas. Often signs and slogans remind them that all of this is for their protection and well-being.

The mother of small countryside family walks among the fields where the family collects hay for their small farm of cattle and sheep.

The mother of small countryside family walks among the fields where the family collects hay for their small farm of cattle and sheep.

The effects of the “People’s War” has been strongly felt in family life. In many small towns in the Uyghur homeland, one out of every two families is now missing a family member, most of whom are young men. Many of the young men that remain are students or police officers, though increasingly even these affiliations do not provide enough protection.

A seamstress uses the available space under a stairwell at a local bazaar. The client can wait to have the alterations or write down their phone number among those of other clients so she can call when it is complete. 

A seamstress uses the available space under a stairwell at a local bazaar. The client can wait to have the alterations or write down their phone number among those of other clients so she can call when it is complete. 

Some women have been able to escape the poverty of subsistence farming by supplementing their income with skilled labor in the cash economy. Over the duration of “the War,” incomes of Uyghurs have dropped as restrictions of work and travel have intensified and people are detained. At the same time, the need to participate in dance festivals and political celebrations have increased, giving life to some industries while stifling others.

Gulnar (back to viewer) talks with older women working on her family's farm, as they stack hay that is used for their small cattle and sheep farm.

Gulnar (back to viewer) talks with older women working on her family's farm, as they stack hay that is used for their small cattle and sheep farm.

Like many young Uyghurs, Gulnar comes from a family of three siblings. In the past, rural ethnic minorities were permitted to have more than one child, so most Uyghur families had three. This policy has recently been changed to restrict Uyghur family size to two permitted children while Han families are now also permitted to have two children. Most Uyghur families in the countryside can only afford to allow one sibling to finish high school and go to college. Other siblings must remain at home, working to provide for the immediate family. Now with so many men gone, those who have not yet been taken behind “the black gate” (qara derwaza) have been forced to work even harder to simply get by, leaving school aspirations behind.

Gulnar begins to braid her friend’s hair to soothe her crying during a very quiet private conversation in an unfinished room of the family’s house.

Gulnar begins to braid her friend’s hair to soothe her crying during a very quiet private conversation in an unfinished room of the family’s house.

These days, as families live with the anxiety of that accompanies the detention of their sons, husbands, brothers, and fathers, there are many tear-filled conversations among women. Often they find solidarity in working together and sharing each other’s pain.

Gulnar sleeps under the blanket that was made for her by a local boy who has been detained for over 6 months because of questionable material on his cellphone.

Gulnar sleeps under the blanket that was made for her by a local boy who has been detained for over 6 months because of questionable material on his cellphone.

Even though the women who remain free try to comfort each other, they know there is nothing they can do for their loved ones who have been taken. Life goes on, even though people feel as though they are living in a state of emergency. In Gulnar’s case, this means she has to cope with the absence of her boyfriend. Gulnar’s mother has attempted to convince her not to love this young man, not because of his supposed “extremism,” but because he comes from a family that is even poorer than theirs. But the young man was Gulnar’s best friend. She feels that she can stay close to him by holding on to the blanket he made just for her. 

A four-year old Uyghur kisses the image of her father from a DVD of family photographs taken during the previous decade.

A four-year old Uyghur kisses the image of her father from a DVD of family photographs taken during the previous decade.

This young child, a relative of Gulnar’s, has not seen her father for nearly 6 months. He was detained for worshipping at a local mosque. The family has no idea when, or if ever, he will be released. In many cases, the families of the detained or disappeared are not able to visit or contact their loved ones. Often, asking too much about the case can result in additional detentions, since questioning the authorities is seen as a sign of a lack of patriotism and a lack of submission.  

A young Uyghur girl plays a game on her parent’s phone to pass the time in the countryside of Xinjiang. 

A young Uyghur girl plays a game on her parent’s phone to pass the time in the countryside of Xinjiang. 

Many Uyghur children are growing up with the absence of one or more parents or close relatives. If they are able to stay with their families, they are considered “lucky.” All students in the Uyghur homeland now attend schools that are taught in Mandarin. They are regularly asked to report on the activities of their parents by their school teachers. Many parents worry that the next generation of Uyghurs will not be able to speak Uyghur or appreciate Uyghur cultural and religious values. At the same time, the violence these children have experienced has made them deeply aware of the power of the state. Many of them, like their parents, are quite fearful.

Memetjan (a pseudonym) writes in his friends’ names on his wedding invitation. There will be two celebrations hosted by his family: His parents choose the guests for the more formal family celebration, and he chooses the guests for the more informal celebration of dinner, dancing, and singing. 

Memetjan (a pseudonym) writes in his friends’ names on his wedding invitation. There will be two celebrations hosted by his family: His parents choose the guests for the more formal family celebration, and he chooses the guests for the more informal celebration of dinner, dancing, and singing. 

Many young Uyghurs prefer to delay marriage and go to the city as students or as migrant workers. But given the restrictions on travel and the need for more young men to work on farms, many potential students and migrants are forced to redirect their life paths. In Memetjan’s case (pictured above), his parents insisted that he work on the family farm and marry a young woman from their local village. He was forced to break up with his long-term girlfriend, who moved away to pursue opportunities beyond the life of a farmer.

A mother and daughter dance together at Memetjan’s wedding celebration. Generally, men and women do not dance a waltz style dance unless they are related to each other, but now there is also simply an absence of men at many of these events.

A mother and daughter dance together at Memetjan’s wedding celebration. Generally, men and women do not dance a waltz style dance unless they are related to each other, but now there is also simply an absence of men at many of these events.

During the “People’s War,” the state began to monitor Uyghur weddings to make sure they were not too Islamic. Memetjan’s wedding was thus a lavish affair rather than a “simple” ceremony endorsed by more pious Islamic believers. Music and dancing is required by officials who attend and monitor weddings for any signs of “extremist” religiosity. Often, musicians are required to attend multiple weddings each weekend during the summer wedding season to make sure that each wedding meets the standard of the “People’s War.” As young people start their families, the stress of caring for loved ones and providing for one’s family is amplified. Young men like Memetjan must be very careful not to present themselves as suspicious in any way during the regular inspections of their new home by local security forces. They must always participate in the mandatory political education meetings and patriotic dance parties that are held by the local officials. Failure to do so means the loss of all that the two families have sacrificed to bring a young couple together.

In a newly finished house the family built for this occasion, Memetjan shares a bowl of noodles and mutton with his new wife the morning after the final wedding celebration in the countryside of Xinjiang.

In a newly finished house the family built for this occasion, Memetjan shares a bowl of noodles and mutton with his new wife the morning after the final wedding celebration in the countryside of Xinjiang.

Marriages between young Uyghurs in their early twenties are arranged by the two families. Once the terms have been reached between the two families, young couples are permitted to spend several weeks getting to know each other. Marriage is seen as gradual process of building alliances between families. If the marriage is successful, the two families will help each other through economic adversity and political trouble.

After days of celebrations, a Memetjan’s bride is presented with gold jewelry in her husband's home.

After days of celebrations, a Memetjan’s bride is presented with gold jewelry in her husband's home.

Because of “the War,” young people are married in particular ways and times in their lives that are at least in part beyond their choosing. These marriages are also part of Uyghur tradition and a way of reproducing Uyghur sociality in spite of the conditions of the police state.

Still wearing the dress she wore for the wedding that had happened earlier in the day, a woman fills the cattle trough of the family farm.

Still wearing the dress she wore for the wedding that had happened earlier in the day, a woman fills the cattle trough of the family farm.

Despite dominant feelings of fear and loss, Uyghurs still find way to live. Like people everywhere, Uyghurs are resilient. Over the past decades of gradually intensifying cultural dispossession and state domination, they have adapted and found ways to live. For now, those who are free still have their language, their songs, and each other. In their shared precariousness, they find love and comfort even as they lose their rights and their autonomy.



Darren Byler is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Washington. He studies emerging forms of art and politics among Uyghurs and Han in Chinese Central Asia.  For more on his work, visit the digital companion to his dissertation project The Art of Life in Chinese Central Asia.


Eleanor Moseman is a Shanghai-based photographer and storyteller. Her work has been published internationally in PBS Newshour and The Atlantic, and has been featured on Nikon's Learn & Explore website. For more on her work, visit her portfolio.


Uyghur Migrant Life in the City During the “People’s War”

By Darren Byler, with images by Nicola Zolin

This is the first of a two-part series by Darren Byler, who with photographers Nicola Zolin and Eleanor Moseman, powerfully document how the bodies of migrants are marked, just as their communities are erased, in the often unconsidered spaces of China's "People's War on Terror."

In May 2014 the Chinese state declared a “People’s War on Terror.” This war was directed at what was perceived to be the Islamic “extremism” of young Uyghur men and women. Uyghurs are a Turkic Muslim minority group that is indigenous to Chinese Central Asia, or what in colonial terms is referred to as “the New Dominion” (Xinjiang). This vast area of the nation, whose borders stretch from Tibet to Afghanistan to Mongolia, is the source of nearly 20 percent of China’s oil and natural gas. It is also a central node on China’s New Silk Road initiative, which seeks to expand China’s influence throughout Western Asia. Increasingly the eleven million Uyghurs who call the southern part of this region their homeland are seen as an obstacle in China’s vision of the future.

The new “People’s War” was a response to forms of Uyghur resistance to the Chinese state. Some of these acts of resistance were violent attacks on police and Han settlers, but the vast majority were simply protests over land-seizures, discrimination, arrests without due-process and police shootings. Before the “war” began, one of the primary ways that young Uyghurs resisted the increasing control of the state was by moving. Hundreds of thousands left their rural villages where policing is very intense and job opportunities are rare. They came to the capital city of the region, Ürümchi, in search of urban freedom and the promise of a better life.

When the new “war” was introduced the freedom that the city seemed to promise began to disappear. Below are a series of images by the photojournalist Nicola Zolin when he visited me during my long-term fieldwork on migrant life in the city from 2014 to 2015. These images demonstrate that the “war” was manifested in multiple ways. It produced a sharp rise in securitization and, in turn, it began to mark the bodies of Uyghur migrants. It accelerated the erasure of Uyghur communities across the city and increased the precariousness of the Uyghur economic stability. At the same time, it allowed Han economic investment in the city to continue, further solidifying the region as a center of the Chinese political economy.


Short-circuit video cameras in the Uyghur districts of the city

Short-circuit video cameras in the Uyghur districts of the city

Even before the “war” was implemented, hundreds of thousands of short-circuit cameras were installed throughout the Uyghur sections of the city. Dozens of police officers manned control centers where they began to observe the movements of young, rural-origin Uyghurs. They became a major source of information for the state as it began to implement the policies of the “war.”


An armored police vehicle at the main train station of Ürümchi.

An armored police vehicle at the main train station of Ürümchi.

The military police were also deployed in key transportation sites, assuring the Han settler population that business would be allowed to continue as normal and increasing levels of fear among the Uyghur population of the city.


Signs posted throughout Uyghur sections of the city.

Signs posted throughout Uyghur sections of the city.

In September 2015 posters appeared throughout the Uyghur section of the city legislating the type of clothing and personal appearance that was permitted by the state. All signs of reformist religious practices were outlawed. The posters also described the sorts of rewards that were given to Uyghurs who assisted the police in arresting religious “extremists.”


The rubble of Uyghur migrant housing surrounds a neighborhood mosque.

The rubble of Uyghur migrant housing surrounds a neighborhood mosque.

The new “war” also accelerated urban cleansing projects that targeted Uyghur informal settlements throughout the Uyghur sections of the city. As a result of these projects and a new racialized passbook system (bianminka), hundreds of thousands of Uyghur migrants without legal support were forced to leave the city and return to their rural villages. When they returned to the countryside many of them were arrested under the suspicion that they had practiced forms of “extremist” Islam in the city.


An older Uyghur man and young children.

An older Uyghur man and young children.

As a result of these processes, fewer and fewer young Uyghurs from the countryside remained on the streets. In their place, grandparents and children populated the streets. Only Uyghurs who had legal support were able to continue to live without fear of expulsion and arrest in the city.


Uyghur men gather to pray on a Friday in 2014.

Uyghur men gather to pray on a Friday in 2014.

Over time, popular religious practice of pious forms of Islam were outlawed and replaced with calls to patriotism, celebrations of the Chinese flag and adulation of the current Chinese president Xi Jinping. As of the summer of 2017, the central Uyghur mosque pictured above began to feature a prominent Chinese flag.


Uyghur young men cross the street in front of limousine that is used in marriage celebrations and other social events.

Uyghur young men cross the street in front of limousine that is used in marriage celebrations and other social events.

As a result of the “People’s War on Terror,” many young Uyghurs with rural backgrounds came to experience urban life as a kind of life on the run. They were forced to constantly dodge police checkpoints where their IDs and passbooks were examined and their phones searched for all types of religious messages. At the same time, the capitalist development of the province continued unchecked. Although, many Han inhabitants of the city also complained about the presence of the police, many Han citizens continued to find high-paying, stable jobs with the support of the Chinese state. Han citizens were inconvenienced by the rise in policing, but Uyghur migrants bore the brunt of new restrictions and institutionalized discrimination


Uyghur and Han shoppers at the local Carrefour supermarket.

Uyghur and Han shoppers at the local Carrefour supermarket.

Uyghur migrants were increasingly forced to participate in the Chinese commercial economy as opportunities for Uyghurs to buy and sell locally-produced halal products were increasingly restricted by the state. The dramatic inflation of basic staples that has resulted from the arrival of Han settlers that are supported by direct investment from the state and the revenue generated by oil and natural gas production, meant that many underemployed Uyghurs began to struggle to put bread on the table and pay for the cost of housing.


An older Uyghur woman warms her hands over a coal fire.

An older Uyghur woman warms her hands over a coal fire.

Many rural origin Uyghurs attempted to get by within the cash economy by selling products on the streets without vender permits. They learned to be mobile and dodge police patrolling the streets.


A young Uyghur restaurant worker roasts meat over an open fire.

A young Uyghur restaurant worker roasts meat over an open fire.

Young, low-income Uyghur migrants often attempted to find service sector jobs that gave them legal protection against expulsion. But these positions were also precarious as the state began attempting to arrest all Uyghurs who had practiced any unapproved forms of Islam over the past decade. Any Uyghur who was accused of praying five times per day, studying the Quran in an unapproved study group, listening to unapproved Islamic teachings, or studying Arabic was subject to indefinite detention. Often employers and coworkers were asked to expose those who they suspected of practicing unapproved forms of Islam.   


Newly built freeways in the city.

Newly built freeways in the city.

At the same time, the city continued to expand and grow. New high-rise buildings were under construction and high-speed infrastructure projects were built at break-neck speed. Although some of the new commodity housing remained unoccupied, many wealthy Han settlers from the Eastern Regions of the country continued to invest in the region. They often saw it as a site of expansion of Chinese economic power. For many Han, the sense of threat they feel from Uyghur resistance was softened by the assurance they felt from the Chinese police and military presence.


A Uyghur young man walks by a government sponsored sign promoting Xinjiang economic development.

A Uyghur young man walks by a government sponsored sign promoting Xinjiang economic development.

For many Chinese citizens, Chinese Central Asia is thought of as an inalienable part of China. Classical Chinese novels such as Journey to the West and standard education texts describe the region as a historical part of the nation; the landscape is well-within the boundaries of their national “imagined community.” In popular culture, the region is often represented as a site of indescribable natural beauty, and the Uyghur inhabitants of the region are described as uncivilized and dangerous. Because of this perception of Uyghur “savagery,” many Chinese citizens whole-heartedly support the “People’s War on Terror” in which the state is attempting to eliminate much of Uyghur society through a human re-engineering project. In this way, the conquest of the Uyghur homeland is turned into an essential part of China’s New Silk Road – a way of connecting Han settlers with new markets, new resources and a larger presence on the world stage.

To read the second post in the series: Love and Fear among Rural Uyghur Youth during the “People’s War.”

Darren Byler is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Washington. He studies emerging forms of art and politics among Uyghurs and Han in Chinese Central Asia.  For more on his work, visit the digital companion to his dissertation project The Art of Life in Chinese Central Asia.

Nicola Zolin is a photojournalist and writer interested in the social and environmental transformations at the borders of Europe, Middle East and Asia. He is currently based between Rome and Athens. Visit his portfolio here.

The RAISE Act Undermines American Values

by Anita Maddali

On August 2, 2017, President Trump endorsed the RAISE Act, which he claimed and the bill's co-sponsors claimed would simultaneously lower the number of immigrant admissions and attract immigrants with more “skills.” The RAISE Act would admit fewer refugees, end the diversity lottery program, and drastically cut the family-based system. While U.S. Immigration Law has been structured to set parameters around who may and may not enter (exclusion/inadmissibility) and who is allowed to remain (deportation/removal), it has recognized family integrity as a key component of a just immigration system.  This Act strikes at the very heart of this central tenant of our nation’s immigration law. 

The Act will certainly face fierce opposition with some objecting that it’s racially motivated and others asserting that a reduction in immigration would have a negative economic impact, but one aspect that will likely not get much attention is its utter devaluation of family.  The often-unchallenged narrative is that family reunification merely benefits immigrants, but is a drain on the economy of the United States, in a way that highly-skilled workers are not. This narrative is both inaccurate and harmful.

Historical Underpinnings

Fifty-two years ago, on October 3, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act, abolishing the long-standing, national-origin quota system and laying the foundation of our present immigration laws – family integrity.

The national-origin system, the law of the land since 1924, restricted migration from Southern and Eastern Europe. The large numbers of Italians and Eastern Europeans entering the United States in the early 1900s were considered racially undesirable.i Congress cut migration from this region to “confine immigration as much as possible to western and northern European stock.”ii By 1965, many viewed this law as discriminatory and argued that it arbitrarily separated families. Senator Robert Kennedy stated:

“One of the primary purposes of civilization – and certainly its primary strength – is the guarantee that family life can flourish in unity, peace, and order.  But the current national origins system separates families coldly and arbitrarily.  It keeps parents from children and brothers from sisters for years – and even decades.” iii

Ironically, those who supported national-origin quotas endorsed the family-based system, believing that “chain migration” would ensure that the country would still maintain the same racial (at least European) demographic. That plan backfired because European migration slowed, while migration from other parts of the world (Asia and Africa, in particular) grew.iv

Yet, family unity as the cornerstone of our immigration system has been diminishing since long before the RAISE Act, especially for certain families, namely from Latin America and from oversubscribed countries outside of Latin America. In recent years, long wait times – sometimes twenty or more years – have meant that many families face lengthy separations. Ever-increasing immigration penalties and enforcement have left families torn apart, in ways they could not have been previously. And though the 1965 legislation opened the door for a more inclusive immigration policy, a cap placed on migration from the Western Hemisphere, which had not been subject to the quota system, and the abolishment of the Bracero Program (a program which brought guest workers from Mexico) in 1964 restricted legal avenues to immigrate for those closest to our border.  For so many, there was, and continues to be, no “line” to wait in.

Fallacies of Family-Based Immigration

To accentuate only family unity, however, ignores the benefits that the U.S. labor market derives from family-based immigration. Those coming through the family-based system meet labor needs in a more flexible way than employment-based immigrants. And women in particular are responsible for many of these contributions.  The majority of women immigrating to the United States come through the family-based system and not the employment-based system, filling important needs in our workforce.  Though the RAISE Act completely devalues their economic contributions, immigrant women frequently perform some of the most in-demand jobs – care work. Experts predict increasing shortages of caregivers who can meet the needs of the growing aging population in the United States. Much of this labor is provided by immigrants. The US economy has labor needs that immigrants, including family-based immigrants, meet, which benefits our society, even if the RAISE Act’s sponsors are unaware of it or, more likely, all too keenly aware of it.

The RAISE Act is reminiscent of earlier restrictionist views that saw immigrants as an economic and cultural threat. President Trump noted that dismantling the family-based system would end “chain migration.” Like a century ago, underlying this desire is racial animus, disguised using neutral terms like “merit-based” and “highly-skilled” workers.  It has little to do with attracting more skilled labor because the legislation does not seek to  increase the number of skilled immigrants already admitted each year under the current employment-based system.

President Trump's claim that the RAISE Act will “ensure that newcomers to our wonderful country will be assimilated,” outright ignores that assimilation requires a society that supports and values immigrants. Moreover, a family-based immigration system recognizes that living with family facilitates integration, not living in fear that your family may be torn apart.

In 1965, Anthony J. Celebreeze, the Secretary of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, said, “[t]here could be no more visible demonstration of our commitment to the ideals of individual worth, or of our recognition of the importance of the human values of the family, than a just and equitable immigration policy.”v The RAISE Act is the antithesis of a just and equitable immigration policy. We should not forget the origins of our family-based system, nor the values it sought to uphold.

To read further about family reunification under Immigration Law, see Left Behind: The Dying Principle of Family Reunification Under Immigration Law.

Anita Ortiz Maddali is the Director of Clinics and Associate Professor of Law at the Northern Illinois University College of Law.  She writes about and teaches immigration law.  Prior to coming to NIU, she represented women and children seeking asylum in the United States. She is a graduate of Northwestern University School of Law.

i Ian Haney Lopez, White by Law: The Legal Construction of Race (1996).

ii Id.

iii Testimony of Robert Kennedy, House of Representatives Subcommittee Hearings, at 411 (June 30, 1964).

iv Tom Gjelten, A Nation of Nations: A Great American Immigration Story 91 (2015).

v Statement of Hon. Anthony J. Celebreeze, House of Representatives Subcommittee Hearings at 334 (March 11, 1964).

From Mogadishu to Istanbul: An auto-ethnography on childhood, migration and education

By Eda Elif Tibet

Prior to a radio broadcast, I asked youth residing in a shelter for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in Turkey to draw his dream of an ideal life. Showing them the outline of a world map with no country names and no borders, I asked them to draw their dreams of living any place they wanted. Below is an excerpt from my conversation with Caadil.

Elif:          Caadil, could you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Caadil:     My name is Caadil, I am from Somalia. I came in 2012 into Turkey. I am living in Istanbul and I am a student. Would this be enough?

Elif:          Sure, thank you. Today, I asked Caadil to draw his dream. Could you tell us something about what you drew?

Caadil:     I draw something like this; far away, there is an island. I have a small boat, a small house, and I have a beautiful tree. I have some vegetables and then there is a flag that will bring peace to my island. The world is truly an annoying place; therefore, this is the picture of someone who wants to stay on his own, someone who wants to be left alone.

Elif:          Caadil, most of the times, I too feel the same way as you do—how much I wish to be away from the maddening crowd. But what about friends? Don’t you have friends that are dear to you at your high school, for instance?

Caadil:     Yes, I have some very good friends. Sometimes they ask me questions like, what kind of animal would you be if you were one? And I tell them that I would have liked to be a butterfly. I could have lived only for a day and then die. They only live for 18 hours. Then they ask me, but why? And I tell them that I want to stay away from the world. I want to get lost but I am joking; it’s not real. I actually don’t want to be anyone or anything, and I also don’t want to die too early.


During the activity, Caadil receives a phone call from his mother. By the time he ends his prolonged conversation with her, Caadil walks towards the world map hung on the wall. Spotting his hometown in Somalia, he begins to recount his migration story with great fluidity.

Al-Shabaab has killed my father during the civil war. My mother took all of us [two sisters and two brothers] and we escaped up north. My mother still lives together with my sisters that are about to finish high school there. It would be very hard for them to continue university, as it is extremely expensive. So, my mother sold her farmlands, and paid to the smugglers to take us out from Somalia. But only for me and my one year elder brother. The girls, she told me, that will stay with her. She told us that we could have built a better future for ourselves if we decide to leave but if we were to stay it was very likely that the murderers of our father would come after us too.

“We followed a group of twenty people that were leaded by a man who knew the roads very well.  We firstly went to the Emirates, we spent some time there close to Dubai and then we crossed to Damascus in Syria in 2012, which we found ourselves once again in the middle of the war. We were locked in a house in a single room with nearly thirty people and we did not see the sun light nearly for six months. I was nearly suffocating at some point, and not wanting to wait for more, a few of us separated from the bigger group and continued. We walked during the night and hid during the days. We luckily managed to find all our way to Istanbul, in which we have spent a month staying in a room in Aksaray. 

“As our money finished and the smuggler did not hold his promise to take us to Norway. We found ourselves stuck in Istanbul and not able to pay for the rent. While we were in great destitution a friendly old black man came, and informed us about UNHCR. He told us about our rights to apply for asylum. We had no other option but to try. He took us to the police, and the police took us to UNHCR, they firstly took us to a hotel, they listened to our story and then sent us to the shelter Istanbul. Can you imagine? We were only 13 and 14 years old when we were crossing these roads. We had to go through a lot; we had to endure all of it.”

Conducting a radio programme with youth enabled young refugees to narrate their own stories by participating as researchers, ethnographers, presenters, scriptwriters, performers, artists, interviewers, producers, sound engineers, and content makers; the roles depended on their choices and at spaces also outside the radio room in the streets of Istanbul.[1] For example, Caadil leveraged his interest in cameras and visual and sociological studies, creativity contributing to the project while also honing professional skills he saw as important to accessing higher education later in life. Other young people were also attracted to expressing their experiences through their own lenses becoming ethnographers of their own lives (Oester & Brunner, 2015). I secured four second hand digital SLR cameras that youth utilized—both alone and collaboratively—discovering their own worlds at any time they wished.

In the vein of Paulo Freire’s ‘hinged themes’, the stories youth produced illustrated the relations between the general programme content of the radio show and their own worldviews (Freire, 1972: 92). According to Freire, such participatory learning processes address oppression, as the oppressed themselves advance and actualize a pedagogy of their own liberation (Freire, 1972).  The researcher becomes the learner who must cast off assumptions and expectations and remain open to new approaches and possibilities that emerge. Through this collaborative approach, notions of authority are flattened, creating space for youth to develop their own narratives on their own terms.

Caadil’s photographs revealed the deep sadness resulting from forced migration. His keen interest in discussing his photographs animated our radio sessions. As Harper (2002: 23) describes: “Photographs appear to capture the impossible: a person gone; an event past. That extraordinary sense of seeming to retrieve something that has disappeared belongs alone to the photograph, and it leads to deep and interesting talk.” For Caadil, he unconsciously produced photographs that were inspired by his past memories. As he explored his surroundings, he produced aesthetically provocative photographs while simultaneously discovering his inner-world marked by existential questions about life, childhood, and belonging. His photographs were phenomenologically experienced, insightful and also self-reflective.

Below are some examples of Caadil’s photographs and the meanings he assigns to them.


Uprooted. Photo credits: Caadil.

Uprooted. Photo credits: Caadil.

“Can a tree ever give up on his roots? If it does, it can’t drink water anymore; it will die. I wonder sometimes: Why did my mother send us away? Why did not all of us live in another village? I could have built a hut from wood for all of us, next to the sea. I could have made a boat and fish for all my family; we could even open a restaurant. Maybe we wouldn't earn that much but we wouldn't go hungry; I am sure about that. But perhaps the rebels would have found us there too, and we would have had to leave everything behind once again, and we would have to live running away all the time, like a fugitive, so I suppose my mother must have known something that we did not understand at that time. Otherwise why would she send us so far away? I ask this question all the time to myself, and sometimes I just cannot sleep, thinking all about the ifs: What if we stayed? What if we never migrated? How would have life been, back there?”


These trains go nowhere. Photo credits: Caadil.

These trains go nowhere. Photo credits: Caadil.

“While we are dying, people are only watching. And we are watching for these trains leaving, but we are never the real passengers, as when it comes to us, these trains go nowhere.”

For Caadil, staying in Turkey is a temporary phase. He mentions that it is impossible for him to see a future where he will not have the same rights and opportunities as the citizens of Turkey. He says he will lose his mind. Without the right to work, it would be virtually impossible to earn a living on his own. He also described that not being able to travel is particularly terrible; when he dreams, he recounts, his dreams are about exploring and discovering different cultures and tastes, particularly visiting Iran of which Ali has a great interest in its people and culture. Without travel, he would suffer.


Catastrophe on the sea. Photo credits: Caadil.

Catastrophe on the sea. Photo credits: Caadil.

“There is no such thing as preferring to stay in Turkey. Everyone wants to go, because we have no rights and opportunities here. We, the ones who stay here, are either still waiting to leave or actually have failed many times going to Europe. Some of my friends were nearly drowned in the Mediterranean. It is a true catastrophe in the sea.”


“When every day is the same”. Photo credits: Caadil.

“When every day is the same”. Photo credits: Caadil.

After becoming more self-aware of who he is, where he is now, and where he is leading to, this time he turns his lens to his friends and tries understanding the other minors that share similar contexts with him. The photograph “When every day is the same” is of his best friend from Afghanistan. “Unfortunately he is depressed most of the times. He sleeps a lot, and I try to cheer him up,” Caadil explains. “You know, we are like brothers, he is much closer to me then a brother in fact.”

“When I was 14, in my earliest days in [the shelter], there was an Iranian boy. He was small and had a pretty face. Afghans in the dorm, bullied him all the time. They were so mean to him. I always tried protecting and saving him from their hands.  Later on, as I started to speak their language, I made a really good friend among the Afghans. He was not treating anyone badly; he told me that he too was bullied during his entire life. But not by the Afghans, by Iranians back in Tehran. He told me that at school he was like an invisible. No one talked to him; no one wanted to be friends with him. Even if he studied till the last grade, he was not able to receive a diploma because of his status (he was an undocumented Afghan born and raised in Iran). But, Afghans and Iranians never had a war. The Hazaras even speak the same language. How is it possible that in schools Iranians and Afghans never talk to each other, they do not build relationships, as if Afghans do not exist? How is this possible and why? Since 95% of the Afghans I met here come from Iran, they all tell me how awful their lives were in Iran how they did not have the opportunity to study and those schooled were simply invisible in their classes. I want to understand why. For instance, in Ethiopia there are many Somalis living by and they are able to live like locals, but why is life simply not possible for the Afghans in Iran?”

Caadil asks important questions about discrimination and the challenges of integration; moreover, he offers insight into ethnic segregation towards Afghans in Iranian schools. He is prompted to find answers and solutions to his friend’s case, a friend who was struggling with the mundane and impermanent state of the everyday life and therefore was depressed. Despite sharing similar anxieties about the uncertainties they experience, Caadil mentions how learning is the most important thing for him: “Although I want to be spared from the world, I still need to know what is going on, not only to survive, but I need to be able to understand why things are the way they are. I need to remain awaken. I need to understand the world.”


“No education, no safety”. Photo credits: Caadil.

“No education, no safety”. Photo credits: Caadil.

“Many of my Afghan brothers are working in the construction sites here in Istanbul. They did the same back in Iran or also in Pakistan I heard. For me it is obvious, if you don’t get education this is the only option for you. And as you can see in this image, this man works without a helmet. He is on the top floor and the wooden structure that he stands on looks very fragile. It is also interesting, you see it looks as if there is a cross on him, it is as if giving us a message: don't work this way, you are not safe.”

Here, Caadil links education to safety. If one can access education, there are more possibilities for a safer future. Caadil is only one of the few who managed to access education, in part, due to his aptitude in photography. For many unaccompanied youth in Turkey, there are considerable barriers to accessing and remaining in college, barriers that many unaccompanied youth asylum seekers cannot overcome.

Postscript: Given his talents, Caadil applied to the photograph and video department at a private prominent university in Istanbul with his photography project “Childhood and Migration” that he developed our workshops together. Caadil’s was awarded a full college scholarship; however, following a failed coup attempt in Turkey in July of 2016, the education system entered a crisis, with cuts to foreign student scholarships, including Caadil’s. With considerable advocacy on his behalf, Caadil was offered a 50% scholarship with ongoing efforts to fundraise the remaining fees and tuition. Given that less then 1% of the world’s refugee population have access to higher education, Caadil’s success is remarkable. If you would like to support his education, please see our crowdfunding campaign. For further enquiries, please contact

About the Author: Eda Elif Tibet is a doctoral candidate in Social Anthropology at the University of Bern and a Research Assistant at Pädagogische Hochschule PHBern. This paper is part of an ongoing doctoral dissertation, a joint collaboration between the University of Bern’s Social Anthropology department and the University of Teacher Education, PHBern, entitled “Transnational Biographies of Education: Young Unaccompanied Asylum Seekers and their Navigation through Shifting Social Realities in Switzerland and Turkey” funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation.  The study is supervised by Prof. Dr. Sabine Strasser and Prof. Dr. Kathrin Oester, realized by Dr. Annika Lems in Switzerland, and Eda Elif Tibet in Turkey.

To learn more about this project, visit and read: E.E.Tibet. (forthcoming, 2017) “Learning as Agency: Strategies of Survival among the Somali Unaccompanied Minor Asylum Seekers in Turkey” in Handbook on Migration and Childhood. Edited by Jacqueline Bhabha, Daniel Senovilla Hernandez, Jyothi Kanics). UK: Elgar Publishing.


Aunger, R. (1995) On Ethnography: Storytelling or Science? Current anthropology. Special Issue: Ethnographic Authority and Cultural Explanation 36(1): 97-130.

Escueta, M. and S. Butterwick (2012). The power of popular education and visual arts for trauma survivors’ critical consciousness and collective action. International Journal of Lifelong Education 31(3): 325-340.

Freire, P. (1972) Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Penguin Books.

Harper, D. (2002) Talking about pictures: a case for photo elicitation. Visual Studies 17(1): 13-26.

Oester, K. and Brunner, B. (2015) Jean Rouch Back in School Teaching and Research as a Parallel Process through Media Projects with Adolescents in Switzerland. Visual Ethnography 4(1): 5-23

UNICEF (2011) “How to make your own radio shows: Youth Radio Toolkit” in collaboration with Children Radio Foundation.

[1] How to make your own radio shows: Youth Radio Toolkit (UNICEF 2011)




Border to Border: The south takes me back north

In these times, when migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers face an increasing hostile social and political environment here and around the world, we must have ongoing exchanges on how we contribute to the exclusion of others.


By Nancy Landa

¿K'uxi elan avo'onton? is an expression used to greet someone in Tzotzil, one of the indigenous languages spoken in the Highlands of Chiapas.  My Tzotzil colleagues explained to me that its literal translation means “How is your heart doing?” It struck me as one of the most beautiful expressions I had ever heard. I did not manage to pronounce it correctly in my time there, but I was still filled with joy each time someone would respond, “Lek oy” – “very well”. As I learned, this was more than just a question in a different language. Indeed, the expression represents an alternative way of thinking. It counteracts the superficiality many of us have grown accustomed to when someone asks “How are you?” and to which we generally respond with “fine,” as if on autopilot.  

Photo courtesy of Nancy Landa

Photo courtesy of Nancy Landa

The question ¿K'uxi elan avo'onton? invites us to reflect from the heart, because we are not only able to feel from the heart, we can also think from the heart. To respond honestly, I had to turn to that part of my inner self that I had neglected for so long—it was better to ignore the pain caused by the displacement I had endured throughout most of my life as a migrant. This question became an introspective process, one that made me realize I was unsure about how my heart was doing, or whether it was still intact. Had my heart really returned with me to Mexico or had a part of it stayed in Los Angeles, the place where I lived 20 years of my life before deportation?

The heart wants what it wants: Belonging schizophrenia

Despite my past, I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to experience life in environments that reconnected me to my roots and humble upbringing. I was born into a poor family. My parents came from rural towns with hardly any schooling, but they were hardworking people. When my time came to relocate for work and moved to Chiapas, a state with the highest rates of poverty in Mexico, I could see the similarities between it and my childhood home in Naulcapan, a municipality located in the State of Mexico. It was not foreign to me to live in towns that lacked sewer systems, or in a house with walls made of bricks and a roof laminated with thick carbon paper—the kind that would slowly start to fall apart and collapse during a hailstorm. Of course, the poverty and social exclusion from where I came was different from the kind that indigenous families in Chiapas endure. I never had to walk more than two hours to school. I never had to drop out of school to start working in the fields to support my family.

Returning to what resembled my pre-migration life was the consequence of being uprooted from my adopted country. Of all the places I have lived post-deportation, I have not found one that feels like home. Despite the encouraging words of friends who say, “welcome to your country,” or “welcome home,” my heart knows: I am not home.

In the past seven years, I have lived in seven cities and three countries, places where I have felt a kind of belonging schizophrenia. Part of me wants to belong, but another fails to do so. Even with the support networks and friends I have made, I can’t entertain the idea of living in any of those places for the rest of my life. I manage to physically move into each new space, but my emotional self never fully occupies it. What is the point of decorating my new “home” if the displacement I carry with me continues to persist? Could I ever attach myself to a place the way I did as an L.A. transplant?

These contradictory emotions forced me to admit there is something wrong with my heart. Even with the passage of time, the scars and the pain are still there. I am not the same person after undergoing the dehumanization of deportation, something only those who have experienced it can understand. At this point, I can only ponder what will make my heart whole again. The answer has yet to reveal itself; hopefully at some point I will know. In the meantime, my heart urges me to keep looking—and not only for a sense of home, but also a political family to which to belong. Finding the latter proves just as difficult.

Searching for home in “advocacy”

The moment in which I came out of the shadows of deportation also marked the start of my search for a place to belong in advocacy. The trigger for my post-deportation activist trajectory was the announcement of the DACA program by the former President Barack Obama in 2012. It began as a hopeful journey, but soon enough I experienced the invisibility that arises when social movements also reproduce the oppression they denounce.

The immigrant rights discourse has created a hierarchy among us, selecting which migrants are “worthy” and deserve to be included, and who should be left out. In the U.S., those of us who have been deported belong in the latter category. In Mexico, we have been similarly ignored. It was not until recently that the political elite have begun to discuss return migration, in great part due to Donald Trump’s antagonism towards Mexico. Still, few have meaningfully discussed the deportations occurring during prior administrations, including Obama’s record-setting removals and the criminalization of immigrants as a result of the 1996 legislative changes to INA that took effect under Bill Clinton.

It has become more convenient for the Mexican government to seek the attention of those belonging to the “good immigrant” category. Following the initiation of DACA, the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Relations, Senators, universities, and high-level policy makers invited DACA Dreamer groups to (re)discover their cultural roots via tours of iconic places in Mexico City and the ancient Aztec ruins of Teotihuacan. Political actors attempted to convince us that they supported Mexican immigrants here and abroad. Yet, these educational trips designed to reconnect Dreamers were simply a public relations tool.

Dreamer tourism, as we termed it, has continued to grow over the past couple years. At the same time, there is no real interest in giving the “unwanted” deportee a platform to demand a dignified reinsertion in Mexico. Additionally, and in contrast to our U.S. immigrant counterparts, we don’t have a return ticket to the United States—not even a tourist visa to visit our former homes, the places and people we left behind. Having presented to these Dreamer delegations, I am left with a clear view of the many asymmetries that exist between us. They are platforms that lack the conditions for genuine dialogue about our struggles. And on the occasions when we have raised such concerns, we just become a nuisance: to the government institutions that sponsor the trips, to the nonprofit organizations that welcome such efforts, and to the activist DACA Dreamers who fail to see how they have legitimated our exclusion by accepting a reconnection with their “México lindo y querido”, the beloved Mexico to which they make no indication they would want to return permanently.

In these times, when migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers face an increasing hostile social and political environment here and around the world, we must have ongoing exchanges on how we contribute to the exclusion of others who are below us on the ladder of oppression. This is the introspection I find missing in U.S. immigrant advocacy movements—movements that understand social inclusion as stopping deportations, and that fail to consider the dark abyss one falls into after deportation.

If advocates measured their effectiveness based on reality, they would realize this failure is profoundly consequential. The culprits here are still anti-immigrant policies based in ignorance and xenophobia. And yet, immigrant activists must be accountable for not creating advocacy strategies that respond to the multidimensional and unjust realities created by deportations. This includes (1) family separation, where U.S. children are stripped away of their parents or forced to leave their U.S. homes to reunite with deported family members; (2) harsh treatment and penalties for deported immigrants, including re-entry bans; and (3) lack of reception programs to integrate deportees in the education system or the labor market in the countries receiving them.

These issues are just the tip of the deportation iceberg. Rather than yet another request to include “my story” in someone else’s research or advocacy campaign, I search for collaborations or co-creative efforts to unite our interconnected fights and struggles, not to be “educated” on my own intimate experiences of deportation, long before Trump assumed power.

I’m left asking: Does social justice have a time limit or does it expire under “new” political realities? Will deportations prior to Trump take a back seat to the somehow more “urgent” situation under the current administration? So long as new movements answer these questions affirmatively, then there is a dire need for a new paradigm for immigrant activism. We must learn to speak of struggles in ways that do not re-victimize those who have suffered or to render them invisible by privileging the “good immigrant” narratives.

Heading north to reclaim my own fight

Today, I am back in Tijuana—and this time by choice. After years of chronic emotional burnout aggravated by those internal battles I had not anticipated, I am stronger. In the southern region of Mexico, I learned that there is an alternative perspective to activism—one that is designed from a collaborative and participatory approach. This work creates spaces of dialogue and reflection where migrants are the migration experts, the protagonists in all processes and organizing work. We are not just research subjects to be studied, or whose stories should be collected.

This takes decades to master, and in no way have I reached competency in it. At the same time, I am encouraged to engage on initiatives created by migrants, for migrants, and am filled with a sense of responsibility and the urgency as when I first started this journey. Seven years ago, it would have been impossible to engage in this type of work: I was putting back together the pieces of a shattered life. Yet the south has reenergized me to reclaim my own fight back north. You can’t be in a place like Chiapas, one that embodies the resistance of the country, without it changing you in some way. So, what comes next?

In 2009, the year of my deportation, there were between 300 to 400 of us arriving every day in Tijuana.[i] Today, that figure is slightly over a quarter of such deportation levels, with nearly 100 deportees arriving daily. With the anticipation of the continued expulsion of Mexicans from the U.S., there is still much work ahead.

The needs and demands of deportees: From reinsertion to family reunification

Photo Courtesy of Nancy Landa

Photo Courtesy of Nancy Landa

People often ask how they can support the cause south of the border. Just as I’ve struggled to find a home for my cause, I always struggle to provide concrete actions. I have come across many organizations that are doing important humanitarian work in Tijuana. Here, many nonprofits such as Desayunador Padre Chava, Casa del Migrante, Insituto Madre Asunta, and The Salvation Army focus on providing immediate food and shelter. There are also emerging youth-led organizations like Espacio Migrante and countless other churches and individuals who helped when thousands of Haitians and Africans were in limbo and looking for refuge. And most importantly, migrant-led organizations like Unified U.S. Deported Veterans, Deported Veterans Support House, and Dreamers Moms USA/Tijuana have also gained presence and visibility. This is by no means an exhaustive list. I certainly hope all continue to grow as sustainable organizations along with other up-and-coming efforts.

However, there is a lack of programs aimed at the mid- and long-term integration of returning migrants and families. Although many of us have developed survival strategies to rebuild our lives, there is still a need to support others who face obstacles such as obtaining identity documents, continuing their education or finding work. These challenges also require political advocacy, as local and federal government agencies must address the structural barriers that hinder reintegration.

An important demand from migrant-led efforts is family reunification—an opportunity to return to homes, communities, and family in the U.S. Given the current U.S. president’s fixation on a “big, beautiful wall,” this sounds like a fantasy. Yet, we believe, more than ever, that supporting projects that create bridges between nations rather than walls are imperative. This is what inspired Friends of Friendship Park to launch a petition last year to garner support to ask San Diego Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) to create a binational park, a border space where transnational families to meet and hug. Currently, CBP only allows five families to meet for 30 minutes once a year. It is an effort that remains at a standstill as CBP has yet to respond to the request. However, binational families and allies are committed to counteract the politics of separation. Perhaps having a region without borders, for now, it is just a utopian dream. But in my heart, I know that our sense of family, home and belonging will not be dictated by the physical and emotional borders placed upon us.

Families Reunite At U.S.-Mexico Border At Friendship Park

Nancy Landa is a migration scholar, activist, writer and translator. She writes on transborder activism, her experience of being a deportee under the Obama administration, and the social injustices migrants face due to the increasingly restrictive immigration policies in the Americas and beyond. To follow Nancy and projects she is currently working on, visit her bilingual blog at Mundo Citizen and via Facebook or Twitter.

[i] Personal interview, Mexican immigration authorities (INM), Tijuana, 2016.

Threatening Parents?: What DHS Policies Remind Us About Unaccompanied Youth

by Michele Statz and Lauren Heidbrink

Migrant youth in the U.S. encounter competing media and institutional discourses that cast them as delinquents, ideal victims, or economic actors (See Heidbrink 2014; Statz 2016). Youth Circulations is largely devoted to the politics of these impossible representations.

What is often less considered is how the parents of young people are implicated in such narrations. In many ways, this is a more subtle though surely consequential process, with family members pathologized as neglectful, violent, poor, or otherwise deficient for presumably “sending” or being complicit in youths’ migration journeys. As our work reveals, these discourses are prevalent in legal accounts, popular portrayals, and migration studies scholarship. By implicitly dismissing the ongoing transnational connectedness of “unaccompanied” youth, they contort and fracture valued intimate relationships over time.

While notably not new and perhaps not surprising, we now see the demonization of young migrants’ parents as overt policy and practice in the U.S.

This past February, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary John Kelly signed a memo promising to penalize anyone who paid smugglers to bring a child across the border. In it, “parents and family members” are explicitly identified as subject to prosecution if they have paid to have their children brought into the U.S.

Contrastingly characterized by immigration advocates as the “cruel and morally outrageous” rounding up of parents and by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials as a “humanitarian effort” to target human smugglers, arrests began in earnest this month. As The New York Times reported, parents or relatives who have taken in unauthorized children may face criminal smuggling-related charges and prison time; others will be placed in deportation along with children.

Significantly, these discourses and policies reflect broader and well-worn global trends. In response to an influx of unaccompanied children to the U.S. in 2014, for example, a series of public service announcements (PSAs) were broadcast throughout Central America. The PSA featured here warns parents: ‘The desert is merciless and deadly and doesn’t distinguish between children and adults. Don’t send your children to the United States. Search for the Guatemalan Dream. Letting them go is letting them die.’ Alongside UNICEF’s roll-out of parenting classes to ‘educate’ parents on the dangers of irregular migration, these PSAs depict children as passively acquiescing to parental decision-making. They likewise implicate parents as ‘bad actors’ or, worse, smugglers and traffickers. Central American legislatures seized these narratives, proposing to heavily fine parents whose children arrived unaccompanied in the U.S. These are policies that 45 seeks to replicate.

Amidst powerful and necessary resistance to these practices, our response is at once a reminder and a challenge. In its hasty and insidious attention to the parents and family members of unaccompanied youth, ICE has indirectly reaffirmed that these young migrants are indeed never really “unaccompanied.” Rather, they are members of extensive social and kinship networks, networks that support young migrants even as they are susceptible to unrelenting enforcement efforts that indiscriminately target children and youth. Just as these policies renew the pressure experienced by legal advocates--namely to petition for legal relief before the basis of children’s claims shift underfoot--they too demand that scholars take on a more urgent, critical, and applied understanding of global youth and their families.

For additional reading: Heidbrink, L., & Statz, M. (2017). Parents of global youth: contesting debt and belonging. Children's Geographies, 1-13.


Visualizing Immigrant Youth in Phoenix

Kristin Koptiuch

Arizona State University-West

Though largely unrecognized by official planning instruments and unacknowledged by the public in anti-immigrant Arizona, immigrants are transforming metropolitan Phoenix. Visualizing Immigrant Phoenix, a student-faculty research collaborative I direct at Arizona State University, explores these transformations by engaging its audience through vibrant visualization of immigrants’ imprint upon the Phoenix urban environment. This project occurs at a time when immigrants are increasingly demonized, criminalized, and denied due process. Our work responds by according due importance to migrants’ creative and deliberate impacts on everyday urbanism in transnationalizing cities.

In an era of unprecedented human mobilities, Phoenix diversity is not unexpected for a major American city. Current US Census data shows 20% of city residents are foreign born, 65% coming from Mexico, and 41% of the city population is Latinx. Stymied by reigning anti-immigrant sentiment, city residents and civic leaders are reluctant to acknowledge—let alone cultivate—creative ways that migrants already influence the city as informal, unintentional urban planners-from-below. Our projects track the ways in which immigrants have revived stagnant neighborhood economies, brought magical-realist redesign to the cityscape, added colorful flair to the city’s subdued design palette, infused global youth practices, and transnationalized Phoenix urbanism with local outcroppings of global religions, cuisines, cultures.

Immigrant and diaspora youth in particular play a critical role in bringing this realization into view. Our youthful team of undergraduate researchers brought fresh perspectives from their own migrant and diaspora communities. The inclusion of a Somali refugee, a first-generation Assyrian-Iraqi, and a Mexican DACA recipient this past spring extended the project’s reach and depth of insight. Although our gaze is not exclusively directed at youth, young migrants frequently do become central to our inquiry as team members engage their own networks to pursue their research.

Origins of the Project

Billboard in central Phoenix neighborhood (2012), Kristin Koptiuch

Billboard in central Phoenix neighborhood (2012), Kristin Koptiuch

Visualizing Immigrant Phoenix is an extension of my long-term commitment to teaching, researching, and visualizing the impact of immigrants on metropolitan Phoenix, where I’ve lived for 25 years. Having taught courses on migration and worked with migrant advocacy organizations, I began to create ethnographic photo essays to defuse Arizonans’ hyper-sensitivity toward immigration, integrating emotion and affect with a resistant critical gaze (e.g. Cruzando Fronteras/Crossing Phoenix,” 2012). To integrate students into these initiatives, I successfully applied for modest funding through a unique student-faculty research program offered by ASU’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences, which provides student teams with a budget of $500 and modest student stipends or two academic credits.

Thus far we have completed some two dozen photo essays and curated photo sets, accompanied by short descriptive and analytical ethnographic narratives. Researchers submitted drafts of their essays and photos, and revised them in response to my editorial comments and suggestions into finished projects, showcased on our website. At once visually stimulating and thought-provoking, we sought to share them with “live” audiences in a manner that preserved the immersive, visually rich digital format of the website presentations. We’ve experimented by creating an exhibition of our urban visual ethnography project, anchored by enlarged photos that capture the project’s key themes (immigrant portraits, artifacts, events, neighborhoods, businesses, landscapes).

Exhibit at Arizona State University-West (2017), Kristin Koptiuch

Exhibit at Arizona State University-West (2017), Kristin Koptiuch

Presented first at the 2017 Society for Applied Anthropology conference in Santa Fe and then at our own West campus of Arizona State University, the exhibit also includes video shorts, sonic atmospherics, live website projection, a portfolio of printouts of individual projects, banners, promo materials, and QR codes that take viewers’ mobile phones straight to the website. To better engage our audience, we took seriously the truism that, welcome or not, “we are all immigrants.” Our interactive portrait booth (now featured on our website) drew an enthusiastic response from over 100 visitors who declared their solidarity as immigrants and their descendants.

Youth Circulations in Phoenix

Folkdance class, Assyrian Student Association of Arizona, Crystal Cespedes

Folkdance class, Assyrian Student Association of Arizona, Crystal Cespedes

Several of our stories track young migrants as they circulate through the city and beyond. For instance, many Iraqi refugees have resettled in metro Phoenix over the last 20 years, including Assyrian and Chaldean Christian minorities. Crystal Cespedes’ interview with a first-generation US-born Assyrian leader of the Assyrian Student Association of Arizona briefly unpacks the origins of Assyrian ethnics in Phoenix and highlights the importance accorded to education and cultural preservation by the student club at Arizona State University, through peer instruction of folk dances to traditional music.

Teaching modern Aramaic, Ileen Younan

Teaching modern Aramaic, Ileen Younan

The preservation of Assyrian language and history is also foregrounded in Ileen Younan’s piece on instruction in modern Aramaic by a young Iraqi-born teacher to first-generation children through their community church. The church also offers Aramaic education to older Assyrian youth like Younan herself, so they can learn to write and speak their parents’ native language.

Feast at weekly Iraqi family gathering, José Grijalva

Feast at weekly Iraqi family gathering, José Grijalva

José Grijalva’s visit to a weekly family gathering at the home of an Arab Iraqi classmate introduced him to Arab culture, language, and cuisine. Significantly, the lively family interactions and mountains of Middle Eastern food resonated with Grijalva’s experiences at his own Mexican American family’s cookouts in the Arizona border town where he grew up.

Phoenix is also home to post-colonial British diasporic communities whose youth perpetuate their parental legacy in the sport of cricket, an under-represented sport in what is otherwise a highly sports-conscious city. Hussein Mohamed’s short video introduces us to several immigrant and first-generation Pakistani team members of the Arizona Stallions Cricket Club. This is one of 18 Phoenix cricket teams comprised largely of immigrant youth hailing from cricket-playing nations like Sri Lanka, Jamaica, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and South Africa. Interviews recount team members’ association of cricket with their families’ immigrant homeland roots.

Cricket match in Phoenix, Hussein Mohamed

Cricket match in Phoenix, Hussein Mohamed

DACAmented youth struggle for belonging and identity, Argenis Hurtado Moreno

DACAmented youth struggle for belonging and identity, Argenis Hurtado Moreno

As is well known, not all migrant youth have the luxury of open visibility. Argenis Hurtado Moreno invites us to hear the stories of two Mexican DACAmented youth, aka DREAMers, who struggle for belonging and identity in the America that enculturated them throughout their youth but stigmatizes them as young adults and legally excludes them from a pathway to citizenship. The two women interviewed express a palpable frustration and sense of injustice toward the nation that refuses to accept them as the exemplary made-Americans that they know they are.

Mexican pointy boot, José Grijalva

Mexican pointy boot, José Grijalva

While doing fieldwork at Mercado de los Cielos, a Mexican makeover of a defunct mall anchor department store, José Grijalva was entranced by an elongated-toe boot on display at a shop selling Mexican cowboy boots. In sleuthing out the meaning this cultural artifact, Grijalva discovered that the Mexican pointy boot links transnational youth circulations on both sides of the US/Mexico border. Dance crews don custom-made boots with points as long as seven feet, offset by color-coordinated skinny jeans and cowboy hats. They perform choreographed steps to a recent style of Mexican music called Tribal, mixing Aztec and African sounds over a cumbia baseline, the DJ tapping into multi-ethnic and autochthonous Mexican roots that may carry special appeal to migrants far from the homeland. These dance competitions are popular in Dallas, Texas, as many Mexican immigrants there come from the state of San Luis, where Tribal is popular. Clearly, the pointy boot is an element of Mexican subcultural style that has easily crossed the border.

The Power of Migrants and the Subversion of the Community[i]

Through the subtle subversion of depicting these everyday migrant crossings and contributions, Visualizing Immigrant Phoenix seeks to intervene in the public perception of migrants in Phoenix. Our stories of migrant youth depict them as resilient as they are vulnerable. Youth are the site of intensive parental investment for perpetuating immigrant cultures, languages, histories (Heidbrink 2014). Yet migrant and diaspora youth connect as fluidly with local practices as they import transnational styles and fads through music, fashion, dance, relationships. Thus, they complicate simplified notions of “preserving” cultural forms. They cross virtual transnational bridges that span the spaces of their daily lives, rendering a subversive ordinariness to crossing borders (Leurs 2015). Their American dreams are defiant, insisting upon the legitimization of all of their global identities (Dissard & Peng 2013).

Visualizing Immigrant Phoenix’ collaborative ethnographic photo essays offer a visually rich counter-narrative to the intensifying discourse of fear promulgated by current instabilities in national and state immigration policies. By centering on migrants’ everyday mobilities, our critical visualization strives to (re)move walls and expand the appreciative embrace of immigrants in our city’s collective gaze.

Works Cited

Arau, S., Arizmendi, Y., & Guerrero, S. (2004). A Day without a Mexican. Televisa Cine.

Dissar, J. and G. Peng. (2013). Documentary: I Learn America.

Heidbrink, L. (2014). Migrant youth, transnational families, and the state: Care and contested interests. University of Pennsylvania Press.

James, S., & Dalla Costa, M. (1972). The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community. Consultado el5.

Leurs, K. (2015). Digital passages: Migrant youth 2.0. Diaspora, gender and youth cultural intersections.  Amsterdam University Press.

[1] This subtitle evokes the transformative, classic feminist treatise, The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community (1972). Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James argued that the centrality of women’s domestic work to the social reproduction of capitalist relations generating surplus value makes women key subversive protagonists in the struggle to re-appropriate the social wealth they produced. Migrants now are similarly positioned; its jokiness aside, films like A Day Without a Mexican (Sergio Arau 2004) show us that popular culture has already grasped the potential subversive power of migrants.

Kristin Koptiuch  is a cultural anthropologist and urban ethnographer who tries to practice anthropology as much performance art as social science. She is associate professor of anthropology in the School of Social & Behavioral Sciences at Arizona State University-West.




I Still Have Your Luggage Tag

By William Lopez

On May 24th, 2017, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raided a local Ann Arbor restaurant next to the University of Michigan campus. ICE agents went in with a warrant for single man, but arrested three to five others, including a Legal Permanent Resident. The community was angry that the agents had the gall to eat the food prepared by the staff and then arrest them—yet in many ways, this is an apt metaphor for perceptions of immigrants in the contemporary United States: We welcome your labor, but we do not welcome you.

While the thought of eating an omelet and then arresting the cook is abhorrent, I am struck by a process happening over and over in our country: The use of a single warrant to arrest anyone “suspected” of being undocumented. This amounts to legalized racial profiling. My doctoral research similarly focused on a home raid in which many Latinos were arrested although only a single individual was the alleged target.

At times like these, academic writing feels too constrained to cut to the core of the suffering we witness. For me, I turn to other forms of writing--poetry, prose, short stories--to capture what a peer-reviewed article cannot. This poem is a compilation of experiences of the raid I studied for years of my life and of this most recent raid on May 24th.

Photo credits: Celena Lopez

Photo credits: Celena Lopez

I Still Have Your Luggage Tag

I still have your luggage tag in my bag. I carry it with me, can't quite seem to let it go.

It's not a luggage tag really. It's a suitcase tag. It's a number, an identifier, a CURP, a code, with the matching code attached to a maleta that sat in the immigration office as your plane took off to deport you.

I thought I delivered the maleta on time. I remember doing it as soon as I could, blocking off a whole day to go to the immigration office so they could get it on your flight with you. I really care about your sister, and her heart was broken when you were taken, when her son lost the third father figure from his life. All because you happened to look like Ignacio. You and everyone else in the truck looked like Ignacio

I don't think they actually give a fuck who Ignacio is. I think they saw a truck at a gas station that looked like it was on its way to cut a yard, to fix a roof. I think they thought about the promise Congress made to fill 34,000 detention center beds a day. And I think they had a warrant for some Ignacio somewhere. And they saw a truck of three Ignacio look-alikes. So they followed you out of the gas station. They pulled you over. They asked you all for papers.

And they got three Ignacios closer to their congressional mandate.

So I took the maleta to the immigration office for your sister. I thought I was being kind, but really, I was just being privileged. Even though I'm brown, I have a driver's license. And I would never ask your sister to drive to Detroit. I-94 is a war zone. The body count is high.

I remember wondering what was in the maleta. What do you send to someone who has just been deported?

Of course, poverty knows no privacy, and as I stood outside the metal detector the security guard emptied its contents in front of me.

It was then that I started to understand what was happening.

There were small tubes of toothpaste. Bottles of shampoo and conditioner. A toothbrush. Soap. So you could be clean when you got back to Honduras.

Then there were the jeans.

They were nice jeans. With designs on the back pockets. Crosses made of gold and bronze studs. The kind of jeans that you could wear with alligator skin boots and a cowboy hat to a sobrino's first communion. Nice jeans. I wondered if they were brand new.

Then I noticed the sweatpants.

They still had the price tag on them.  They were new. Maybe the jeans were too. I imagined your sister making the decision to spend two day’s wages--two days of bending down to clean hotel rooms--on jeans and sweatpants. And I wondered why.

But I get it now. This is a despedida, a sendoff. This is how your sister says she loves you when she can't drive on I-94 herself, and, even if she could, she would be too distracted by the jingling of shackles to tell you she'll miss you.

So she bought soap, toothpaste, jeans.

She's trying to tell you that you can hold your head up high when you go back home. That you can walk into your campo from the main road clean and fly as hell with no shame cause you had ridden La Bestia. You had crossed the Rio Grande. You worked. You put more shingles on roofs than any citizen would ever think possible. You did what you had to do, got it done, and paid the 5% to Western Union to get it back to your family without complaint. She's telling you: Be proud. You are loved. You are a warrior.

I drop off the maleta at immigration and go home.

A week later I get a call. Can I come pick up the bag?

The maleta never made it on your plane. The ICE agent was very nice when he informed me. Asked how my day was, smiled. But isn't that how it works? You meet a nice cop, a nice agent, a neighbor who works for the force and brings your kid ice cream, and suddenly you care that Laquan McDonald had a teenage mom and suddenly All Lives Matter.

So the maleta sat in the immigration office as your plane took off.

Your sister tells me that you were so dirty when you got to the entry to your barrio that the cab driver didn't want to pick you up. I'm sorry. There was toothpaste in there for you. And brand new jeans. I'm sorry.

So I keep your luggage tag with me. I keep it in my bag. I can't seem to throw it away, even though I took the maleta back to your sister already. Even though I had to interrupt her child's birthday to give her back the maleta from his deported uncle. Even though immigration has long stopped giving a fuck about your suitcase.

It’s irrelevant now. Just like that original Ignacio on the warrant.

But I can't seem to stop giving a fuck about your suitcase or those of all the other Ignacio look-alikes out there.


Photo credits: Celena Lopez

Photo credits: Celena Lopez

Take Action: I worked closely with the Washtenaw Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights to gather data for my dissertation research and continue to collaborate with them whenever possible. I support the Washtenaw ID Project, the first government issued ID in the Midwest, in their efforts to bring photo-identification to everyone in the county. Increasingly, immigration status, for which lack of ID is often used as a proxy, is used to restrict resources access to immigrant communities. The Washtenaw ID is one way to disrupt these inequitable systems of resource distribution, as discussed in my recent article in Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health. I invite you to support our efforts.


William Lopez is a Postdoctoral Scholar at the National Center for Institutional Diversity and School of Social work at the University of Michigan. He is the son of a Mexican immigrant mother and Texan father. He grew up in San Antonio, TX, before acclimating to the Midwest in Indiana, where he received his BA in psychology at the University of Notre Dame. William returned to Texas to receive his MPH at the University of Texas Health Science Center Houston while working at a homeless services center and getting his first taste of qualitative work in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. His mixed-methods work focuses on the effects of immigration policy on local Latino communities, specifically considering the health effects of immigration home raids. William’s work has been featured in Pacific Standard, The Conversation, and Nature.


From Undocumented to DACAmented: Can Changes to Legal Status Impact Psychological Wellbeing?

June 15 marks the 5-year anniversary of the DACA program. For the first time, a recent study analyzes DACA’s impacts on recipients’ psychological wellbeing. The results are clear: DACA can make you feel better, though it may not resolve concerns about deportation.

by Caitlin Patler and Whitney Laster Pirtle

Original art by Liliana Alonso and Andres "Rhips" Rivera.

Original art by Liliana Alonso and Andres "Rhips" Rivera.

Undocumented immigrant youth in the United States face a host of challenges that impact their psychological wellbeing. Many experience hopelessness, shame and self-blame, anxiety, fear of deportation, and concern about blocked social mobility. One recent study found that undocumented youth experience a loss of “ontological security,” or the inability to count on the stability of the future. Another study led by immigrant youth at the UCLA Dream Resource Center found that undocumented youth struggle with depression, anxiety, trauma, and emotional distress related to their status. There have even been reports of suicide among undocumented young people who felt they could not overcome the barriers imposed by their status.

It is clear that the legal marginalization undocumented immigrants face can detrimentally impact health. Yet there is still very little research that documents how undocumented young peoples’ psychological wellbeing might alter if their legal status were to change, even if temporarily.

Becoming DACAmented

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program provides a unique opportunity to understand the experiences of individuals who transition from undocumented status into other, even slightly less marginalized, statuses. Announced by President Obama in June of 2012, DACA allows eligible undocumented youth to apply for temporary (and revocable) lawful presence that includes work authorization, a social security number, and other related benefits, renewable every two years. As of the first quarter of 2017, 925,921 individuals applied for DACA, with 26% of applications coming from California, and the vast majority of applicants originating from Latin America. DACA allows us to ask: Can changes to legal status impact health, particularly psychological wellbeing?

Put differently, can getting DACA make you feel better?

We recently completed a study aimed to answer these questions. Our research provides the first statistical analysis of differences in psychological wellbeing between immigrant young adults, retrospectively measured before and after a transitioning from undocumented to DACAmented status. Our data come from original telephone survey data of 487 Latino immigrant young adults in California. These data were collected 2.5 years after the program’s initiation (between November 2014 and February 2015), in order to allow sufficient time to observe the impacts of the program. We compared a control group of young people who remained undocumented with those who transitioned into lawful presence via DACA. Specifically, we examined four outcomes related to immigrants’ psychological wellbeing: 1) distress (including reports of stress, nervousness or anxiety); 2) negative emotions (anger, fear, sadness, shame, and embarrassment); and 3) worry about deportation of one’s self or 4) one’s family.

Our study revealed several key findings. We began by asking about psychological wellbeing during the time when everyone in the study was undocumented (either prior to receiving DACA, for recipients, or in the past year, for respondents without DACA). Statistical tests of responses to these questions show that past psychological wellbeing was predicted almost exclusively by socioeconomic status. For example, those who were worse off financially reported higher levels of distress, negative emotions, and deportation worry.

However, current psychological wellbeing is most strongly predicted by whether or not someone has DACA. For example, the predicted probability of experiencing distress and negative emotions started out at 70% for both undocumented and DACAmented individuals(see Figure 1). However, current distress and negative emotions (measured in the 30 days prior to the survey) for DACA recipients dropped to under 20%, whereas they were over 40% for those without DACA. These results suggest that the change from ‘undocumented’ to ‘lawfully present’ is associated with improvements to psychological wellbeing.

Figure 1. Predicted Probability of Psychological Wellbeing Measures, by DACA Status (From Patler and Pirtle 2017)

Notes: N=487. Responses were collected between November 2014 and February 2015. Predicted probabilities account for respondents’ sex, age, years in the United States, trouble paying bills, educational level, mother’s educational level, mother’s legal status.

Notes: N=487. Responses were collected between November 2014 and February 2015. Predicted probabilities account for respondents’ sex, age, years in the United States, trouble paying bills, educational level, mother’s educational level, mother’s legal status.

However, as Figure 2. demonstrates, DACA status does not significantly reduce worry about the deportation of family members, suggesting that programs that target individuals do not go far enough in addressing the overall wellbeing and needs of mixed-immigration-status families.

Figure 2. Predicted Probability of Psychological Wellbeing Measures, by DACA Status (From Patler and Pirtle 2017)

Notes: N=487. Responses were collected between November 2014 and February 2015. Predicted probabilities account for respondents’ sex, age, years in the United States, trouble paying bills, educational level, mother’s educational level, mother’s legal status.

Notes: N=487. Responses were collected between November 2014 and February 2015. Predicted probabilities account for respondents’ sex, age, years in the United States, trouble paying bills, educational level, mother’s educational level, mother’s legal status.

“I feel like I belong and other people know I exist:” How Legal Status Transitions Impact Health

Our study showed that transitioning to DACA status after being undocumented was associated with significant reductions in distress and negative emotions. What might explain these results? In response to the question “What do you think has most changed for you since receiving DACA?” DACA recipients in our study shared:

“[I have] a changed outlook on my future because it was very uncertain before.”

“I have a better job, I am more stable, and not afraid to drive around. I have an ID now and I am more capable to do what I want. I feel better emotionally, physically, and psychologically.”

“The security of knowing that you can actually be outside without worrying that you’ll get deported. It brings a lot of benefits: better job and more work and you can actually apply for healthcare. In a sense, it brings you into the community.”

“Peace. [I can] breathe better. Hope. And knowing I exist. I feel like I belong and other people know I exist.”

Such sentiments indicate that DACA has had a legitimizing effect on recipients, in which access to lawful presence and new opportunities has improved their sense of security in their future, which is so closely tied to overall psychological wellbeing.

Looking forward

While we are encouraged by the positive nature of these findings, we remain cautious about whether DACA can offer permanent transformative effects on wellbeing. First, DACA provides individual relief from deportation but does not apply to family members. As we show, DACA recipients in our study were no less likely than non-recipients to report ongoing worry that a family member will be deported. This finding is consistent with research documenting pervasive fear of law enforcement and family separation among the children of undocumented immigrants.

Perhaps most importantly, though, because DACA is a temporary program and does not offer permanent legal status, it is likely that the emotional health benefits of the program could decrease over time if access to permanent status and citizenship remains elusive or if DACA is discontinued.

In the absence of any large-scale legalization program since the mid-1980s, an entire generation of children has grown up without legal status. We know that a lack of legal status impacts multiple aspects of immigrants’ lives, including health and wellbeing, and we also know that communities do not benefit when individuals are unhealthy. Our research shows that changes to immigrant legal status can improve psychological wellbeing. Inasmuch as individual wellbeing is linked to overall community health, then our findings are of critical importance as the country continues to debate policy solutions for undocumented communities.

Dr. Caitlin Patler is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Davis. Her research explores citizenship and legal status as axes of stratification that significantly shape opportunities for mobility. She is currently conducting longitudinal mixed-methods research studies on: 1) immigration detention, deportation, and the intersections of immigration and criminal law, and 2) the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. 

Dr. Whitney N. Laster Pirtle is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Merced. Her research interests include race, identity, mental health, and quantitative methods. Her research is primarily informed by social psychological frameworks, and explores how social structures, such as racial hierarchies, might impact individuals’ lived experiences, wellbeing, and identities. Using historical, survey, and qualitative data, she is currently exploring the formation and transformation of the “coloured” racial group in post-apartheid South Africa.





Why the "bad hombre" Trump is the least of our worries: How state policies criminalize immigrant and undocumented youth

by Sophia Rodriguez and Timothy Monreal 

While Trump’s amplified attacks on immigrants—as “bad hombres”, rapists, and criminals—is disturbing, we must not let it overshadow restrictive state level policy contexts. In this blog, we share findings from our analysis of 10 years of South Carolina legislation to shed light on how state policies criminalize immigrants broadly and target undocumented immigrant youth specifically. We further connect these state-level policies to the larger hostile political climate in the United States.

Photo Credits: AP

Photo Credits: AP

When Trump announced his presidential campaign in a speech on June 16, 2015, he framed Mexican immigrants as an unwelcome and harmful group of people. He stated, “The U.S. has become a dumping ground for everybody else's problems. When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best. They're not sending you. They're sending people that have lots of problems, and they're bringing those problems with us. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists.” Donald Trump characterized immigrants as takers, criminals, and threats one of the most prominent national stages—a presidential debate. The construction of the immigrant as problem motivated a nativist, conservative base and subsequently has fueled a series of anti-immigrant executive orders. Yet, a singular focus on Trump obscures how state level policy discourses have sought to create and perpetuate perspectives of immigrants as criminals or threats to society. In this piece, we connect the national debate with our current research on local policies in South Carolina.

Of course, Donald Trump is not the first policy-maker to advance racialized classifications of belonging and an immigrant-as-problem discourse. From the Chinese Exclusion Act, 1882 and the “one-drop rule” in the case of United States v. Thind, 1923 to segregationist practices against Mexican-American students such as the so-called  Lemon Grove Incident, 1931, the construction of immigrants as problems has a complex history in the U.S. These legal and social understandings of immigrants in the U.S. placed hurdles to integration at best, and criminalized immigrants in everyday social life at worst.

What are the intentions behind creating the immigrant as problem?

A problem calls for ‘rational’ solutions. In social science academic research, this is called policy problematization. This concept highlights how policy forms by framing marginalized groups as problems, and then justifies drastic ‘solutions.’ Take for example Trump’s Border Security (“the Wall”) executive announcement. Part of the announcement offers an expanded definition of who is a criminal: i.e., anyone who “committed acts that constitute a chargeable criminal offense.” As Jennifer Medina writes in the New York Times, this loose definition of criminal covers people authorities believe to have broken the law. This new definition further links immigrants specifically to criminal behavior. As such, policy solutions work to restrict the actions of targeted groups with determined precision. The everyday lives of immigrants become further constrained, meaning they fear driving to work or even leaving their homes to attend school, resulting in a deep social isolation.


A glimpse at South Carolina's policy context

We analyzed South Carolina’s proposed and enacted immigration legislation from 2005-2016 to understand how policy language shapes public opinion about immigrants and restricts their access and opportunity to social advancement. To do this we used Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA), which seeks to uncover the authority of texts and their influence on social practices. This blog  draws from a multi stage ethnographic study enlisting CDA conducted by the first author (2015-present) to illustrate the effects of the restrictive policies in South Carolina. Our analysis, spanning six legislative sessions, reveals how immigrants are criminalized in everyday social life and restricted from accessing public institutions and social services. The focus on enacted and proposed legislation follows Stephen Ball’s (1994: 10) argument that policy research should tend to the “process” of policy production and focus on the “action, words and deeds, what is enacted as well as what is intended.” Our work accordingly demonstrates that local policy makers in restrictive state contexts like South Carolina propose and enact legislation that both constructs immigrants as problems to be dealt with and limits immigrants’ opportunities for thriving and advancing economically, educationally, and socially.

Source: Migration Policy Institute. U.S. Immigration Population by State and Country: South Carolina

Source: Migration Policy Institute. U.S. Immigration Population by State and Country: South Carolina

The analysis of South Carolina policies impacting immigrant communities reveals an intentional construction of all immigrants as Othered individuals who are economic and security threats. This purposeful construction contributes to a belief that immigrants are in some way distinct or alien to ‘rightful’ citizens of the state. Proposed legislation such as S.706 and H. 3953 (11-12) characterizes “illegal aliens” as individuals who are criminals that need to be battled against. The policy documents read:

Whereas, the bill would also allow illegal aliens after arrest to be detained in a state or local prison or detention facility pending transfer to federal custody, thereby insuring that potentially dangerous criminals would remain in custody pending trial or adjudication…

It is important to note that this particular piece of legislation names “illegal aliens” as “potentially dangerous criminals,” rendering them as threatening and thus more susceptible to crime (even when this statement is factually inaccurate). Sadly, the above example is not an isolated instance. In our analysis, we located more than 25 proposed and enacted pieces of legislation that used similar language whereby immigrants are Othered, typically as economic and security threats. Senate Resolution S.1015 (13-14) typifies this threat:

"Over fifty percent of illegal aliens currently in the United States arrived here with visas and overstayed them upon expiration. These include radical Islamic Jihad students who come here under the pretext of study only to instigate acts of terror; and

Whereas, the burden placed upon our nation's governmental services, taxpayers, environment, and infrastructure is on a disastrously unsustainable path due to massive population growth directly attributable to immigration; and

Whereas, solutions to immigration policy include ending chain migration, verifying the visa entry and exit system, ending the visa lottery, ending birthright citizenship, and offering federal assistance for states to combat immigration problems."

This example identifies undocumented immigrants as “burdens,” “unsustainable,” and even “radical Islamic Jihad students,” both creating and reifying them as problems. By constructing the “immigrant problem,” policy-makers advance their solutions—solutions that politicize immigration enforcement and conflate the immigrant with the criminal and/or terrorist. These alarming and inaccurate depictions of immigrants coexist with the reality that South Carolina farmers largely recruit and depend upon immigrant labor. Amidst considerable recruitment of immigrant labor, immigrants paradoxically are accused of taking jobs and draining public resources. Taken as a whole, a picture emerges where immigrants are desired for their labor, but controlled as human beings. The construction of immigrants as problems allows for this dual reality. Immigrants continue to serve the South Carolina economy while policy solutions seek to constrain their material lives and force them to live in the shadows.

In practice, state legislative acts restrict the daily lives of migrants by limiting access to public services. For example, South Carolina is one of two states to ban entry into public higher education for undocumented students. Efforts have even been made to exclude non-citizens to all forms of public education in South Carolina H.3110 (07-08), including denying some undocumented youth in the state entry to public schools in clear violation of Plyler v Doe. Similarly, other legislative acts attempt to limit access to health care, worker’s compensation, and employment, thus formally demanding that immigrants first prove their status before receiving basic protections.

It is within this policy framing of immigrants as problems that the United States’ most egregious legislation towards immigrants has been enacted. Emulating Arizona’s infamous “Show Me Your Papers law, South Carolina rushed to pass S.20 in 2011. S.20 granted, “Law enforcement authorization to determine immigration status, reasonable suspicion, procedures, data collection on motor vehicle stops.” Although the courts dismissed the most draconian profiling portions of the South Carolina law, the solution of increased law enforcement still presents a daily threat to immigrant communities. Since this legislation passed, students have expressed to us how anxiety-provoking simple activities like driving, going to school, or answering the door remains.


Policy effects on undocumented youth

The effect of constructing immigrants as problems is felt strongly in schools. Educators have the imperative to create safe and welcoming spaces for all students regardless of immigration status, one where the cultural knowledge(s), strengths, and experiences of immigrant students are valued. Yet, all too often strengths that immigrant students bring to school (bilingualism, resilience, cultural ways of knowing) are also problematized in schools. As we argue, educators can be at the forefront of the resistance to the criminalization regime. For example, they can recognize, mitigate, and resist the impacts of repressive policies that enshrine “immigrants are problems” on their students by framing students skills as assets rather than deficits.

Photo credits: AP/LM Otero

Photo credits: AP/LM Otero

Take for example how restrictive policy contexts impact the lives of undocumented youth. Even D.A.C.A. recipients now confront uncertain futures in the U.S. Current research efforts has focused on recently arrived undocumented and unaccompanied youth in southern states like South Carolina, where their families reshape the southern landscape. Undocumented youth are highly aware of the contradictory language of the state policies while state continues to benefit from the work of Hispanic workers. Several youth with whom we work identified ways the state restricts their livelihoods and opportunities for social mobility. For example, undocumented youth in two Title I high schools in the first author’s larger study said: 

“This state is racist.”

“The state wants Hispanics to do their work for them, but we can’t go to school without being afraid? That is ignorance.”

“They don’t want to have a solution for us being here, but they want us to do the work they don’t want to do.”

“I am, like, stuck. I have scholarships to four state schools and cannot attend any of them. Here, they are ignorant of Hispanics. I don’t have papers, but I am smart.”

These lived experiences of youth in the South Carolina speak back to the negative language and stereotyping perpetuated in proposed and enacted legislation. While derogatory perceptions of immigrants appear amplified under Trump, it is important to note how historical precedents and state policies enable structural and institutional racism and the criminalization of immigrants to persist. The current political charades under Trump should not distract us from the broader and more pressing structural discrimination being institutionalized in policies and practices in restrictive states such as South Carolina.


Sophia Rodriguez, PhD, is an assistant professor of education and sociology at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. She conducts research on (un)documented immigrant youth activism and discrimination as well as the impact of educational and social policy on minoritized youth experiences broadly. Her published and forthcoming work on immigrant youth activism and education policy can be found here.

Timothy Monreal is a doctoral student in social foundations of education at the University of South Carolina. He is also a middle school teacher in South Carolina. He is interested in Latinx education in the U.S. South broadly as well as the intersections between teacher practice and education theory. To that end you can find him on Twitter where he mixes academic musings along with everyday classroom observations.

On Process and the Public: Creating the "Migration and Belonging" Series

(Spanish translation below)

Amidst so much disciplinary discussion about audience, open access, and applied anthropology, we want to follow Migration and Belonging: Narratives from a Highland Town with a more informal conversation with the series' creators. Below, Michele Statz talks with Giovanni Batz, Celeste Sanchez and Lauren Heidbrink about the challenges and possibilities of collaborative public ethnography. 

Almolonga. Photo credits: Giovanni Batz

Almolonga. Photo credits: Giovanni Batz

Michele: It strikes me that when viewed as a whole, the potential of these posts suddenly exceed their goal. Each is immediately informative about global youth, deportation, and social reintegration, but together they confront the reader with additional questions about audience, voice, and translation. Did you ever discuss the academic “costs” of this kind of collection? Some of the posts are more formal or “traditional” in their style, while others are quite vivid and at times very intimate and heartfelt. I found the combination incredibly appealing, but still wonder: Is this type of analysis forever relegated to the blogosphere? As editors and contributors, who should read this series?

Giovanni, Celeste and Lauren: We hope that this blog series offers a nuanced yet accessible exploration of the issues and challenges emerging from and within sending communities. The images, at once powerful and provocative, invite a broad public to explore the rippling and enduring impacts of migration and deportation on individuals, communities and families. This public importantly includes loved ones and community members that are invested in Almolonga’s future beyond the academic or theoretical questions raised in the series. 

The bilingual series also offers a unique modality for collaborative research, one which showcases the voices of Guatemalan scholars, many of whom remain excluded from the largely English-speaking academic presses. 

From the outset, we were committed to defying what has tragically become routine academic practice.

M: Will it be shared with the community members with whom you conducted research?

G, C and L: From the outset, we were committed to defying what has tragically become routine academic practice--that is, students and researchers conduct studies in Guatemala, publish exclusively for English-speaking audiences, and fail to return or share findings with participating communities. It is a long-standing practice which dates to colonial times. We recognized that Almolonguenses generously and sometimes painfully entrusted their experiences of migration and deportation in us, and that these experiences belong to them. “Migration and Belonging” is the first in a series of innovations, including workshops, radio spots, community forums, and bilingual reports to be shared with community members and local and regional authorities.  

M: A number of the "Migration and Belonging" posts are translated into as many as three languages--or more, if you include framing this for an anthropological audience. What is gained and lost in translation?

G, C and L: Language is important to understand different worldviews. Translating is always a difficult task when trying to find the appropriate words and phrases to express a concept. As translators of the blogs, collectively we tried to respect the intent of the authors and maintain intact their passion and critical analysis in their original format. We consulted with the authors and each other to minimize losing meaning in translation. One of the authors (Amparo Monzón) translated her own poem into three languages (K’iche’, Spanish, and English).

M: What is missing from this series?

Almolonga. Photo credit: Lauren Heidbrink

Almolonga. Photo credit: Lauren Heidbrink

G, C and L: One of the interesting aspects of this research was the uniqueness of each of our positionalities, especially since all of us have personal experiences with migration. Some of our team members have siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles or other relatives who migrated or had attempted to migrate to the US. In addition, two of us were born in the US to Central American parents, bringing into conversation varying experiences and understandings of migration, privilege, identity, and belonging. This research sparked a broad range of emotions in our professional work and our personal lives, sentiments that are not easily captured in virtual form.

After sharing our findings with the community this coming summer, we aim to supplement this series with digital narratives from community members--a vehicle to reflect on their experiences unfiltered by our experiences and perspectives.

M: When you consider the posts together, what do you find? And/or feel?

G, C and L: These posts were written by a diverse group of people from distinct academic disciplines such as political science, international relations, social work, anthropology, women’s studies, and development studies. Our own distinct experiences and lenses provided us with our own interpretations of migration as well as nurtured our own academic and professional passions, as you see in this multi-foci series. As a collective, the series provide a well-rounded, yet understandably incomplete, view of migration from Almolonga.  We hope that the reader may peek through our lenses to grasp the powerful and lived impacts of migration.


Giovanni Batz, MA, is a doctoral candidate in Latin American Studies at the University of Texas-Austin and a research assistant on a grant investigation the deportation and reintegration of youth in Guatemala.

Celeste N. Sánchez, MSW, is a Central American woman born and raised in southern California. She has several years of experience in direct work with children and adolescents in Guatemala and Honduras. She is currently working as the social worker for the Refugee Family Defense Program at Public Counsel in Los Angeles, CA and as a research assistant on this investigation the deportation and reintegration of youth in Guatemala.

Lauren Heidbrink is an anthropologist and Assistant Professor of Human Development at California State University, Long Beach. She is author of Migrant Youth, Transnational Families, and the State: Care and Contested Interests (University of Pennsylvania Press, May 2014). She currently the PI on a multi-year NSF Law and Social Sciences grant investigating the deportation and social reintegration of youth in Guatemala.

Sobre el proceso y el público: creación de la serie "Migración y pertenencia"

Entre tanta discusión disciplinaria sobre la audiencia, el acceso abierto, y la antropología aplicada, queremos seguir Migración y Pertenencia: Narrativas de un pueblo altiplano con una conversación más informal entre los creadores de la serie. A continuación, Michele Statz habla con Giovanni Batz, Celeste Sánchez y Lauren Heidbrink sobre los desafíos y posibilidades de la etnografía pública colaborativa.

Almolonga. Créditos fotográficos: Giovanni Batz.

Almolonga. Créditos fotográficos: Giovanni Batz.

Michele: Me parece que, en su conjunto, el potencial de estas entradas excede su objetivo inesperadamente. Cada post es inmediatamente informativo sobre la juventud global, la deportación y la reintegración social, pero juntos confrontan al lector con preguntas adicionales sobre audiencia, voz y traducción. ¿Alguna vez discutieron los "costos" académicos de este tipo de colección? Algunas de las entradas tienen un estilo más formal o "tradicional", mientras que otras son bastante vívidas y a veces muy íntimas y sinceras. Encontré la combinación increíblemente atractiva, pero aún me pregunto: ¿Es este tipo de análisis relegado para siempre a la blogosfera? Como editores y contribuyentes, ¿quién debería leer esta serie?

Giovanni, Celeste y Lauren: Esperamos que esta serie de blogs ofrezca una exploración matizada y accesible a los problemas y desafíos que surgen de y entre las comunidades que envían migrantes. Las imágenes, a la vez poderosas y provocativas, invitan a un amplio público a explorar los impactos extensos y duraderos de la migración y la deportación de individuos, comunidades y familias. Importantemente incluye a un público de seres queridos y miembros de la comunidad que se invierten en el futuro de Almolonga más allá de las cuestiones académicas o teóricas planteadas en la serie.

La serie bilingüe también ofrece una modalidad única para la investigación colaborativa, que muestra las voces de los académicos guatemaltecos, muchos de los cuales permanecen excluidos de las prensas académicas anglófonas.

Desde el principio, nos comprometimos a desafiar lo que trágicamente se ha convertido en una práctica académica rutinaria.

M: ¿Se compartirá la serie con los miembros de la comunidad con quienes se realizó la investigación?

G, C y L: Desde el principio, nos comprometimos a desafiar lo que trágicamente se ha convertido en una práctica académica rutinaria--es decir, estudiantes e investigadores realizan estudios en Guatemala, publican exclusivamente para audiencias anglófonas y no regresan o comparten los hallazgos con las comunidades participantes. Es una práctica antigua que permanece desde la época colonial. Reconocemos que Almolonguenses generosamente y a veces dolorosamente nos confiaron sus experiencias de migración y deportación, y que estas experiencias les pertenecen a ellos. "Migración y Pertenencia" es el primero de una serie de innovaciones, incluyendo talleres, spots de radio, foros comunitarios e informes bilingües que se compartirán con los miembros de la comunidad y las autoridades locales y regionales.

M: Algunos de los posts de "Migración y Pertenencia" se traducen en tres idiomas o más, si se incluye plantearlo para una audiencia antropológica. ¿Qué se gana y qué se pierde en la traducción?

G, C y L: El lenguaje es importante para entender cosmovisiones diferentes. El traducir es siempre una tarea difícil cuando se trata de encontrar las palabras y frases apropiadas para expresar un concepto. Como traductores de los blogs, colectivamente intentamos respetar la intención de los autores y mantener intacta su pasión y análisis crítico en su formato original. Hemos consultado con los autores y entre nosotr@s para minimizar la pérdida del significado en la traducción. Uno de los autores (Amparo Monzón) tradujo su propio poema en tres idiomas (K'iche ', español e inglés).

M: ¿Qué falta en esta serie?

Almolonga. Créditos fotográficos: Lauren Heidbrink.

Almolonga. Créditos fotográficos: Lauren Heidbrink.

G, C y L: Uno de los aspectos interesantes de esta investigación fue la originalidad de cada una de nuestras posiciones, especialmente porque todos tenemos experiencias personales con la migración. Algunos miembros de nuestro equipo tienen herman@s, prim@s, tí@s, u otros parientes que emigraron o habían intentado migrar a los Estados Unidos. Además, dos de nosotr@s nacimos en Estados Unidos a padres centroamericanos, poniendo en conversación diversas experiencias y entendimientos de migración, privilegio, identidad y pertenencia. Esta investigación generó una amplia gama de emociones en nuestro trabajo profesional y nuestras vidas personales, sentimientos que no son captados fácilmente en forma virtual.

Después de compartir nuestros hallazgos con la comunidad el próximo verano, nuestro objetivo es complementar esta serie con narrativas digitales de miembros de la comunidad--una modalidad para reflexionar sobre sus experiencias sin tener que filtrar por nuestras experiencias y perspectivas.

M: ¿Cuándo ustedes consideran las entradas en conjunto, qué encuentran? ¿Y/o sienten?

G, C y L: Las entradas fueron escritas por un grupo diverso de personas de distintas disciplinas académicas como la ciencia política, relaciones internacionales, trabajo social, antropología, estudios de mujeres y estudios de gestión social para el desarrollo local. Nuestras experiencias y lentes nos proporcionaron nuestras propias interpretaciones de la migración, y fomentaron nuestras pasiones académicas y profesionales, como se ve en esta serie multifocal. Como colectivo, la serie ofrece una visión integral, pero comprensiblemente incompleta, de la migración desde Almolonga. Esperamos que el lector pueda mirar a través de nuestros lentes para captar los impactos poderosos y vividos de la migración.


Giovanni Batz, MA, es candidato doctoral en Estudios Latinoamericanos en la Universidad de Texas-Austin y asistente de investigación en esta investigación sobre la deportación y reintegración de jóvenes en Guatemala. 

Celeste N. Sánchez, MSW, es una mujer centroamericana nacida y criada en el sur de California. Tiene varios años de experiencia en el trabajo directo con niños y adolescentes en Guatemala y Honduras. Actualmente es trabajadora social para el Programa de Defensa de Familias Refugiadas en Public Counsel en Los Ángeles, CA y asistente de investigación en esta investigación sobre la deportación y reintegración de jóvenes en Guatemala.

Lauren Heidbrink es antropóloga y Profesora Asistente de Desarrollo Humano en California State University, Long Beach. Es autora de Migrant Youth, Transnational Families, and the State: Care and Contested Interests (University of Pennsylvania Press, May 2014). Actualmente es investigadora principal de una beca plurianual de NSF Law and Social Sciences que investiga la deportación y la reintegración social de los jóvenes en Guatemala.

For the previous blog in the series: Angélica Mejía: La Resiliencia: Generador de movilización y auto-crecimiento/ Resilience of Youth without Parental Care

La Resiliencia de Jóvenes Sin Cuidados Parentales/Resilience of Youth without Parental Care

by Angélica Mejía

(English translation below. For additional posts in this series, visit: "Migration and Belonging.")

Actividad escolar. Créditos fotográficos:  Lauren Heidbrink

Actividad escolar. Créditos fotográficos:  Lauren Heidbrink

La falta de cuidados parentales es un problema que afecta a un número significativo de niños y adolescentes en Guatemala. De acuerdo al informe de la Red Latinoamericana de Acogimiento Familiar (RELAF)  (2010), más que 5,600 niños están institucionalizados en Guatemala, muchos de quienes experimentan inseguridad considerable mientras están transferido a través de orfanatos e instituciones por el país. Las razones por la ausencia de cuidado parental son diversas--como una alta prevalencia de enfermedades crónicas, pobreza extrema, el conflicto armado, un legado de la violencia a migración significante que pueden resultar a la desintegración familiar. Estos factores deben ser entendidos necesariamente como factores relacionados entre sí en lugar de entender como factores individuales o aislados que resultan en la pérdida de cuidados parentales.

Si bien las estadísticas son alarmantes, es importante reconocer cómo algunos niños y jóvenes sin el cuidado parental desarrollan la resiliencia. Al analizar cómo los jóvenes se emprenden proyectos de vida, tales como la búsqueda de educación formal y vocacional, así como sus fuentes de motivación, podemos empezar a desarrollar las instituciones y programas que inspiran más que impiden su desarrollo.

A través de mi colaboración desde 2007 con varias organizaciones comunitarias, he llegado a trabajar con 29 jóvenes, varios de los cuales encarnan condiciones de desigualdad y abandono al tiempo que demuestra al mismo tiempo la resistencia y la fuerza a pesar de estas condiciones. A pesar de encontrar algunos orfanatos e instituciones que disuaden a niños a partir de continuar su educación o el aprendizaje de las competencias profesionales, es decir, otras organizaciones sociales promueven el desarrollo personal y ofrecen importantes recursos educativos. Los que recibieron el apoyo y la oportunidad han terminado el ciclo de primaria, básico y bachillerato; algunos iniciaron una carrera en la universidad.

Actividad escolar. Créditos fotográficos: Angélica Mejía

Actividad escolar. Créditos fotográficos: Angélica Mejía

Tal es la experiencia de Marcos(1), 17 años de edad en su último año de bachillerato y sus hermanos menores, Mercedes de 15 años de edad y Dario de 13 años de edad. Son becarios de la Fundación Portales de Esperanza, ellos lograron continuar su educación, recibir apoyo de una organización comunitaria, y sobreponerse ante las circunstancias socio-económicas. Otros han optado por estudiar en escuelas vocacionales—carpintería, cocina y mecánica—para lograr un empleo que les permita contribuir con sus familias.

En mi colaboración durante la última década con las instituciones y organizaciones que sirven a los jóvenes sin cuidados parentales, los jóvenes articulan varias fuentes de resilienciade un deseo de continuar su educación, a contribuir al sustento de su familia, a la creencia en su propio potencial, a un deseo para controlar sus propias condiciones y futuros. Aun cuando estamos a menudo rápidos alabar a organizaciones no gubernamentales, fundaciones privadas e iglesias de distintas religiones para "salvar" a los niños y niñas necesitados, hay que señalar que los propios niños y niñas demuestran la resistencia en la identificación y la búsqueda de oportunidades dentro de estas redes sociales.

La identificación de las fuentes de la resistencia interna de los jóvenes es crítica. También lo importante es apoyar a las instituciones estatales, sociedad civil, y los sectores privados que reconocen y fomentan la capacidad de niños y niñas de recuperación. Sólo por crear oportunidades para que la población infantil participe de manera significativa en estas conversaciones, que podamos satisfacer las necesidades de los niños y niñas sin cuidados parentales.


Informe situación de la niñez sin cuidado parental o en riesgo de perderlo en América Latina (2010). Contextos, causas y respuestas. Guatemala: Red Latinoamericana de Acogimiento Familiar.

Mejía, Angélica. (2014) Tesis: “Orientación, metodología para la atención escolar de los niños huérfanos”

Angélica Mejía (Angie) cumplió una Maestría en Gestión Social para el Desarrollo Local de la Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales, Guatemala (FLACSO-Guatemala) y cuenta con estudios de licenciatura en administración de organizaciones educativas de la Universidad San Pablo de Guatemala. Ella ha trabajado en diversas organizaciones educativas con enfoque social en organizaciones locales principalmente atendiendo a la niñez en orfandad.

(1) Seudónimo.

Resilience of Youth Without Parental Care

School activity. Photo credits: Lauren Heidbrink

School activity. Photo credits: Lauren Heidbrink

The lack of parental care is a significant challenge confronting a growing number of young people in Guatemala. According to Red Latinoamericana de Acogimiento Familiar (RELAF) (2010), over 5,600 children are institutionalized in Guatemala, many of whom experience considerable uncertainty as they are routinely transferred between orphanages and institutions throughout the country. The reasons for an absence of parental care are diverse—from a high prevalence of chronic illnesses to extreme poverty to armed conflict to a legacy of violence to significant out-migration that may lead to family disintegration. These factors must necessarily be understood as interrelated rather than individual or isolated factors leading to loss of parental care.

While the statistics are alarming, it is important to recognize how some of the children and youth without parental care develop resiliency. By analyzing how young people undertake life projects, such as the pursuit of formal or vocational schooling, as well as their sources of motivation, we may begin to develop institutions and program that inspire rather than impede their growth.

Through my collaboration with several community-based organizations since 2007, I have been able to work with 29 young people, several of whom embody conditions of inequality and abandonment while simultaneously demonstrating resilience and strength in spite of these challenges.  While I have encountered some orphanages and institutions that dissuade children from continuing their education or learning vocational skills, that is to say, other social organizations promote personal development and offer important educational resources. Those receiving support and opportunity have finished primary, middle and high school; some are pursuing a college education.

School activity. Photo credits: Angélica Mejía

School activity. Photo credits: Angélica Mejía

Take the experiences of Marcos(1), a 17-year-old in his last year of high school, and his younger siblings, 15-year-old Mercedes and 13-year-old Dario. With scholarships from the Fundación Portales de Esperanza, they have been able to pursue their education, receive support from a local organization, and begin to overcome difficult socioeconomic circumstances. Still others pursue vocational training—carpentry, culinary and mechanical—eventually securing employment to contribute much needed financial resources to their families.

In my decades’-long collaboration with institutions and organizations serving young people absent parental care, youth articulate varied sources of resilience—from a desire to pursue education, to contributing to their family’s livelihood, to a belief in their own potential, to a desire to control their own conditions and futures. While we are often quick to laud non-governmental organizations, private foundations, and churches for “saving” young people in need, it should be noted that young people themselves demonstrate resilience in identifying and pursuing opportunities within these social networks.

Identifying the sources of young people’s internal resilience is critical. So too is supporting state institutions, civil society, and the private sector that recognize and nurture their resilience. Only by creating opportunities for youth to meaningfully participate in these conversations, may we meet the needs of young people without parental care.

Works Cited

Informe situación de la niñez sin cuidado parental o en riesgo de perderlo en América Latina (2010). Contextos, causas y respuestas. Guatemala: Red Latinoamericana de Acogimiento Familiar.

Mejía, Angélica. (2014) Tesis: “Orientación, metodología para la atención escolar de los niños huérfanos”

Angélica Mejía (Angie) graduated with a Masters in Social Management of Local Development from Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales, Guatemala (FLACSO-Guatemala) and has a bachelor’s degree in Administration of Educational Organization from Universidad San Pablo of Guatemala. She has worked at various educational organizations with social focus on local organizations principally serving orphaned children. 

[1] Pseudonyms.

For the previous blog in the series: Ramona Elizabeth Pérez Romero: El Papel de las Comadronas de Almolonga/The Role of Midwives in Almolonga

For the next blog in the series: Celeste Sánchez, Giovanni Batz, Lauren Heidbrink, and Michele Statz: A Conversation on Translation/Una Conversación sobre Traducción

El Papel de las Comadronas de Almolonga/The Role of Midwives in Almolonga

por Ramona Elizabeth Pérez Romero

(English translation below. For additional posts in this series, visit: "Migration and Belonging.")

En el municipio de Almolonga, las comadronas contribuyen una habilidad especializada para la comunidad—de salvar vidas. La población reconoce que ellas son portadoras de grandes sabidurías ancestrales, que trasladan de generación a generación.  Mantienen una relación integral con individuales, desde el vientre de una madre. Aunque para ser reconocidas, hayan pasado por otras luchas para contrarrestar discriminación por las autoridades médicas y por el personal en hospitales departamentales en el apoyo de sus pacientes.

Oficina de comadrona, Almolonga. Créditos fotográficos: Lauren Heidbrink

Oficina de comadrona, Almolonga. Créditos fotográficos: Lauren Heidbrink

Durante mi participación en una investigación comunitaria en Almolonga, yo entreviste Maria Isabel, una comadrona de 86 años. Ella compartió que esta misión de comadronas la traen desde el nacimiento: “Cuando yo empecé a trabajar, yo me enfermaba mucho, pero fui a consultar a un anciano y me dijo que yo sería comadrona. Que solo mejoraría si realizaba mi destino.  Mi primer parto fue en Panajachel hace más que 50 años...Yo no sé escribir ni leer, pero gracias a Dios porque ni uno [de los bebés] se me ha muerto” (Entrevista personal, 4 de Junio 2016).

Para la población, las comadronas cumplen un papel importantísimo.  Ellas son consultadas a orientar en los temas de métodos de planificación familiar, diagnosticar y proveer tratamiento de enfermedades, cuidar las mujeres con tratamientos y cuidado prenatales, y atender mujeres en parto y postparto. También, son consultadas para varias temas sociales y culturales.  Además, son un recurso valioso porque conocen el contexto y los recursos con los que se cuenta en el municipio. “Entienden el idioma de la localidad, la cultura y las necesidades de las mujeres; no miden riesgos ni tienen límites para llegar al lugar donde deben atender la labor de parto, por ello son muy queridas y respetadas en las comunidades” (Pacay 2012).

Las comadronas se comunican en k’iche’, el idioma principal de las mujeres y jóvenes en Almolonga; es importante porque la comunicación en un mismo código produce confianza y facilita que se busque una solución a los problemas dimensionados.  Según las comadronas, las jóvenes son las que más frecuentemente buscar su apoyo, ya que tienen preguntas y buscar consejo, a veces con miedo o vergüenza a pedir a sus padres. Ellas explicaban que los adolescentes están en la etapa de la juventud en donde buscan ser escuchados por otras personas y cuando a veces no encuentran ese nivel de confianza en el hogar o con los padres. Ellas y ellos las buscan para contarles sus problemas y buscar respuestas a sus dudas con su salud. Una comadrona de 40 años reflejaba: “Esto me hace sentir satisfecha porque con esta labor me siento útil para mi municipio, en apoyar a la población joven en sus derechos sexuales y reproductivos.”

Centro de Salud, Almolonga. Créditos fotográficos: Lauren Heidbrink

Centro de Salud, Almolonga. Créditos fotográficos: Lauren Heidbrink

El director del Centro de Salud en Almolonga explicó que hace cuatro años atrás, ninguna mujer visitaba el centro de salud para su control de embarazo.  Ahora sí porque del papel de las comadronas en aconsejarlas para su cuido, y ahora el Centro de Salud ha tenido resultados más positivos. Las comadronas de la municipalidad mantienen que su relación con el Centro de Salud está cambiando.

Antes, las comadronas sirvieron a sus comunidades sin regulación estatal. Sin embargo, en el 2010, la Ley de Maternidad Saludable estableció una relación formal y regulatoria entre las comadronas y el Ministerio de Salud Pública y Asistencia Social. “Los proveedores comunitarios y tradicionales brindarán los servicios de maternidad en el primer nivel de atención, aplicando normas y protocolos establecidos… En el caso de las comadronas, el Ministerio de Salud Pública y Asistencia Social deberá formular coordinadamente para establecer un programa para la formación de comadronas capacitadas y certificadas a nivel técnico” (Pacay 2012).

Regresando del mercado, Almolonga. Créditos fotográficos: Lauren Heidbrink

Regresando del mercado, Almolonga. Créditos fotográficos: Lauren Heidbrink

A pesar de las mejores intenciones, habría que ver si se está cumpliendo con estas leyes sin consecuencias adversas y exclusiones de comadronas.  Uno de los objetivos específicos de la Política Nacional de Comadronas (Acuerdo Gubernativo 102-2015) es: “Fortalecer la participación activa de las comadronas en concordancia con el Sistema de salud como una de las formas fundamentales de reconocimiento del derecho al ejercicio de sus prácticas ancestrales y medicina tradicional” (Política Nacional de Comadronas 2015-2025). En práctica, las comadronas de Almolonga realizan reuniones una vez al mes, manejan un carnet emitido por el Ministerio de Salud y documentan los nacimientos que atienden.

Con el cambio a una política de regulación, hay comadronas, particularmente las que son de mayor edad, que de repente no son autorizadas por el estado a practicar su vocación. Maria Isabel, la comadrona de 86 años tiene más que 60 años de experiencia, no ha recibido un carnet del gobierno.  A pesar de que la gente sigue buscando su cuidado. Las mujeres tienen confianza y respeta en ella, reconocen su sabiduría para que las atienda y les de consejos para el cuido de los bebés.  Aunque estas relaciones suceden en la práctica, tenemos que preguntarnos si la política está realizando sus metas. ¿Se debe cuestionar este carnet y sus consecuencias?  Aunque la política pretende de reconocer a las comadronas garantizando al mismo tiempo el cuidado de alta calidad, ¿discriminamos y arriesgamos a la una sabiduría ancestral?

Almolonga. Créditos fotográficos: Lauren Heidbrink

Almolonga. Créditos fotográficos: Lauren Heidbrink

Las comadronas son actores claves en Almolonga. Son parte fundamental en el desarrollo del municipio y también la nación. Los Acuerdos de Paz de 1996 dice: “Valorándose la importancia de la medicina indígena y tradicional se promoverá su estudio y se rescataran sus concepciones, métodos y prácticas” (Acuerdos de Paz 1996: 83). En consecuencia, es crítico que las comadronas no solo sean reconocidos por la comunidad sino también por las leyes. El futuro de Almolonga depende de ellas.


Gobierno de Guatemala y URNG. (1996). Acuerdos de Paz. Guatemala: Asamblea de la Sociedad Civil.

Pacay, M. (2012). El Don de Ser Comadrona. Revista: Amiga.

Ministerio de Salud Pública. 2015. Política Nacional de Comadronas de los cuatro Pueblos de Guatemala 2015-2025.

Municipio de San Pedro Almolonga. 2010. Plan de Desarrollo Municipal: Almolonga.

Pies de Occidente. (2001). El potencial de las comadronas en Salud Reproductiva. Quetzaltenango: Asociación para la promoción, investigación y Educación en Salud.

Pies de Occidente. (2006). Redes de Médicos Mayas en San Andrés Xecul. Quetzaltenango: Asociación para la promoción, investigación y Educación en Salud.

Ley de Maternidad Saludable. (2010). Decreto 32-2010, Artículo 17.


Ramona Elizabeth Pérez Romero es una mujer Maya Mam. Ella cumplió una Maestría en Gestión Social para el Desarrollo Local de Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales, Guatemala (FLACSO-Guatemala) y una Maestría en Violencia Intrafamiliar y de Género en la Universidad de Costa Rica y Universidad Nacional. Posee una Licenciatura en Pedagogía de la Universidad Rafael Landívar de Quetzaltenango. Ella trabajó  como investigadora colaborando en el estudio de migración y retorno en Almolonga en 2016.