Tear Gas, Children and ‘Distracted Outrage’

by Jennifer Koons

Dissecting the Most Common Response to Young Migrants in Distress

The mother is frantic and frightened, clutching the hands of her twin daughters (young enough to still be in diapers) as they rush from tear gas. Maria Lila Meza Castro traveled from Honduras to Tijuana with her twin daughters in an attempt to reunite with their father, who lives in the United States. The photo of her, taken by Reuters photojournalist Kim Kyung-Hoon, quickly supersedes the story of that journey and within hours, the image has gone viral, sparking both outrage and indignation (at either the those who’d fired the tear gas or those seeking asylum).

In this Q&A, anthropologists Lauren Heidbrink and Michele Statz dissect the outrage of those who oppose the Trump administration policies, as well as the ways in which such responses, along with the images themselves, do little to address or better understand the experience of those like Castro.

Heidbrink, an assistant professor in Human Development at California State University, Long Beach, has been researching deportation and child detention both in the U.S. and in Central America since 2006 and is currently based in Greece researching child migration throughout Europe. Statz, an anthropologist of law and assistant professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School, Duluth campus, has been studying public interest immigration advocacy on behalf of unaccompanied Chinese youth since 2010. Since 2014, they have operated the website Youth Circulations, “an archive tracing the real and imagined circulations of global youth.”

Q. Images from the U.S.-Mexico border have “gone viral” once again. The photographs of migrant children and parents fleeing tear gas at the San Ysidro border, which were taken by professional photojournalists on the scene, have sparked what seems like now-familiar polarized responses — either outrage or understated justification. Let’s talk about the outrage because you’ve raised concerns about this response, in particular, and challenged these visual narratives.

To read further, please visit the original post here.

Dreamer’s Fate Should Not be Left to the Courts’ Decisions on DACA

by Ernesto Castañeda

 What is the future of immigrant youth? Picture of youth folkloric dance group in a Hispanic festival in Washington DC on September of 2017. Credits: Ernesto Castañeda

What is the future of immigrant youth? Picture of youth folkloric dance group in a Hispanic festival in Washington DC on September of 2017. Credits: Ernesto Castañeda

DACA (the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals directive) provides people who arrived in the United States as minors a reprieve from deportation and work permits. Some people ask whether DACA is a legal program or not. This is a reasonable question given the ongoing coverage of lawsuits and court proceedings deciding the program’s legality in one way or the other. But determining the fate of DACA or similar programs through the justice system means that a handful of judges make decisions that affect the security and wellbeing of thousands of individuals.

DACA is constitutional in the sense that the way we interpret the constitution today includes universalist principles that declare everyone as equal. The 14th Amendment of the US Constitution foresees equal protection and rights for people within the US, which has been interpreted to include equal access to services and other basic rights regardless of race, ethnic origin or citizenship. Legal precedents about the right to public education, civil rights, due process, freedom of religion, and labor rights, among others, give the same rights and prerogatives to all people in the U.S. regardless of citizenship or immigration status. For example, the 1966 Supreme Court decision in Miranda v. Arizona ruled that all suspects being detained by the police have the right to remain silent and are informed of their right to an attorney including foreign-born individuals to obtain consular services according to the Vienna Convention.

Let’s also remember that historically, deportation has been the exception rather than the rule in the United States. Large deportations have not been attempted since the massive deportations of Mexicans following the Great Depression when between 458,000 and 1.8 million Mexicans were deported between 1929 and 1937.

 DACA recipients and the children of immigrants who are given the change to attend college become part of the American middle class. Day without Immigrants March, Washington, DC, February 16, 2017.

DACA recipients and the children of immigrants who are given the change to attend college become part of the American middle class. Day without Immigrants March, Washington, DC, February 16, 2017.

Generally speaking, except for high-capacity bureaucratic authoritarian regimes such as the USSR, North Korea, or the Germans after World War II regimes can rarely fully control emigration. Except for war times, such as around World War II or feeding a xenophobic ethnic-cleansing campaign, such as the Holocaust and the Japanese internment, most governments have not been able to round and deport whole categories of people. There is always administrative discretion and budgetary constraints to deport everyone with an expired visa or who crossed outside of a customs port of entry. The level of surveillance, violence, and cruelty needed to do so, however, is unlikely to occur in a truly democratic regime during peacetime without producing citizen and bureaucratic protest and civil disobedience.


DACA recipients are net contributors to their states and to the country. Given that DACA helps an educated small sub-sector of the population that is deeply embedded in the community and contributes to it, it is good policy to support the advancement and integration of this group as a matter of social justice. The government should also be interested in continued economic growth while decreasing categorical inequality, and to avoid the growth of a marginalized underclass.

DACA’s media framing, application requirements, and the mostly supportive public opinion around it all demonstrate that it is a fair program that supports deserving individuals who are American all but on paper. If the object of the law and the judicial system is to advance justice or to defend what is fair and ethical, then DACA is clearly legal and should be supported by the courts.


Yet, in the end, DACA’s standing is a political issue and not a legal one. If the President had the political will to protect young immigrants, he could renew or expanded DACA, just as President Obama created the policy by an internal directive within the Department of Homeland Security to defer the deportation of DACA recipients. Similar decisions have been made recently to end Temporary Protected Status and to deport people without violent criminal records.  If Congress had the political will to pass a Comprehensive Immigration Reform, an amnesty, the DREAM Act, or a bill along the lines of DACA, they could. Yet, the issue has now become partisan with Republicans supporting Trump’s anti-immigrant stance and Democrats speaking in favor of pro-immigrant policies.

 Several groups staged protests in front of the White House on September of 2017 against rumors that Trump would end DACA. Photos by Ernesto Castañeda © 2017.

Several groups staged protests in front of the White House on September of 2017 against rumors that Trump would end DACA. Photos by Ernesto Castañeda © 2017.

 The U.S. Supreme Court of Justice as a human institution not an embodiment of the divine. Photo by Castañeda.

The U.S. Supreme Court of Justice as a human institution not an embodiment of the divine. Photo by Castañeda.

We cannot say that DACA’s legality is a technical legal issue and that the Supreme Court will eventually decide objectively on the legal merits of the case, while we also understand how the selection of new members to the Supreme Court has conservative or progressive effects on the decisions by the Court. Supreme Court justices are political appointments selected by Presidents precisely because of the ideologies they hold, and not necessarily because they will apply the laws as reflected in the Constitution or as written by Congress. There is always room for discretion, and court decisions are made taking in consideration the long-term effects of decisions, and their enduring political implications. For this reason, what conservative justices will decide about DACA is no surprise. Disagreements over continuing DACA are rooted in clashing political ideologies, not in technical judicial or legal decisions that only experts can adjudicate.

 Historically and today social movements demand for the integration of excluded groups. Rights are demanded not given. Photos and collage by Ernesto Castañeda © 2018.

Historically and today social movements demand for the integration of excluded groups. Rights are demanded not given. Photos and collage by Ernesto Castañeda © 2018.

Is DACA legal? One could answer in the affirmative because it is within the powers of the President and the jurisdiction of the state—yet its survival is truly a political question. Judges could disagree as when they argued in the 1857’s Dred Scott v. Sandford that abolishing slavery in the south would be unconstitutional and that blacks could not be citizens (Kendi 2016:204). Thus, to see social change, pro-immigrant Americans cannot rely on “the law” which by its current design itself creates illegalized immigrants. Supporters of immigrants have to bring the issues of social justice to the streets and, ultimately, to the electoral process.

Ernesto Castañeda is the author of A Place to Call Home (Stanford 2018), Building Walls (Lexington 2019), and Social Movements 1768-2018 (Routledge 2019) with Charles Tilly and Lesley Wood; Editor of Immigration and Categorical Inequality (Routledge 2018); and Co-editor with Cathy L. Schneider of Collective Violence, Contentious Politics, and Social Change (Routledge 2017).

Radicalizing Tensions: Between Fascism and Solidarity in Italy (Part II)

By Lauren Heidbrink


How do citizens enact solidarity when nations fail to? In this second of a 2-part series, anthropologist Lauren Heidbrink examines forms of solidarity that have emerged in Italy in spite of and in active resistance to the state.

In the run-up to this December’s ratification of the United Nations Global Compact for Migration, nations are being called to provide a “holistic and comprehensive response” to migrants and refugees. The Global Compact is in direct response to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon 2016 lamentation that the world was not in a crisis of numbers but a crisis of solidarity.” Citing that 90% of the world’s refugees are hosted in developing countries, Ki-moon identified an imperative for equitable responsibility-sharing across the globe. In the European Union, solidarity has come to signify the re-distribution of migrants and refugees from Italy and Greece to northern Europe. Yet efforts for supranational consensus within the EU continue to stall, leaving a deep chasm between rhetoric, policy, and practice. The rise of populist governments across Europe has only heightened hostilities towards migrants.

In Italy, where I conduct research with young migrants, resistance to the right-wing coalition of the Five Star Movement (M5S) and the League party has mounted, and new forms solidarity have emerged among civil society, social movements, and social enterprises. Here, I ask: how do citizens enact solidarity when nations fail to?

For those Italians new to solidarity efforts, volunteers with immigrant rights groups in Rome and Sicily whom I interviewed cited feeling compelled to engage in everyday acts of solidarity, to increase charitable contributions, and to begin volunteering their time at local reception centers as teachers or as guardians for unaccompanied children. Other more seasoned advocates shared a deep personal and professional commitment to refugees, one intimately intertwined with their Italian identity and history. Ester, a doctor who provides health screenings to newly arrived migrants in the Messina hotspot, shared, “We Romans invented the law thousands of years ago; this man [Interior Minister Matteo Salvini] and his hate may do harm, but the law will not be undone. Our obligation is to mitigate the damage and counter with empathy and solidarity every single day and in every interaction.”

Several immigrant rights advocacy organizations described newly launched public campaigns as critical to countering the xenophobia granted license under Salvini, “one tweet at a time,” as an advocate Rocio contended. “Our job as activists and organizers isn’t just to argue with the demigods, not just to debate with the snake oil salesman, but actually through actions as much as words, our job is to start drowning them out.” Indeed, nearly 20,000 people recently took to the streets of Rome to denounce the potential implementation of the Decree-Law on Immigration and Security, a particularly pernicious law that ends humanitarian protections and erodes legal relief available to refugees in Italy.

Senatus Populus que Romanus (SPQR, The Roman Senate and People)

As forms of legal solidarity—that is, the legal protections afforded to migrants and refugees—are eroded by Italy’s ruling populist coalition, Italians have diversified forms of solidarity, including public protests, transnational marches, solidarity tourism, and vows to intervene in deportation flights if Salvini follows through with his threats to deport 500,000 migrants.

Sitting on a bench in Rome’s Piazzale Maslax, the coordinator of a citizen solidarity program Giana impatiently explained to me, “Given the fascism of the League, everyday acts of kindness are not enough. We must retake the streets, the piazzas, the parks. You see SPQR on the sidewalks and buildings?” Gesturing to the piazza surrounding us, “They…this…belongs to the people of Italy, not to those in power who do not represent us.” Here, Giana referenced the phrase of the ancient roman republic Senatus Populus que Romanus (SPQR, The Roman Senate and People), which emerged from the ancient belief that authority originates from the people, not a single ruler, and which brandishes city streets, public buildings, and government correspondence throughout Italy.

Piazzale Maslax has become a vivid and enduring marker of a cosmopolitan solidarity with migrants in Italy, a solidarity rooted in fundamental notions of rights that exists in spite of historically and geographically constructed classed and racialized identities. Home to the Baobab Experience, volunteers provide tents, serve meals, provide haircuts, and create spaces for attorneys, Italian classes, and medical visits, enlisting social media to organize meals, volunteer hours and donation drives. Citing cultural values of hospitality and empathy, Italians have expressed solidarity in attending to the material realities of refugees and migrants in the absence of state support. Such efforts exist within a context of austerity measures following the global financial crisis in 2008 that has led to the decline in resources available to Italians and migrants alike. Similar models have emerged in Belgium, France, and northern Italy in response to the 2015-2016 influx of refugees to Europe and the closing of borders in the Balkans, Switzerland and France.

  Serving food in Piazzale Maslax. Credits: Baobab Experience

Serving food in Piazzale Maslax. Credits: Baobab Experience

The Piazzale Maslax and nearby abandoned buildings overtaken by migrants serve as critical for solidarity among migrants themselves. Here, migrants share information about how to navigate Italy’s cumbersome bureaucratic processes, secure essential translation and interpretation of documents, provide comfort amid a bleak future, and, on occasion, laugh, sing, tell stories, or share a meal. Mariam, an 18-year-old Eritrean who lives in a disused building near the Piazzale Maslax, described, “I’ve lived here for maybe 9 or 10 months; its where I can find a piece of home with my countrymen. Rome is a very lonely place. I am happy to be here, or I suppose, the promise of here.”

Initiatives like the Baobab Experience exist as a form of radical solidarity that has emerged in spite of and in active resistance to the state. A Baobab volunteer Eleonora asserted “If we are only talking to the shooter, we are doomed to fail. Here, we are organizing citizens to undermine the predatory forces of capitalism and the extreme fascism in Italy by creating a functioning society rooted in solidarity with migrants. We are building coalitions where the Italian state won’t.” Grounded within notions of reciprocity and deservingness, Italian citizens seek to demonstrate a viable alternative to the status quo in which hope might trump hate. Or, as 17-year-old Abeiku, an unaccompanied minor from Ghana, aptly described, “Desperate situations can make you desperate, or they can help you to hope.”  

  Hope at the port of Catania. Credits: Lauren Heidbrink

Hope at the port of Catania. Credits: Lauren Heidbrink

Along with Salvini’s campaign to criminalize anyone daring to rescue migrants in the Mediterranean Sea and eroding social support and legal protections for refugees, he has turned his gaze to citizen solidarity efforts. In mid-November, Italian authorities violently and very spectacularly cleared Piazzale Maslax, leaving homeless 150 people including several unaccompanied minors.

Other Italians have merged material support with relational solidarity by inviting migrants and refugees into their homes and providing lodging when government facilities were unwilling or unable to provide shelter. In response to my request to meet with Refugee Home (a pseudonym) regarding their efforts to provide housing to failed asylum-seekers in Rome, the coordinator responded via email: “I am going to propose a contra deal or tit-for-tat: You provide one placement in a city (preferably Rome but any city will do), get them through the first few weeks of the homestay so we know you are serious; then, I or one of the team will answer any or all of your questions.” 

While sympathetic, Giuseppe, a caseworker at a drop-in center for unaccompanied children in Rome, critiqued this approach,  “I spend my taxes on the national healthcare system, but I don’t conduct open heart surgery on my kitchen table. It is a fairly straightforward relationship.” For Giuseppe, such private forms of solidarity undermine the state’s legal, financial and moral responsibility to refugees. “Solidarity must be a national value,” he explained.

For Giulia, a collaborating artist at a day center for unaccompanied youths in Palermo, Sicily, the politics of representation are a lynchpin of solidarity. “We must make more space for all refugees to speak their truths, not just those who are perfect victims.” By hearing more complex and diverse voices, she argues, the public can begin to recognize the agency of migrants while empowering migrants themselves to narrate their own stories.

Geographer David Featherstone argues that solidarity can serve as a transformative relation between places, activists, and diverse social groups. If indeed transformative, cosmopolitan solidarity must extend beyond material and affective solidarity to simultaneously equalize the fundamental inequity in power relations between undocumented migrants and asylum seekers and Italian citizens standing in solidarity with them. In other words, how might we enact a shared commitment to justice that transcends an increasingly fascist state?


Lauren Heidbrink is an anthropologist and assistant professor 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, 2014). As the recipient of the Fulbright Schuman 70th Anniversary Scholar Award, she is conducting a comparative study on the migration of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in Italy, Greece, Belgium and the United Kingdom.

Note: In an effort to ensure confidentiality, names of individuals and organizations are pseudonyms. All views expressed in this publication are of the author.

Radicalizing Tensions: Between Fascism and Solidarity in Italy (Part I)

by Lauren Heidbrink

How do citizens enact solidarity when nations fail to? In this first of a 2-part series, anthropologist Lauren Heidbrink examines forms of solidarity that have emerged in Italy in spite of and in active resistance to the state.

  The Diciotti at the port of Catania, Sicily. Credits: Lauren Heidbrink

The Diciotti at the port of Catania, Sicily. Credits: Lauren Heidbrink

“I thought it would only take three or four hours to reach Europe, but the journey was much longer and colder,” described Mohammed of his journey from Libya to Italy. A 16-year-old unaccompanied minor from Nigeria, Mohammed was one of 177 migrants rescued by the Italian coastguard’s Diciotti in August of 2018. Many onboard were fleeing violence in Eritrea, Syria, Bangladesh, Egypt, and Somalia; Mohammed was fleeing eight months of hard labor and violence in Libya, where he sought employment following the death of his parents in a car accident in Lagos. “Libya was no good for us blacks…I didn’t know if I would survive. I don’t know if I will survive here either; it’s not so easy, but I’d rather die than return there,” Mohammed explained several week later from a Sicilian reception facility where I was conducting research on child migration in Europe.  

Rescued near Lamapdeusa, Mohammed thought his journey had ended when he boarded the Diciotti. Instead, he would remain at sea for another four days and in the Sicilian port of Catania for another two before being permitted to disembark. Like so many others, Mohammed fell victim to ongoing debates on solidarity in Europe. Flexing his newly-acquired political might, Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini refused the Diciotti to dock, announcing, “The ship may land in Italy, as long as the 177 migrants are distributed, in a spirit of solidarity by the EU (European Union).” Italy’s populist Five Star Movement (M5S), which governs in coalition with Salvini’s far-right League party, assumed power in June of 2018, with aspirations of sealing Italy’s 7,600-kilometer coastline from incoming migrants.

  "This is the situation aboard the #Diciotti for 8 days now.” Credit: Deputy of Europe, Riccardo Magi following his visit onboard in August of 2018.

"This is the situation aboard the #Diciotti for 8 days now.” Credit: Deputy of Europe, Riccardo Magi following his visit onboard in August of 2018.

As Mohammed explained, “I came to Italy to be safe and to live free, but there we were, captive on a boat just centimeters from land. I could throw a ball that would reach Europe, but I wasn’t allowed to catch it.” Simultaneously denouncing Maltese authorities for failing to rescue the migrant boat in its waters, Salvini drew a line in the sand—either Europe demonstrates “solidarity” by redistributing migrants from Italy to northern Europe or Salvini would return the migrants onboard the Diciotti to Libya.

With mounting international pressure, Italy’s transport minister Danilo Toninelli allowed the Diciotti to dock in Catania, but Salvini quickly refused migrants onboard to disembark. Akin to a hostage situation, Sicilian authorities and Italian civil society began to negotiate their release enlisting a hierarchy of vulnerability: the Italian Ministry of Health in Sicily secured the immediate release of 13 migrants with pressing health issues, such as pregnancy, tuberculosis, pneumonia, scabies, and urinary infections, who were whisked to local hospitals in Red Cross ambulances. The Italian Ombudsperson for Children and Adolescents (Autorità garante per l'infanzia e l'adolescenza) called for the immediate release of children onboard, citing Italian law and international protections for children enshrined in the UN Convention of Human Rights and the Convention of the Rights of the Child. Two days later, 27 unaccompanied children, including Mohammed, were permitted to disembark. Behind the scenes, the Italian Conference of Catholic Bishops began negotiating the release of migrants, who were threatening a hunger strike as negotiations drug on. Within a few days, prosecutors in neighboring Agrigento opened an investigation into Salvini for kidnapping, abuse of office, and illegal detention of migrants onboard—charges that were later dropped.

  'Catania welcomes.' Credits: Silvio Laviano

'Catania welcomes.' Credits: Silvio Laviano

Sicilians took to the street in protest, flooding the port of Catania chanting, “We cannot quietly watch fascism come back. We have to act and resist.” Wielding the Sicilian specialty arancini (rice balls), they yelled, "Welcome to Catania! Here, have an arancino." Standing next to me in the crowd of 300, a protestor explained, "In our homes, you welcome travelers with food; arancino are warm and immediately satisfying after a long journey.”

These negotiations inflamed entrenched political debates in Italy, calling many to critique its slow-moving bureaucracy, high unemployment levels, chronic housing issues, and the increasing license of nativists’ “Italian first” response. International debates centered on issues of solidarity, as Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte said, “Italy must take note that the spirit of solidarity is struggling to translate into concrete acts.” Here, Conte specifically referred to the June 2018 EU summit, which failed to establish a scheme for redistributing 160,000 refugees held in overcrowded camps in Italy and Greece. Only after the 10-day standoff were the remaining 140 migrants onboard the Diciotti processed in a nearby Messina hotspot and transferred to placements with the Italian Church (100 migrants), Ireland (20 migrants), and non-EU member Albania (20 migrants) at their own expense. 

  Port of Catania.

Port of Catania.

In recent years, Italy rescued nearly 600,000 migrants in the Mediterranean Sea; at its height in 2016, the Italian coast guard and humanitarian organizations rescued 4500 migrants in the Mediterranean in a single day. Since 2017, however, the number of migrants arriving in Italy has dwindled. Unrelenting in his anti-immigrant campaign, however, Salvini has exploited social ills and tragedies across Italy, blaming migrants for outbreaks in illness, rape and murder, the impunity of the mafia, and even the deadly Genoese bridge collapse. Salvini and the League systematically have criminalized any entity attempting to respond to shipwrecked migrants, including humanitarian organizations, commercial vessels, Frontex, fisherman, and in the case of the Diciotti, even the Italian Coast Guard—claiming they all are aiding and abetting smugglers.

With fewer boats arriving since the Diciotti in August, Salvini has turned to eroding social support and legal protections for refugees already residing in Italy. The recent arrest and exile of immigrant-friendly mayor Domenico Lucano, largely heralded for singularly resuscitating the town of Riace by welcoming refugees, served as a high-profile effort to deter local governments from welcoming refugees. Some posit that Lucano’s the arrest is in direct response to mayors in southern Italy vowing to disobey Salvini’s orders to block humanitarian rescue boats from all Italian seaports.

  Youth playing in Riace. Credits:     Francesco Pistilli     .

Youth playing in Riace. Credits: Francesco Pistilli.

 “It has only deteriorated,” explained an immigration attorney in Rome. “He is a right-wing sheriff who rules by tweet. He does not represent us; we must fight him at every turn and hope he doesn’t destroy the nation in the process.” On September 24, 2018,  Italian Council of Ministers unanimously signed the Decree-Law on Immigration and Security (decree law no. 113/2018), effectively abolishing humanitarian protections in Italy; allowing for the refusal or withdraw of international protections; and establishing a framework to strip Italian citizenship from some refugees. Colloquially termed the Salvini Law, the decree likewise erodes the System of Protection of Asylum Seekers and Refugees (SPRAR), a decentralized network of small-scale reception centers housing refugees and unaccompanied minors. The decree has cleared the Italian Senate. The Chamber of Deputies must review the proposal within 60 days, without whose intervention, it automatically becomes law.

“The clock is ticking,” Leonardo, the director of a Sicilian-based SPRAR, told me. “We have lost so much [government] funding in recent years, that we are already functioning with so little support. Now, staff are preparing for unemployment. We are scrambling to find places for these children to live.” Livid at what he sees an attack on Sicilian values of hospitality, generosity and inclusion, Leonardo fumed, “Mass mourning on social media is not enough; time for talking has long past. We must conspire. We must act!”

Part II: Radicalizing Tensions


Lauren Heidbrink is an anthropologist and assistant professor 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, 2014). As the recipient of the Fulbright Schuman 70th Anniversary Scholar Award, she is conducting a comparative study on the migration of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in Italy, Greece, Belgium and the United Kingdom.

Disclaimer: In an effort to ensure confidentiality, all names of individuals and organizations are pseudonyms. All views expressed in this publication are of the author.

The #Multicultural State: Counter-narratives from migrant youth living in Buenos Aires

by María V. Barbero

Buenos Aires is multicultural. Buenos Aires is cosmopolitan. Buenos Aires is welcoming and inclusive. Buenos Aires is a city of migrants. These were the messages I heard from state officials while conducting research in Buenos Aires during 2016 and 2017.  Such narratives circulated through the city government’s monthly cultural programing—programing that attracts thousands to iconic parks and streets to eat ethnic food and to celebrate immigrant communities: Buenos Aires Celebra Colombia, Buenos Aires Celebra Italia, Buenos Aires Celebra Paraguay, and so on and so forth. This programing is complemented by commemorative events organized by the national immigration office at the city’s historic museum of immigration.

 Promotional material produced by City Government for “Buenos Aires Celebra India.”  Source

Promotional material produced by City Government for “Buenos Aires Celebra India.” Source

This robust programming resembles what Lugones (2014)  calls “ornamental multiculturalism,” or a multiculturalism that “reduces non-Western cultures to ornaments to be enjoyed touristically,” while ignoring and obscuring structures of power. These events each generate colorful flyers, professional photographs, short videoclips and hashtags through which the message of an inclusive, multicultural state are circulated via Facebook, Twitter, and government websites.  

Yet amid these messages is another, also incredibly robust scene of cultural production, one assembled by migrant youth living in Buenos Aires. This scene involves theater performances, books published with carton and fabric scraps, and radio programing. It is multicultural, multilingual and transnational, and it creates an alternative to the state’s ornamental multiculturalism. It does not shy away from analyzing power relations and deliberately enlists culture as a vehicle for resistance. 

 Promotional material produced by City Government for Buenos Aires for “Buenos Aires Celebra Bolivia.”  Source

Promotional material produced by City Government for Buenos Aires for “Buenos Aires Celebra Bolivia.” Source

This programing generates another set of images circulating in Buenos Aires. These images and narratives invite observers and participants to remember that their clothing did not emerge out of thin air and that the remains of their garments simultaneously represent hopes and dreams as well as sacrifices, labor exploitation, and even deaths of bordering country immigrants. This counternarrative lays bare the deep contradictions of immigrant reception in Argentina, and it defiantly highlights that the presence hundreds of migrants on the streets of Buenos Aires is not merely an opportunity for multicultural entertainment, but also an act of political power. 


Disrupting the Silence: A Typical Thursday

 Cover of No Olvidamos, written and published by Simbiosis Cultural, a Bolivian youth organization in Buenos Aires.

Cover of No Olvidamos, written and published by Simbiosis Cultural, a Bolivian youth organization in Buenos Aires.

The book tilted No Olvidamos [We Won’t Forget] begins with the phrase, “It was a typical Thursday…” and it chronicles a tragic fire in a Buenos Aires textile sweatshop in the barrio of Caballito on March 30th, 2006. The fire led to the death of five Bolivian children and one 25-year-old pregnant woman, who were resting upstairs in the crumbling facility where they lived and worked in conditions of “servitude.” Written and published by Simbiosis Cultural, a Bolivian youth collective based in Buenos Aires, No Olvidamos is but one in a series of books published through their Editorial Retazos," characterized by binding made out of cartons and fabric scraps thrown out by local sweatshops. Simbiosis Cultural also holds events every March 30th to “remember”, “denounce” and “make visible” the precarious conditions of so many Bolivian migrants in Buenos Aires. Their actions, which also included calling attention to the trial subsequent to the fire, are meant to counter what No Olvidamos describes as a push for silence and inaction from all those—including the Argentine and Bolivian states—that depend on avoiding “overexposing” a system structured around exploitation.


Disrupting the Narrative: Generous Country

 Forum Theater play titled “Generous Country.” June 13th, 2017. Photo Credit: Maria Barbero.

Forum Theater play titled “Generous Country.” June 13th, 2017. Photo Credit: Maria Barbero.

“Argentina: Generous Country” is the title of a special report produced by Jorge Lanata, one of Argentina’s most well-known and controversial journalists. Aired on October 16th, 2016 on Canal 13, the report blamed Argentina’s immigrant student population for issues of inequality and inefficacy plaguing the country’s public higher education system. Inspired by forum theater, a technique of Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed, women active in AMUMRA, a Buenos Aires non-profit focused on the rights of migrant women and refugees, presented a theatrical production with the same name at the Peruvian Consulate in Buenos Aires in June of 2017.  The play tells the story of Maria, a Peruvian migrant woman who contends with lack of information, discriminatory treatment by Gendarmerie agents, labor discrimination, and ongoing xenophobia in Argentina. Turning the narrative of “Generous Country” on its head, performers include Latin American migrant women, most of whom are either students or domestic workers active in the disruption of dominant narratives circulating in mass media. The performance invited the audience of migrants, Argentine citizens and Peruvian, Chilean and Panamanian diplomats to intervene at certain moments throughout the play, calling on them to play an active role in challenging the practices and discourses that paradoxically claim Argentina is a “generous country.”


Disrupting the Streets: "We are the uncontrolled migration"

It is 4:00pm on Saturday November 26, 2016 and Mandioca Radioactiva airs in Buenos Aires through Radio Sur. This is a weekly radio program produced by Movimiento 138, a Paraguayan youth organization founded in 2012 after a land conflict resulted in the death of eleven peasants and six security officers in Curuguaty, Paraguay and President Fernando Lugo was ousted by a right-wing Paraguayan parliament. The group has since been active in the sociopolitical scene of both countries. 

 November 22, 2016. Migrants march toward congress in Buenos Aires in protest of anti-immigrant statements and proposals. Photo credit: Maria Barbero

November 22, 2016. Migrants march toward congress in Buenos Aires in protest of anti-immigrant statements and proposals. Photo credit: Maria Barbero

As Carmen, one of the group members, explained to me in an interview, the aim of Movimiento 138 has always been to "organize the anger, from a place that is honest, and creative above all" (1). For more than five years now, the group has held events to demand justice for Curuguaty and to promote the rights of migrants in Argentina. Toward the end of the two hour-long radio programing, the members of Movimiento 138 discuss a march that took place just days prior in Buenos Aires. Hundreds of migrants marched to congress to denounce the government’s expressed desire to change Argentina’s immigration policy and to open the country’s first immigrant detention center. One program invitee and member of Movimiento 138 explains, "We made noise, it was great to bother all the people there, to shut down the streets, it was really beautiful." In light of this, the hosts discuss also "making noise" at a recent event held by the immigration office on the Day of the Immigrant. The event felt staged, they explain. "It was a festival for blonde immigrants." It wasn't for "bordering country immigrants. We are the uncontrolled migration." Indeed, youth movements like Movimiento 138 become disruptive to the state's cultural programing when the idea of cultural celebration is detached from power relations and injustice.



A Buenos Aires government worker in charge of the monthly Buenos Aires Celebra activities explained to me that the aim of the cultural programing was to "establish the possibility for each collectivity that lives in the city of Buenos Aires, to have its own space on the street, in the public space once a year to celebrate their customs, traditions and culture." In May of 2017, I ran into members of Movimiento 138 at Buenos Aires Celebra Paraguay. The group was indeed selling traditional Paraguayan dishes. They were also however, walking the streets handing out flyers which read, "Migrant rights are in danger."  

One member of Simbiosis Cultural explained that some of the events held by the city government serve to essentialize migrants. 

"The migrant is this […] And come everyone and watch, right? This is the migrant: the one who dances, the one who eats something different and nothing else. And the migrant has to do with a lot of things, with rights that are being violated, with respect…"

Culture, for members of Simbiosis Cultural, Movimiento 138, and other youth-led migrant organizations in Buenos Aires cannot be disentangled from questions of power and inequality.  In fact, culture becomes not only a source of belonging and enjoyment but likewise a vehicle for promoting democracy, rights, and justice. It becomes a way to disrupt dominant silences, narratives, and geographies that circulate not only in Argentina, but also in their countries of origin. 

  (1): a pseudonym


María V. Barbero is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Global and Sociocultural Studies at Florida International University. Her research explores issues of youth migration, citizenship, and racialization and has been published in Citizenship Studies and Metropolitics.


Emergency Contact: Dispatches from the Tornillo Children’s Detention Camp

by Abigail Carl-Klassen

I. A Message from Snopes

Claim: The Trump administration is building “tent cities” to house minor immigrants.

Rating: Mixture

What’s True: Multiple news outlets have confirmed HHS’s plans to build tent cities.

What’s False: They have not yet been constructed; the practice is not new.

II. A Message from the Department of Health and Human Services

1. Unaccompanied Alien Children Frequently Asked Questions

In recent days, there has been a great deal of misinformation about the Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) Program. This misinformation and the intentional perpetuation of it is a disservice to the hundreds of caseworkers and care providers who are deeply committed to the quality care and safe and speedy placement of the children with appropriate sponsors.

2. Policy Guide

Unaccompanied alien children apprehended by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) immigration officials are transferred to the care and custody of Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). The ORR promptly places an unaccompanied child in the least restrictive setting that is in the best interest of the child. The ORR Policy Guide for Alien Children Entering the United States Unaccompanied describes policies for the placement, timely release and care of unaccompanied alien children in ORR custody. It is a living document that may be updated as new policies are incorporated into the program or current policies are modified.

3. Updated Terms

Family Reunification – Family reunification is an older term used in the Flores Settlement Agreement to refer to the process of releasing an unaccompanied alien child to the care of a parent, relative or other sponsor.

Influx – An increase in the number of unaccompanied alien children that exceeds the standard capabilities of responsible Federal departments and agencies to process and transport them timely and/or to shelter them with existing resources.

Influx Care Facility – A type of care provider facility that is opened to provide temporary emergency shelter and services for unaccompanied alien children during an influx or emergency. Influx care facilities may be opened on federally owned or leased properties, in which case, the facility would not be subject to State or local licensing standards; or, at facilities otherwise exempted by the State licensing authority.

4. Updated Timeline

The Tornillo Facility was confirmed as a site on June 14th, 2018 and within 24 hours 100 minors were on location. The facility doubled in size from June 18th to June 19th 2018. The facility was previously contracted to operate until the end of August 2018. The contract initially was extended until the end of September 2018. More than 1300 children were housed at the facility at the end of September. The contract has been renewed until December 31st, 2018, when the contract may be extended upon further review.

III. A Message from the Guardian and the New York Times

The Tornillo Temporary Minor Immigration
Detention Facility operates like a small pop-up city.

Authorities say it was meant to be
small and temporary. Hidden from public

view on the ground, its proliferation clearly visible
from the air. Kept on a remote patch

of federal land surrounded by scrub and pecan farms,
children are being brought by the busload.

Hundreds of children are being shipped from shelters
across the country to Tornillo each week.

The moves are carried out at night to prevent
escape attempts. The children’s emergency

contact information, etched in pen
on their belts. Since June, dozens of people

who applied to have detained children released
into their custody have been arrested by ICE.

IV. A Message from Trump Supporters


It’s not a good situation, but we have to
uphold our laws. There has to be

checks and balances. It seems like
this is being done humanely.


I think people need to stop
constantly bringing up the poor
children. The poor children.

Quit trying to make us feel
teary eyed for the children.


When I was a kid, 16 years old,
I got fined for swimming in a lake

’cause I didn’t follow the rules.
These people that we have coming

across the border illegally are breaking
the rules. I have no feelings for them at all.

V. A Message from the 1,300 Children Detained in Tornillo








Abigail Carl-Klassen is a poet, writer, educator, translator and activist. 

“Emergency Contact: Dispatches from the Tornillo Children’s Detention Camp” was first published on Poets Reading the News on October 12, 2018.

Negotiating Migration: How Youth Decide to Migrate

 by Emily Ruehs-Navarro

Focusing on the stories of not just why but how youth leave their home countries reveals insight into the dynamic process of child migration decisions.

The coverage of unaccompanied immigrant youth is often painted in broad strokes: 45,704 unaccompanied youth have been detained by U.S. border enforcement in the current fiscal year; 12,800 youth are being held in immigration detention facilities; 32,122 have been released to sponsors. Yet, what happens when we zoom our lens onto the single digits of these numbers? What happens when we talk not about broad crises that span months and years but rather single moments in youth’s lives? In my research, I work to uncover the micro-level moments of youth migration. These magnified moments unveil important insight into youth social agency, safety, and family dynamics. The stories I share here are responses to the prompts: “tell me about the day you left,” and “tell me about the decision to leave.”  

Edwin had a vivid recollection of the day his life in a small Honduran town turned global. He was thirteen-years-old at the time and had lived in the same house his whole life. He had a nice life, he explained: “I was working. I didn’t earn a lot, but I could take care of myself and my grandmother. My uncles in the United States had sent money to help her build a house, but I contributed a little too.” He explained that every day he would get up early to work in construction, helping other families build their homes. In the afternoons, he would do chores with his grandmother. “One day, I came home on my bike, tired, sweaty. I arrived and laid down in the hammock. My grandmother came over—she was talking with my dad on the phone. She said, ‘Hey, your dad says to get ready. He says that you are leaving. He has the money to pay the coyotes to bring you to the United States.’ I was super happy. I really wanted to go to the US. I was like, ‘Oh my God. This is my time! I’m going to go there!” His grandmother was not happy about this decision. Edwin remembers that she pleaded with him to stay in Honduras. However, his father’s vote, coupled with Edwin’s desire, far outweighed his grandmother’s pleas. As promised, Edwin left for the United States just days after that conversation.  

For Cynthia, the migration decision was prompted by a rumor—not a rumor of an automatic permiso in the United States, which some US officials claim drive migration, but a rumor that a man had come to her community who might be able to help her. Cynthia was living with her mother and younger siblings in rural Guatemala. The family was deeply impoverished, and her mother’s alcohol use left Cynthia alone to care for her siblings for days or weeks on end. Although her grandparents lived nearby, they provided little support. Plus, because of her mother’s reputation for trading sex for alcohol, Cynthia was often harassed by her neighbors, who called her a whore. “There were days that I just wanted to die,” Cynthia explained. “I cried all of the time. I knew I needed to do something.” And then she heard the rumor: there was a man traveling to the United States who was bringing women and children with him; Cynthia could join if she agreed to pay him through work in the US. With this opportunity in hand, Cynthia did not hesitate. She talked to her mother the following day: “I told my mom I was going to leave, and she agreed since I promised to send money home. When my grandparents found out, they said they wouldn’t let me go because I’m a girl. They thought I just wanted to find a man. So I escaped!” In the middle of the night, Cynthia crept out of her house, leaving her beloved siblings behind and meeting the group to travel North.

Carlos always knew that he would travel to the United States. There was never any question about the future for the men in his family: Like his uncles, like his father, and like his older brothers, Carlos felt destined to leave his small town in Mexico and head North. The question was never if, but when. Carlos explains that he was ready by age ten to migrate, but his parents refused: “They said I was too small, but I always wanted to go. I wanted to work, to make money, to make a life.” As the years passed, Carlos grew stronger and more capable. By age fourteen, he broached the topic again. Migration was a rite of passage, and this time, his father felt that Carlos finally exhibited the mental and physical fortitude necessary for both the act of migration and for the hard work that would ensue. Although Carlos’s mother and younger siblings completely opposed his migration, his father arranged for the coyote within a week of their conversation. His father instructed Carlos to be brave and take responsibility for his family, a charge that Carlos has taken very seriously. “My motivation has always been to save money and build my parents a house,” he explained.

Mariana loved her home in an urban center in Honduras. She lived with her mother who had raised her in the church. They were financially stable, since her father sent regular remittances from the United States. There had always been a gang presence in her community that dictated much of her life, but the gangs had been avoidable, if she kept her head down. Once she became a teenager, however, this changed. A member of a local gang began to follow her regularly. He would ride his motorcycle past her on her walk to church, and he would holler at her as she left her school building. Mariana explained: “I tried to not pay attention to him. I told myself that maybe he didn’t mean anything bad. But then one day he pushed me to a wall and shoved a gun into my stomach.” Mariana was terrified, and in this moment, she knew she must leave. She called her father that night, and he was unsure if he had the money. The rest of the family also hesitated. Her grandparents disagreed with her decision initially because of the dangers of migrating, but they finally agreed that the education and opportunities in the U.S. would make the trip worth it. Her mother never fully supported Mariana’s decision, yet she conceded that at age sixteen, Mariana was old enough to decide for herself. The next month, Mariana called her father again, who had been able to collect enough money to pay the smuggling fees. They contacted a local coyote who had successfully transported a neighbor’s children; within two months of the assault, Mariana left Honduras.

These four initiation stories paint diverse pictures of not just why a child migrates but also how migration occurs and who makes the decision. When we understand that Edwin was told, that Cynthia fled, that Carlos negotiated, and that Mariana decided, the lives of these young people are brought into stark relief. They illustrate the complexities of youth’s lives, as they relate to gender, class, and community structure. We see the intersection of gender and poverty in Cynthia’s narrative, which prompt a trip dependent on unknown future labor. Carlos’s sense of masculinity and adulthood are tied into his family’s wellbeing, such that his migration is a result of family negotiations and his own maturation: his family financially supported his trip with the understanding that he would return the payment with future remittances. Mariana’s position as a young woman in a community that was unable to provide her protection was significant in her decision to migrate, and her family’s resources provided her a safe passage with a trusted coyote. 

Additionally, these stories complicate the idea that parents must be held accountable for their children’s migration. We see that the decision to migrate is a process mediated by multiple actors who are not always in agreement. Extended family members, parents, siblings and, of course, youth themselves, are invested in this decision. The issues of safety are particularly salient, as safety exists only as it is supported by community structure, governmental competency, and family resources; so, youth and their families must carefully weigh these realities as they negotiate the option of migration.

While the statistics are useful in understanding the scale of children’s global movements, they risk obscuring the smaller truths of youth’s lives. Asking young people to talk about the day they left home is an exercise in magnifying youth’s voices so that we might learn of the complexities of their lives and create political responses that are as nuanced as their migration.


Emily Ruehs-Navarro is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Elmhurst College. She studies migration, youth, gender, and race, and she uses feminist pedagogy to engage students in global social issues.

"Just Another Refugee!" Art and Poetry by Salam Noah

Salam Noah took up painting while waiting for his family’s asylum papers to be processed in Greece. He is originally from Iraq.

 Oil painting on canvas by knife  80×60 cm  Salam Noah

Oil painting on canvas by knife

80×60 cm

Salam Noah

Just Another Refugee!

I am a refugee here, 

illegal only to those who fear! 

The sea and mountains I crossed,

I will cross again!

with no Destination or Path 

My only map.. the lines 

In my father's hand 

I am just a refugee here,

With no ties, no homeland, 

Or direction, 

I claim no nation, 

Choose no side ...

But this Earth is my land.

-Sahir Noah

 Oil painting on canvas  80×60 cm  Salam Noah

Oil painting on canvas

80×60 cm

Salam Noah

When the sea is safer than homeland

When the sea is safer than homeland

When a boat is warmer Than a 

House ..

When The sound of waves in a dark night in the middle of sea be calmer than the sound of bombing ..

When The view of sea while the waves are high be less scary Than The view of war in their country .. 

When a child sit in a boat full of people in The sea is more comfortable Than his 

seat in his school .. 

When someone put his children in a boat feeling cold in a journey 

of death or survive .. There is a reason why ..

You have to understand That these people Have lost their home, their education, Their dreams, simply everything In their life ..

Those are the one who are carrying a hope of Having a life again ..

In Journey of rescuing a soul  ..

-Sahir Noah

Salam Noah’s work can be found here.


by Whitney Duncan

This post is reprinted with the permission of the author. It is part of the series Im/migration in the Trump Era. (Con traducción al español abajo)

It is a warm Saturday afternoon, and fifteen people sit in a circle of mismatched chairs in a wood-floored Denver living room. Occasionally interrupted by requests and cries from our children playing outside in the backyard, we introduce ourselves and share why we are present. Most attendees share details of their or their family member’s deportation proceedings—new developments, court and Immigrant and Customs Enforcement (ICE) “check-in” dates, plans for challenging their legal cases. Our group is affiliated with a local immigrant-rights organization and provides a space for members to strategize, give and receive support, create social networks, and receive training to advocate for themselves and others. As a site of resistance, solidarity, and grief, it underlines both the resiliency and vulnerability of undocumented immigrants in the present political landscape.

Many group members entered the immigration system years ago, but the Obama administration deemed them low-priority due to clean criminal records, U.S. citizen children, and/or otherwise sympathetic cases. They were therefore granted stays of removal, temporary postponements of deportation that allow undocumented immigrants to remain in the United States provided that they attend regular check-ins with ICE. Under the Trump administration, though, immigrants attending their check-ins have increasingly been detained and deported, despite having followed the rules of their stays and despite having family, jobs, and lives in the United States. Recently, our small group lost three members in three consecutive months—all detained at check-ins and deported within a few days.

The emotional toll such deportations take on deportees and their families, friends, and advocates cannot be overstated, nor can the fear and anxiety of upcoming check-in and court dates. My research over the past decade has focused on migration and mental health. Working at a psychiatric hospital in Oaxaca, Mexico, I found that about one-third of patients had a migration experience, and most of those I interviewed attributed their psychiatric problems to the trauma of migration (see Duncan 2015). These patients were not usually deportees, but instead had returned to Mexico due to debilitating mental-health symptoms. It was only after the 2016 presidential elections, when I began volunteering with the support group as well as documenting ICE activities and police–ICE collaborations, that I fully understood the ravages of the U.S. deportation machine.

Normally I volunteer with the support group as an interpreter, but the one non-Spanish-speaking group member was recently deported. After a moment of silence acknowledging the pain of his absence, a new member whom I’ll call Sarita explains that her abusive husband, who is a U.S. citizen, is threatening to call ICE on her if she leaves him or reports his assaults. Other members with more longstanding cases—and therefore more experience with the immigration system—advise Sarita on next steps.

As her U.S.-born toddler plays at her feet, Sarita tells us that when she attempted to report her husband’s abuse, the police said that she should divorce him and declined to take her testimony. Financially dependent on her husband and with no family in the United States, Sarita is at a loss. Other members soothe her, hug her, and one by one hand her $20 bills. As the only nonimmigrant in the room—and apparently the only attendee without any cash in my wallet—I am simultaneously inspired by the show of generosity, enraged at the system that creates such impossible situations, and overcome by a familiar feeling of impotence.

The word acompañamiento, or accompaniment, arises frequently at our meetings, and I find it more aptly describes the group’s strategy than do words like activism and advocacy—even though many of the group’s activities do involve mobilizing petitions, donations, vigils, and protests. Acompañamiento conveys the forms of relatedness and nonjudgmental care that the group fosters, regardless of the details of any individual’s case. In contrast to university-based efforts, the support group is not mediated by an institution. Rather, support-group acompañamiento emerges in response to violence perpetrated by the very state that is supposed to protect rights. Unlike in the immigration system, in public portrayals of immigrants, or even within many immigrant-serving organizations, no one in the support group is considered more deserving of emotional and practical support than anyone else; no case is too unsympathetic to merit acompañamiento. As one member said to Sarita, who has both immigration and criminal cases pending, “You’re not alone. It doesn’t matter why you’re in the system. We’re all here for one reason or another; we each have our own battle.”

As I reflect on the ways I have accompanied immigrants over the past year—on the possibilities and limitations of my involvement, on the relationships I have formed, and on the feelings of helplessness and rage that each deportation inspires—I am also forced to acknowledge a crisis of commensurability with respect to my own involvements. Support group members emphasize that nonimmigrant allies are essential, but that we cannot possibly understand in an embodied way what is at stake for immigrants. While we—while I—can provide some form of acompañamiento, the goal of the group is for immigrants to accompany fellow immigrants. Soon after that Saturday meeting, Sarita herself began volunteering as a documenter, interviewing people swept up in Colorado’s latest immigration raids and contributing to a growing database of rights abuses.

DREAMers and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program garner considerable attention, but in living rooms, backyards, and church basements throughout the United States, immigrants of all kinds are quietly challenging notions of deservingness and forming means of mutual support amid assaults on human dignity. In these community-based contexts, they draw on each other’s expertise, triumphs, and failures; they grieve in the company of others experiencing similar grief; they give and receive emotional care. As a model of resistance, acompañamiento highlights the suffering and solidarity immigrants experience in the contemporary political atmosphere. At the same time, it highlights the limits of solidarity and support in the absence of structural change.


Duncan, Whitney L. 2015. “Transnational Disorders: Returned Migrants at Oaxaca’s Psychiatric Hospital.” Medical Anthropology Quarterly 29, no. 1: 24–41.

Whitney Duncan is an anthropologist and associate professor at the University of Northern Colorado. She is author of Transforming Therapy: Mental Health Practice and Cultural Change in Mexico (Vanderbilt University Press 2018).


por Whitney Duncan

Es una cálida tarde de sábado y quince personas estamos sentadas en círculo en una sala con piso de madera en Denver. Nos presentamos y compartimos la razón por la que estamos ahí, mientras nuestros hijos, que juegan en el jardín, nos interrumpen ocasionalmente. La mayoría de los participantes comparte detalles de su propia deportación o la de algún familiar. El grupo está afiliado a una organización local de derechos de los inmigrantes y provee un espacio para que los miembros generen estrategias, den y reciban apoyo, creen redes sociales y reciban entrenamiento para defenderse y defender a otros. Como sitio de resistencia, solidaridad y duelo, enfatiza la resiliencia y la vulnerabilidad de los inmigrantes indocumentados en el panorama político actual.

Muchos miembros del grupo entraron al sistema de inmigración hace años, pero durante la administración de Obama no se les dio prioridad, por no tener antecedentes penales, tener hijos ciudadanos estadounidenses y/o tener casos de alguna manera favorables. Por eso se les otorgaron suspensiones de deportación, aplazamientos temporales de deportación que permiten a los inmigrantes indocumentados permanecer en Estados Unidos siempre y cuando vayan a revisiones regulares con el ICE. Durante la administración de Trump, sin embargo, inmigrantes que asisten a sus revisiones han sido detenidos y deportados cada vez con mayor frecuencia, a pesar de haber seguido las reglas de su estancia y de tener familia, trabajos y vidas enteras en Estados Unidos. Recientemente, nuestro grupo perdió tres miembros en tres meses consecutivos -todos fueron detenidos durante sus citas de revisión y deportados en tan sólo unos días.

El desgaste emocional que dichas deportaciones generan en los deportados, sus familias, amigos y defensores es inexpresable, como lo son el miedo y la ansiedad que generan nuevas fechas de revisión. Mis investigaciones durante la última década han girado en torno a migración y salud mental -trabajando en un hospital psiquiátrico en Oaxaca, México, descubrí que aproximadamente un tercio de los pacientes tenía experiencias migratorias, y la mayoría atribuía sus problemas psiquiátricos a la experiencia traumática de la migración (Duncan 2015). Normalmente, esos pacientes no habían sido deportados, habían regresado a México a causa de síntomas de salud mental. Después de las elecciones presidenciales de 2016 empecé a hacer trabajo voluntario en el grupo de apoyo, como “documentadora” de actividades del ICE y de las colaboraciones entre la policía y el ICE, entonces entendí verdaderamente los estragos de la máquina de deportación del país. 

Normalmente trabajo en el grupo como intérprete, pero el único integrante que no hablaba español fue deportado recientemente. Después de un momento de silencio para reconocer el dolor de su ausencia, una nueva integrante a la que llamaré Sarita, explicó que su esposo abusador y ciudadano estadounidense, la amenaza con delatarla al ICE si lo deja o denuncia su abuso. Otros integrantes con casos más antiguos -y por lo tanto con mayor experiencia -la aconsejan sobre los pasos a seguir.

Mientras su hija nacida en Estados Unidos juega a sus pies, Sarita cuenta que cuando intentó denunciar la violencia de su esposo, la policía le aconsejó que se divorciara y se negó a tomar su declaración. Sarita está en desventaja; depende económicamente de su esposo y no tiene familia en Estados Unidos. Otros miembros la tranquilizan, la abrazan y uno a uno le dan billetes de veinte dólares. Como la única no migrante de la habitación, me encuentro simultáneamente inspirada por la muestra de generosidad, enfurecida con el sistema que crea estas situaciones imposibles, y sobrepasada por un sentimiento de impotencia.

La palabra acompañamiento surge con frecuencia en nuestras reuniones y encuentro que describe mejor la estrategia del grupo que palabras como activismo o defensa, aunque muchas de las actividades del grupo incluyan movilizar peticiones, donaciones, vigilias y protestas. La palabra acompañamiento expresa las formas de afinidad y apoyo libre de juicios que el grupo fomenta. En contraste a esfuerzos universitarios, este grupo no está mediado por una institución, más bien, emerge como respuesta a la violencia perpetrada por el mismo Estado que se supone debe proteger sus derechos. A diferencia del sistema de inmigración e incluso de varias organizaciones que sirven a inmigrantes, en el grupo nadie se considera más merecedor del apoyo emocional o práctico que otro; ningún caso es suficientemente desfavorable para no ameritar el acompañamiento. Otro integrante le dijo a Sarita, quien tiene casos penales y migratorios: “no estás sola, no importa por qué estés en el sistema. Todos estamos aquí por una razón u otra; cada uno tiene su propia batalla.”

Mientras reflexiono sobre las maneras en las que he acompañado a los inmigrantes durante el año pasado -en las posibilidades y limitaciones de mi involucramiento, en las relaciones que he formado y en los sentimientos de impotencia y enojo que cada deportación inspira- también me veo forzada a reconocer una crisis de proporcionalidad inherente a mis actividades. De hecho, los miembros del grupo enfatizan que los aliados no inmigrantes somos esenciales, pero que no podemos entender de manera completa lo que está en juego para ellos. Aunque podamos proveer algún tipo de acompañamiento, el objetivo del grupo es que inmigrantes acompañen a otros inmigrantes. Poco después de esa reunión, Sarita también empezó a trabajar como documentadora voluntaria, entrevistando gente detenida en las últimas redadas y contribuyendo a aumentar la base de datos sobre abusos a los derechos de los inmigrantes.

DREAMers y DACA obtienen bastante atención, pero en salas, jardines y sótanos de iglesias de todo el país, inmigrantes de todo tipo están cuestionando las nociones de merecimiento y formando vínculos de apoyo mutuo en medio de agresiones a la dignidad humana. En estos contextos comunitarios, ellos usan su propia experiencia, lloran en compañía de quienes experimentan el mismo dolor, y dan y reciben apoyo emocional. Como modelo de resistencia, el acompañamiento subraya el sufrimiento y la solidaridad que los inmigrantes experimentan en la atmósfera política actual. Al mismo tiempo, destaca los límites de la solidaridad y el apoyo ante la ausencia de cambios estructurales.


Traducido por Andrea Bel. Arruti.


Duncan, Whitney L. 2015. “Transnational Disorders: Returned Migrants at Oaxaca’s Psychiatric Hospital.” Medical Anthropology Quarterly 29, no. 1: 24–41.

Whitney Duncan is an anthropologist and associate professor at the University of Northern Colorado. She is author of Transforming Therapy: Mental Health Practice and Cultural Change in Mexico (Vanderbilt University Press 2018).

Young people in circulation and the re-construction of complex selves

by Thea Shahrokh

 Figure        SEQ Figure \* ARABIC     1      : Representation of personal relationships by young woman of Somali descent (age 18)

Figure 1: Representation of personal relationships by young woman of Somali descent (age 18)

The lived experience of being a young person who moves via migration can manifest itself in a circulating identity. This is where the experience of moving, of having once moved, and of moving in the future contribute to a layering of moments, relationships, places, and decisions that in turn circulate within oneself. For many young migrants, this circulation is often accompanied by a fracturing of control over the question: ‘Who am I?’. The breaking down of one’s identity in turn makes it difficult for global youth to imagine a ‘collective’ within which they have a legitimate part. This has lasting impact for young people both personally and politically, as it constrains their pursuit of rights and belonging.

The complex and fluid identities of young migrants demands greater attention. Emergent research in South Africa has found that for young people with migration backgrounds, making sense of these circulating identities is particularly challenging. Young people are trying to make meaning of who they are in a context where their lives are further ruptured by everyday xenophobia and a restrictive immigration system that constrains young people’s access to legal immigration status. As documented across diverse global settings, these systems of exclusion can have a deep personal impact on young lives.

In response, this piece outlines how young migrants articulate the complexity of their lives, the meaning they assign to it, and the role of creative, story-based research methodologies in supporting the re-construction of complex selves.

Creative and story-based research

The surfacing of complexity in young migrants’ lives highlights how their social position is intersected by axis of inequality such as gender, sexualities, age, race and nationality. In turn, a homogenous grouping of ‘young migrants’ is challenged, as are the relationships of power that bind certain groups together. The meta-narrative constructed around young people’s lives too often reduces their identities to stereotypes, and their lives as problematic. In its place, an emphasis on complexity has the potential to shift harmful and simplistic ideas.

Creative storytelling approaches in research can help to surface complex and personal accounts of young people’s lived realities. Through group-based and iterative learning processes participants are supported to build an understanding of who they are and how they have lived, and to re-construct future pathways. By incorporating narrative reflection, the re-negotiation of self in relation to others is supported. Visual and embodied creative expression can further enable alternative ways of seeing and knowing. Over time, the many stories that research group members hold are surfaced and woven together into a moment that captures youths' multiplicity and is significant to them.

Narrating complex identities in Cape Town, South Africa

Along with contemporary questions around the politics of belonging, complex histories of movement into and within South Africa have highlighted how migration-related experience can deeply impact a person’s understanding of self in relation to community. Our recent story-based research with 28 young people aged 14-25 in Cape Town aimed to deepen an analysis of these issues. This research took place over nine months and included young people born in South Africa and those not originally from South Africa. As we documented, a broken sense of belonging in young people with migration-related life experience can be related to personal experiences including loss and exploitation alongside experiences of exclusion reinforced within South African Society. Yet to more fully understand the lives of mobile youth, scholars must move beyond what youth may ‘lack’ towards recognising how they are navigating difficult contexts and building their lives.

I’m a square trying to fit into a star on a kiddies’ game. Everybody loves stars. I am a square trying to fit into a heart. Eventually I’m a square trying to fit into a square, because honestly I can’t remember who I am.

Complex lives and selves

For many young people in this research, there was a strong desire to be recognised by diverse social actors and institutions - peers, community members, teachers, social workers, the police, the immigration regime - as complex individuals, rather than singularly as ‘migrants.’ As an 18-year-old youth with Angolan and South African heritage highlights, “I’m a square trying to fit into a star on a kiddies’ game. Everybody loves stars. I am a square trying to fit into a heart. Eventually I’m a square trying to fit into a square, because honestly I can’t remember who I am.” The drive to attain an accepted identity as a child or as someone who gazes at stars limits his self-expression and, ultimately, contributes to a deep uncertainty and ambiguity in his sense of self beyond what others expect of him.

Throughout this research, young migrants argued that recognising complexity in their lives is important—both for being comfortable within themselves and likewise for connecting with others. For young people who move, this complexity brings a possibility of understanding how diverse lives touch and interweave. In addition, as the young people in this process became aware of their own multifaceted identities, they realised how various aspects are silenced by themselves and by others, in turn hindering their capacity to build connections and relationships. Surfacing the complexity of identities – whether at the local level in schools or clinics, or nationally in policy or in the media – is not however a neutral process. Instead, it makes visible the power relations and inequalities that position different groups at the centre or periphery of society. Complexity in this sense is a threat, as it questions the construction of hierarchy and the power of dominant groups.

 Figure        SEQ Figure \* ARABIC     2      : Young South African woman's self-representation (age 14)

Figure 2: Young South African woman's self-representation (age 14)

Re-constructing self and re-telling narratives

Creative and story-based research approaches direct young people to re-imagine who holds the power to conceptualise and narrate their identities and sense of belonging. In processing past experiences and creatively constructing new ways of telling, young people are able to build their own visual and narrative representations of self and community.

Within this participatory and creative research process, some young people actively engaged in re-constructing their identities. This involved creating counter-narratives which recognised their past while simultaneously exploring how they saw themselves and how they wanted others to see them in their future. Within a digital storytelling process – from writing to image selection to crafting a digital story – one 15-year-old young man from DR Congo changed his self-representation between his written story (script) and recording it digitally. He chose to use imagery to represent his past and present harmful behaviour and enlisted language to articulate his strength, love and motivations for the future. In so doing, he chose not to reify negative opinions of who he and others like him are. Notably, he did not to erase the past but rather layered it into his story through images, creating a more ‘complex’ representation.

This re-telling is similarly exemplified by the story excerpt below of a young Zambian/DR Congolese woman who re-imagines her relationship with her mother, internalising this relationship as a strength rather than exclusively as a loss or abandonment.

 Figure 3: Young Zambian/DRC woman's narration of self in relation to other (age 17)   

Figure 3: Young Zambian/DRC woman's narration of self in relation to other (age 17)


It is important to recognise that this learning was not an individualised process, but group-based. Within our group-based processes, learning from diverse young people enabled understanding of others’ contexts and experiences which strengthened reflexivity and nurtured empathy. Young people learned the importance of traveling on a journey alongside someone and finding strength through listening; this addressed feelings of isolation and ‘Othering’ that they experience in their lives. Young people coming together across migration backgrounds, genders, race, nationality and culture provided an opportunity to make sense of their lives and challenges together.

Moving forward with complexity to enhance young migrants’ lives

The participatory, creative and story-based approach proves important for supporting young people to critically engage with their identities, how they are constructed, and where they belong. The open and emergent nature of the work enabled young people to ‘safely’ explore and experiment in who they are--both independently and with each other. As young people’s narratives shifted and evolved, so did the depth of understanding in their lives.

The complexity of their identities rather than the simplicity of a ‘truth’ emerged.

As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie argues, moving beyond a ‘single story’ enables an understanding of a shared humanity that is often lost when young migrants are demonised and Othered. Furthermore, this richness of understanding provides deeper insights into how and why change happens in the lives of young people with migration-backgrounds. This, in turn, can strengthen the ways they are supported and positioned in society.

Identities thus must be understood as shifting, relational and dynamic rather than fixed or essentialised. For young people with migratory experiences, it appears necessary to surface and claim ownership of the complexity of their identities, even whilst they are constrained by boundaries of power. That said, it is insufficient for only young people’s understanding of who they are to shift; so too must the state and society’s harmful narratives be transformed. Where this transformation is possible for young people, however, it provides an opportunity for young migrants to lead the way.

In South Africa, the young people involved in this process, alongside other collectives, are leveraging their learning to support young people, NGOs, service providers and UN agencies to understand who they are, their humanity, their rights, and their claims to belonging. The questions I ask myself throughout are: How can we as researchers, activists, academics and advocates continue to work in collaboration with young people to amplify their work? How can we impact the harmful and limiting meta-narratives that circulate globally--and within youths' own lives?


Thea Shahrokh is currently  a doctoral researcher in the Migration, Displacement and Belonging group at the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations, Coventry University, UK. Drawing on cases from Cape Town, her research is focused on questions of agency, identities and belonging for young people with migration-related life experience. Thea works through creative and participatory methodologies with a focus on the ethics, inclusivity and politics of knowledge production working for social justice. Previously Thea was located at the Institute of Development Studies where a large body of her work explored collective action in addressing sexual and gender-based violence, including in South Africa, and with refugees in Uganda.

More information – Transformative Story: An online Handbook for Creative Storytelling

Contact Thea and follow Thea on Twitter: @TheaShahrokh

From Hysteria to Productive Action

By Lauren Heidbrink

 Illustration by  Dan Corino .  Source .

Illustration by Dan Corino. Source.

As the Trump Administration seeks to indefinitely and compulsorily detain immigrant children, how can we productively direct our outrage and condemnation of 45's dehumanizing and frankly illegal treatment of immigrant youth and their families? As someone who has conducted research within ORR facilities and following release, accompanied hundreds of children and adults to immigration courts, and worked with young people following deportation in Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador, here are some activities that I have found meaningful:


1.     Get informed. Don’t just read the headlines (and/or the clickbait). The information you need to engage these issues does exist. Researchers have long investigated the contradictions of migration management in the US and beyond, as well as US foreign intervention in Central America (armed conflict, development violence, securitization of aid, externalizing borders, the Mexican state’s violence against Central American). Here are some important scholars to get you started.


2.     Volunteer as a visitor in ORR facilities. This way you might assess for yourself, asking why these children are detained and evaluating the "care" they receive. I do not donate to these organizations because I do not choose to materially support the detention of children. They already receive funding from ORR. Here is my personal and professional experience in some of these facilities.   


3.     Become a guardian ad litem or Child Advocate, either with unaccompanied children or in the family court systems where many of them will surely end up. That said, be mindful to check your euro-American, middle class social norms and cultural values at the door. Neither migrant youth nor their families need your moral judgement. They need you to really listen to their needs, wants, and hopes and to ask questions to try to understand the cultural and historical meaning informing their words.


4.     Volunteer with post-release services where children are in federal foster care or following release to sponsors/families. This is particularly critical in rural communities in the South where there are limited services and where young people encounter obstacles enrolling in school, accessing health and mental health services, finding legal representation, and getting to court. Do not stop after 6 months; do not stop after one year. Do not stop when and if they receive legal relief. Their "case" is not over just because they have legal status. Find your local organizations through this helpful website


5.     Donate to grassroots organizations and social movements in Central America, particularly to organizations run by local community leaders with intimate cultural knowledge and, importantly, community participation. One such organization is Colectivo Vida Digna



Do not look away. Do not forget that feeling in the pit of your stomach or the tears you shed hearing children crying for their parents from detention. Do something.


Lauren Heidbrink is an anthropologist and author of Migrant Youth, Transnational Families, and the State: Care and Contested Interests (University of Pennsylvania Press 2014). She is co-founder and co-editor of Youth Circulations.

Imprisoning Families is Not the Solution

by Lynnette Arnold

Trump recently signed an executive order to stop the separation of children from their parents, announcing: “We’re going to keep families together but we still have to maintain toughness.” For those of us who have been horrified to hear of children being torn from their parents’ arms, this news may feel like a victory. But as this new executive order makes clear, Trump is replacing family separation with indefinite family detention. Instead of locking up parents and children separately, he will be locking them up together for months, even years, violating the terms of the Flores Settlement Agreement which mandates that children must be held in the least restrictive settings.  


To give a sense of what long-term family detention involves, I want to share excerpts from posts I wrote a couple of years ago recounting the story of my dear friend Alta Gracias (a pseudonym). She spent almost a year in a family detention center with her three children and was only released after successfully fighting her asylum case while behind bars. These family facilities have existed for a long time and continue to be an inhumane response to individuals and families seeking protection. Since these posts were originally written, I have become a mother myself. My two-year-old daughter is now the same age Alta Gracias’ youngest son when they were first detained. My daughter loves to run, play and explore the world around her. I cannot imagine what a year behind bars would do to her spirit. Children do not belong in prisons, whether they are with their families or not.


September 28, 2014


 Bedroom in Karnes County Residential Center.   Source  .

Bedroom in Karnes County Residential Center. Source.

On Friday I went to visit my friend Alta Gracias and her three children at Karnes County Residential Center, where they have been locked up for the past two months. I was accompanied by a volunteer from the Hutto Visitation Program, a community group in Texas that has visited detained immigrants since 2009. We drove about three hours into Southern Texas, past oil derricks, cotton fields, and small, economically depressed towns. The Karnes facility, originally constructed as a model center for the detention of adult migrants, was repurposed this summer and began detaining families last month.


Upon arrival, I turned in my ID and was given a visitors badge. At the direction of the guards, I proceeded through a metal detector and two locked doors into the visitation room, taking nothing with me except quarters for the vending machine. The two older children, 10-year-old Ana and 9-year-old Victor (not their real names) were bouncing with excitement to see me. As soon as the door to the visitation room locked behind me, four small arms wrapped around me and two heads burrowed into my sides. When they finally let go, Alta Gracias’ hug felt no less desperate. As we sat down at a table to visit, Ana snuggled up close to me, my arm around her shoulders, until the visitation guard told me that the little girl needed to sit on her own chair. The desperation of the children’s need for comfort spoke volumes about the depth of their suffering during their dangerous journey north, in the week they spent sleeping on the floor in crowded and freezing holding cells at the border, and during two months of waiting, trapped at the detention center.


Alta Gracias and her children are being held for crossing the border without documentation, fleeing extreme violence in the coastal part of El Salvador they call home. While children who cross the border alone are quickly released to relatives or sponsors while they go through immigration hearings, children who come with their parents are locked up in family detention centers like Karnes, which holds 550 mothers with children as young as two months old. They are held in these facilities while they go through the slow legal process of determining whether they have a possible asylum case or not. Those who manage to convince judges of the viability of their asylum claims may then have the opportunity to negotiate bonds under which they can be released from detention while awaiting further hearings.


Alta Gracias told me that, in her case, immigration officials had told her this process could take up to six months. That means four more months of incarceration, of institutional life, of heavily processed food, of sharing a living space (four bunk beds, one shower, and one toilet) with two other families. With fierce determination on her face, Alta Gracias told me that this was a sacrifice she was willing to make for the wellbeing of her children, for a future free of the constant threat of violence. Her children are already suffering the consequences of their incarceration: 10-year-old Ana has angry outbursts or fits of sobbing almost every day, 9-year-old Victor has become sullen and withdrawn, and 2-year-old Martín takes out his frustration by hitting other children. All of them have lost weight.


The experiences of Alta Gracias and her children are not unique. In a statement, the ACLU summarized research and reports on past family detention: “History shows us that imprisoning families limits access to due process, harms the physical and mental health of parents and children, and undermines family structure by stripping parents of their authority.” The United Nations is also opposed to the incarceration of children, stating: “detention of children on the sole basis of their migration status or that of their parents is a violation of children’s rights, is never in their best interests and is not justifiable”.


How is the continued incarceration of these children justified? The Department of Homeland Security, which is responsible for immigration oversight, has argued that these women and children must be detained because they constitute an indirect national security threat. They seem to have decided that the solution to increasing migration from Central America is to lock up women and children, attempting to turn their suffering into a deterrent of further migration, rather than taking a serious look at the root causes of this exodus and our role in creating the situation in the first place. So families like Alta Gracias and her children pay the price for a history of U.S. involvement in Central America that has prioritized economics and politics over people.


The incarceration of these families is yet another policy that puts economic gain first. The detention centers where these women and children are locked up are all run by private corporations like Geo Group and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). For these corporations, which have recently been averaging $5 billion in annual profit from immigrant detention, the increase of refugees from Central America presents a new source of revenue. Through their powerful Washington lobbies, which in 2005 spent more than Goldman Sachs and Wells Fargo combined, these corporations have sold for-profit detention as the solution to the border crisis.


As a result of this lobbying, for-profit incarceration of immigrant women and children is increasing sharply. The Department of Homeland Security announced plans to open a new center in the remote town of Dilley in South Texas. The facility, which will be operated by CCA, is planned to open in November and will have beds for 2,400 women and children, making it the largest immigrant detention facility in the nation. In addition to the new detention facilities in Karnes, TX and Artesia, NM, this plan increases family detention from 90 beds to almost 4,000 beds since June of this year. This rapid expansion means that many more families like Alta Gracias and her children will be incarcerated, in the largest trend of family detention since the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.


At the end of our visit, Ana wanted to know when I would be coming to visit them again. Alta Gracias told me that, before my visit, the little girl had thought I would be staying with them for several days, as I always did when I visited them in El Salvador. Ana had been worried that there wasn’t enough space for me in their crowded living quarters. For my part, I had been worried that the children would ask me to take them with me when I left, to get them out of detention. But they didn't, and in some ways that silence was even more devastating because it suggested that they children had started to think of prison as the normal place for them to be. As I walked free at the end of the day, leaving Alta Gracias and her children behind, I was weighed down by the knowledge that legacies of trauma sprung from imprisonment would continue lay claim to ever more children until the practice of family detention is ended.


May 23, 2016


 “Resident advisers” stand near a security gate at the Karnes County Civil Detention Center.    Source   .

“Resident advisers” stand near a security gate at the Karnes County Civil Detention Center. Source.

Last Friday I went back to the Karnes County Residential Center, the euphemistic name given to the for-profit prison where 500 refugee mothers and children are being held. I was there to visit my dear friend Alta Gracias, who has been locked up in this facility for nine months with her three young children. When they first arrived at Karnes in August 2014, her youngest son Martín was only two and just starting to talk. Now, he has celebrated his third birthday behind bars and talks a blue streak. When I saw him last week, it was clear that he had adapted to life in jail. He knows everyone and everyone knows him: the other families held at the detention center have become his community. But he also knew that the guards were to be feared and their orders quickly obeyed, things no three-year-old should have to understand.


The two older children, ages 9 and 10, still remember life outside this prison. They remember what it is like to be free and long for this freedom. Formerly bright and energetic students, they have lost interest in their studies. In nine months, they have seen so many other families come and go, and yet they remain locked up. Their eyes now hold a hopelessness far beyond their years. Their rambunctious energy and inquisitive spirits are slowly fading away with each day that they spend behind bars. Nine months of detention have also aged their mother, deepening worry lines and bringing out dark circles under her eyes from night after sleepless night worrying about the fate of her family.


The suffering that has been caused by this prolonged detention has been paid for by our tax dollars. The U.S. Senate estimates that it costs $266 per day per person to hold someone in these family detention facilities. Over nine months, that amounts to $287,280 to lock up Alta Gracias and her three children: over $70,000 to keep a three-year-old behind bars.


However, nine months of detention has also been an incubator that has given birth to increasing organization by the detained families. Last month, these mothers launched a series of hunger strikes as part of a campaign for their release. They have worked hard to get the word out about their situation, releasing joint statements and writing letters. Following the lead of these courageous women, a movement to end family detention is gaining momentum across the nation. Dedicated volunteers in Southern Texas have been regularly driving miles out into the countryside to visit detained families and keep an eye on the conditions in which they are being held. During the hunger strike, many gathered outside the detention facilities in solidarity vigils or participated in a solidarity fast from around the country.


After I had finished visiting Alta Gracias and was waiting outside Karnes for others in my group to finish their visits, I looked up to see a young woman and a little boy walk out of the doors of the detention center. She had tears in her eyes and he looked stunned and slightly frightened. It turned out that they had just been released after two months in detention and needed to wait a few hours for their ride to arrive. To fill the time, we decided to drive with them to a nearby park. As soon as he climbed out of the car, the little boy’s face lit up. He took off running across the grass to the playground, and for the next 45 minutes he didn’t stop. He climbed and went down the slide and ran to the swings and then back to the monkey bars, all the while with a huge smile across his face. He was free!


 March on Dilly Family Facility.    Source   . 

March on Dilly Family Facility. Source


About the author

Lynnette Arnold is a linguistic anthropologist and a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Anthropology at Brown University. Her research involves Salvadoran migration to the United States, with a focus on the experiences of families, many of whom she first met during the four year she spent living and working in El Salvador.

Care in Contexts of Child Detention

by Lauren Heidbrink

This post is part of the series Im/migration in the Trump Era, originally posted in Cultural Anthropology.

(Traducción al español abajo)

There are certain transformational encounters in research that challenge us to reflect on our own positionality as ethnographers, advocates, and even as parents. Such was my relationship with Gabriela: an eight-year-old girl who I first met during fieldwork in Guatemala and would later encounter in a detention facility for unaccompanied migrant children in Chicago. Here, I enlist a digital narrative to grapple with the contradictory messages and meanings of care, from state institutions, nongovernmental organizations, families, young people, and researchers such as myself.


In response to an influx of young migrants from Central America in 2014, the U.S. federal government readied dozens of facilities to detain children until they could be reunited with family, transferred to federal foster care, or removed from the United States. Charged with the “care and custody of unaccompanied alien children,” the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) subcontracts NGOs to provide a “home-like environment where children receive education, recreation, and specialized services,” as an ORR field specialist described to me. Euphemistically called shelters, NGO staff, and by extension the state in loco parentis, provide for children’s everyday needs such as food, shelter and healthcare. Casted as ideal victims deserving of the moral economies of care, children such as Gabriela are seen as humanitarian victims in need of protection. ORR and its NGO subcontractors frame children as dependent upon adults and the welfare state, rooted in a culturally situated understanding of childhood that accentuates dependency and vulnerability over independence and agency (Horton 2008; Heidbrink 2014). 

Yet in spite of particular moral claims to vulnerability and deservingness, unaccompanied youth experience this institutional care as violence. As Gabriela and others underscore, the brightly painted walls and human rights posters belie the lived experience of these spaces as restricting their freedom of movement: surveilling their actions and reactions via video cameras and line of sight tactics, and recording their sleep patterns, conversations, and phone calls in their institutional files can and have been used against them in immigration court.

Across multiple facilities in Illinois, Texas, Arizona, and New York, I observed how ORR and NGO staff work in tandem to restrict young people’s access to information about their cases—be it reunification with family, upcoming court dates, or impending deportation—with limited opportunities for young people to meaningfully inform their future custodial arrangements. Small gestures of affection, concern, or best intentions by facility staff collapse under the weight of state violence in which shelters function as total institutions (Goffman 1961). Young people describe these facilities as “lost time,” “traumatic,” and “a nightmare I can’t escape,” as places where “I am treated like a criminal . . . a threat” and where, as Gabriela concluded, “I have no rights.” In other words, well-intentioned yet misguided humanitarian conceptions of care become indecipherable from state violence; unauthorized migrants are conceived as outlaws subject to state discipline via detention and deportation. 

We see analogous claims to care by privately run, for-profit facilities housing women and small children in nearly four thousand beds—facilities which, according to the Department of Homeland Security, were established “to keep families together.”  Private prison companies have not skipped a step with the GEO Group recently filing for a child care license for their San Antonio facility, while for-profit bond companies advertise their financial services under the guise of family reunification because “we care about you and your family.” Under the veil of care and claims to best intentions, the state, private prison industry, financial service industry, and even NGOs prey upon immigrant children and families. All fail to openly acknowledge their complicity in the immigration industrial complex, which has only gained momentum under the Trump administration.  

While I turn my anthropological gaze to critique the state, private industry, and NGOs, I too must submit to critique. My interactions with Gabriela propel me to interrogate my own positionality and best intentions as an advocate, a researcher, and a parent. As an advocate, I have spent the better part of two decades traversing many of the same geographic, institutional, and legal spaces that young migrants encounter. Yet, as a white, Anglophone U.S. citizen, I move in and out of these spaces with relative physical ease. My experiences render stark the disparities. I wonder: Are my intentions as an advocate too entangled with other seemingly-benevolent policy and institutional promises? Is using my platform as a professor and a researcher to advocate for policy change enough? And, what meaning and power is lost when all institutions and actors—the state, nonprofit organizations, private companies, and even myself—are complicit in promising care? 

As a researcher, at times the privileging of objectivity paralyzes me. I sit silently, unsure how to react, comfort, or even counsel Gabriela when she asks. How can I communicate these feelings that seem disallowed and undervalued in academia? Would it compromise my objectivity? As a researcher, what are the political and ethical implications of my findings and how might they be used against the very children with whom I work? Should I so boldly critique NGOs who provide shelter when they are far better than the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) jails that detained children a mere decade ago? And how do I navigate the significant emotional toll that this research takes on my well-being, for which I feel guilty even acknowledging?

And, as a mother, how do I care for my children in a way that instills a sense of belonging and purpose amid such glaring and seemingly unending global inequities? How can my own daughter Gabriela learn from my political and personal investments with immigrant children and their families? In our current political climate, I desperately cling to care as a critical guide to my professional engagements and personal commitments, and as essential to raising empathetic and socially-responsible children. Yet, I find care—theoretically, politically, and practically—not enough.

For additional posts in this series, visit Im/migration in the Trump Era.

Protección en el Contexto de la Detención de Menores

Durante la investigación vivimos ciertos encuentros transformacionales que nos retan a reflexionar sobre nuestra posición como etnógrafos, defensores e incluso m/padres. Tal era mi relación con Gabriela, una niña de 8 años que conocí durante una investigación realizado en Guatemala y posteriormente en un centro de detención para migrantes no acompañados en Chicago. Aquí incluyo una narrativa digital para intentar entender los mensajes contradictorios y significados del cuidado—de las instituciones estatales, las ONG, las familias, los jóvenes y los investigadores como yo.


Ante la llegada de migrantes jóvenes centroamericanos en el 2014, el gobierno de E.E.U.U. alistó docenas de centros para la detención de menores hasta que pudieran estar reunidos con sus familias, trasladados a cuidado sustituto federal o deportados de E.E.U.U. La Oficina de Reasentamiento de Refugiados (ORR) tiene a su cargo “el cuidado y la custodia de menores no acompañados” y subcontrata a las ONG para proveer “un ambiente parecido al hogar donde los niños reciben educación, recreación y servicios especializados.” En alberges, llamado de manera eufemística, los empleados de las ONG y por lo tanto el Estado in loco parentis, proveen las necesidades cotidianas de los niños—comida, alberge y salud. Niñas como Gabriela son vistas como víctimas humanitarias que necesitan protección y víctimas idóneas que merecen las economías morales del cuidado. La ORR y las ONG perciben a los niños como dependientes de los adultos y el estado de bienestar, una percepción concebida en un entendimiento cultural de la niñez que aumenta la dependencia y la vulnerabilidad a costo de la independencia y agencia (Horton 2008; Heidbrink 2014).

Sin embargo a pesar de las pretensiones especiales a la vulnerabilidad y el merecimiento, la experiencia de los jóvenes de la protección institucional es una de violencia. Como Gabriela y otros señalan, las paredes alegres y afiches de derechos humanos contrastan con la experiencia verdadera de estos lugares que restringen su libertad de movimiento; supervisando sus acciones y reacciones por cámaras de video y tácticas de línea visual, manteniendo notas de los hábitos de sueño, conversaciones y llamadas en sus expedientes institucionales, que pueden ser y han sido usadas en su contra en los tribunales.

En varios lugares en Illinois, Texas, Arizona y Nueva York, pude observar a empleados en dúo de la ORR y las ONG restringir el acceso de jóvenes a información sobre sus casos de reunificación familiar, fechas de audiencias pendientes, o la deportación próxima. Gestos pequeños de cariño, preocupación o las mejores intenciones de empleados de los lugares fracasan bajo el peso de la violencia estatal en la cual los alberges funcionan como instituciones totales (Goffman 1961). Los jóvenes describen los lugares como: “tiempo perdido,” “traumáticos,” y “una pesadilla de la cual no puedo escapar”; además de ser lugares donde: “me tratan como un criminal . . . una amenaza” y donde, como concluyó Gabriela: “no tengo derechos.” Las concepciones humanitarias bien intencionadas, pero mal informadas, del cuidado, se mezclan con la violencia del Estado: los migrantes no autorizados son percibidos como criminales sujetos a la disciplina del estado a través de la detención y la deportación.

Vemos pretensiones análogas a la protección y cuidado de lugares privados de lucro que albergan mujeres y niños pequeños en 4000 camas, lugares que, según el Departamento de Seguridad Nacional, fueron establecidos: “para mantener las familias unidas.” Empresas penitenciarias privadas no han quedado atrás; el Grupo GEO hace poco pidióuna licencia de cuidado infantil para su centro en San Antonio, mientras empresas lucrativas de fianzas anuncian sus servicios financieros bajo el pretexto de la reunificación familiar porque “nos preocupamos por usted y su familia.” Bajo la apariencia de cuidado, el Estado, la industria penitenciaria privada, la industria de servicios financieros e incluso las ONG, se aprovechan de los niños y familias migrantes; ninguno reconoce completamente que son cómplices en el complejo migrante-industrial.

Mientras mi mirada antropológica se gira para criticar al Estado, a la industria privada y a las ONG, también debo someterme a mi misma a la crítica. Mis interacciones con Gabriela me impulsan a interrogar mi propia posición y mejores intenciones como defensora, investigadora y madre. En mi capacidad de defensora, he dedicado dos décadas a atravesar muchos de los mismos espacios geográficos, institucionales y legales donde se encuentran los jóvenes migrantes. Sin embargo, como ciudadana estadounidense, blanca y anglófona, puedo entrar y salir de estos espacios de manera relativamente fácil. Mis experiencias dejan claras las diferencias. Me pregunto: ¿mis intenciones como defensora se han mezclado demasiado con otras promesas institucionales y políticas aparentemente benévolas? ¿Qué significado y cuánto poder se pierde cuando todas las instituciones y los actores—el Estado, las ONG, las empresas privadas e incluso yo misma—somos cómplices en la promesa de cuidado?

Hay veces que, como investigadora, me siento paralizada por el privilegio de la objetividad. Me siento en silencio, sin saber cómo debo reaccionar o consolar a Gabriela. Como investigadora: ¿que son las implicaciones políticas y éticas de mis conclusiones y de qué manera pueden ser usadas en contra de los mismos niños con que trabajo? ¿Debo criticar tan fuertemente a las ONG que dan alberge cuando son mucho mejor que las cárceles del Servicio de Inmigración y Naturalización donde detuvieron a los menores hace tan solo una década? Finalmente: ¿cómo puedo navegar el costo emocional para mi bienestar, por el cual me siento culpable por reconocerlo?

Además, como madre: ¿cómo puedo cuidar a mis hijos de una manera que les inculque un sentido de permanencia y propósito en medio de inequidades globales tan flagrantes y aparentemente interminables? ¿De qué manera puede mi hija Gabriela aprender de mis inversiones políticas y personales con los jóvenes migrantes y sus familias? En el ambiente político actual me aferro desesperadamente al cuidado como un guía crítico para mis relaciones profesionales y compromisos personales y como parte esencial de la crianza de hijos empáticos y socialmente responsables. Sin embargo, concluyo que el cuidado no es teóricamente, políticamente, ni prácticamente, suficiente.


Goffman, Erving. 1961. “On the Characteristics of Total Institutions.” In Symposium on Preventive and Social Psychiatry, 43–84. Washington, DC: Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Heidbrink, Lauren. 2014. Migrant Youth, Transnational Families, and the State: Care and Contested Interests. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Horton, Sarah. 2008. “Consuming Childhood: ‘Lost’ and ‘Ideal’ Childhoods as a Motivation for Migration.” Anthropological Quarterly 81, no. 4: 925–43.


Lauren Heidbrink is an anthropologist and assistant professor in human development at California State University, Long Beach. She is co-editor of Youth Circulations. 

The Water

by Jajah Wu

 Private prison company GEO Group advertises its "New Specialized Transport Buses" for immigrant children.  Source .

Private prison company GEO Group advertises its "New Specialized Transport Buses" for immigrant children. Source.

It is difficult to know how to feel about the human rights violations committed by this administration against immigrants. And by that I mean, as an advocate who is, if not seasoned, then weathered, say, I know I can do my best work if I float above the knowledge of what is happening to families and children. “There,” I say, pointing down into the water, “the government forcibly separated 658 children from their parents in two weeks. Look at it.”

658 is a terrible number. It is also academic—that is the nature of numbers. They allow us to float above the water. But say you’d like to get closer to the truth, as I suspect you do, if you are still with me.

Well, imagine reading 658 individual stories of families—broken families, happy families, struggling families. There are birthdays, funerals, accidents, small joys and losses, maybe there are threats from gang members, maybe there aren’t. You, reader, fall in love with the way the baby girl eats beans, smearing them over her face like a culinary Picasso. You, reader, twinge sympathetically as the father eases himself gently down into a chair because of his bad back. You come to the final chapter. It is summer of 2018. Watermelon and parades are being shunted like confetti across America. It is summer of 2018, and by ways both terrible and mundane, the family finds themselves taken in at the US border: this baby still learning to eat beans, this father who has earned himself a bad back in the fields. And in the borderland, strange men and women take the family apart, as efficiently as a farmer separates livestock. The helpless fury of the father mixes with the terror of the child, rising up, up, up one last time into the frigid air of the hieleras* before they can hear each other no more. And the silence afterwards—imagine the silence, where even though they beg “what next? what now?” no one answers.

Read this story 658 times. The characters and circumstances change, the ending does not.

Maybe this gets us closer to the truth, the true true, the sound 658 families drowning. Or maybe not.

Here’s another way.

People don’t believe it when I say I remember my life as a 1 year old. But I do. When I was 1 and some months, my father got the golden ticket: a visa to the United States, for one. He was a PhD student—smart and hardworking and desperate. We were upper class, no doubt. We lived in a lovely, big old house. No gangs were chasing us through Shanghai, China. Even with all this privilege, we lived on rations and my father had no prospects. So he left, planning to stake out a life deemed important enough that the INS might eventually decide it was worth granting my mother and me visas too. When he called home from America, I refused to speak to him.

When I was two, my mother got her visa. I remember the day she left. I remember my aunt luring me out of the house with a trip to the park. She didn’t have to do that; I knew my mother was leaving. I knew she would be gone by the time I came back. I think—although through the haze of the years, I can’t be sure—I preferred not to say goodbye. Years later, long after we were back together, one big, sometimes-happy immigrant family, I would wake up from nightmares, tears running down my face as scared and mindless as rabbits, from some dream scenario where my mother left me, over and over again.

I understand this is self-indulgent, but I am trying to tell you that I am not completely healed from this separation that happened more than three decades ago, this separation that our family agreed to, planned on, as hard as it was.

So, if I push myself a little further, and further still down into the water, to meet the eyes of some little girl who is two, or twelve, or fifteen, recently ripped from mother, in a detention center with strangers who cannot tell her what will happen, to once a week for a few minutes (if she’s lucky) talk to her mother over the muffled phone lines, if I watch her swirled and buffeted by these political tides and machinations, her heart slowly and irrevocably breaking in ways she will continue to discover for years to come (if she’s lucky to have years), I feel dizzy. I feel sick. And I can’t meet the eyes of the other 657 children.

So let us raise ourselves out of the imaginary water and leave them there. We crawl back into our boats, and go back to the work, pushing one frail rope out to a single family, against the current.

*Las hieleras, or iceboxes, are short-term DHS facilities at the border, so named because of the freezing temperatures maintained by the oppressive AC. Some report to see their own breath condense. This is supposedly to keep those detained "healthy". Most immigrants are made to wear shorts and t-shirts in the hieleras. Mylar blankets are prized possessions there.


About the author: After graduating from the University of Chicago Law School in 2010, Jajah Wu worked as a PILI Fellow at the Young Center for Immigrant Children's Rights before joining Schiff Hardin, LLP, where she practiced in the areas of environmental and general litigation and devoted substantial time to pro bono cases related to child custody and immigration. At the University of Chicago Law School, Jajah Wu has been an instructor at the Young Center's clinical program since 2012 and is the Supervising Attorney for the Young Center's Chicago office.



In the second of this two-part series, the Linea 84 Collective employs ethnographic journalism along the Mexico-Guatemala border to reveal the intricate stories of young Central Americans running away from their home countries, becoming part of the flow of undocumented immigrants and therefore a target of increasingly militarized security policies in the North and Central American region.


 Close to the train tracks, a migrant running in Tenosique, Tabasco. Photo by: Irving Mondragón

Close to the train tracks, a migrant running in Tenosique, Tabasco. Photo by: Irving Mondragón

One day, I see him in one of these shelters for migrants crossing the Mexican territory. He is drawing stick-figure trees, grass, and people. The people have strange expressions, like the look on his face.

He’s 13 years old, shy, not very tall. He doesn’t speak much. He’s got a thick frame, and looks like a miniature adult. Between the giggles of a child, he greets me.

Wilson is a friend of Black’s, a 16-year-old Honduran gang member who hangs around in these streets where death happens frequently. Wilson lives in one of the Catholic migrant shelters, but the Church doesn’t know what to do with so many young people. Shelter staff advised Wilson to seek asylum in Mexico, but he never understood clearly what this even meant. Neither the Mexican National Refugee Assistance Commission (COMAR by its acronym in Spanish), the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), shelter staff, nor immigration agents knew how to explain it to him. They just couldn’t find a simple way to explain it.

The only thing Wilson can tell me is that he had to wait to see if they would give him “papers.” He waited for five months and at the end, his claim was denied. The wait had been torture; the decision was disillusioning. He tells me that during the asylum interview his nerves betrayed him; he would laugh for no reason and he couldn’t answer their questions. He didn’t fit the international and national categories of “refugee,” nor did he qualify for “complementary protection.” He could always try again to seek refugee status, but he’s emotionally destroyed. He doesn’t want to get his hopes up again. No one will help him.

The thing is, he’s 13 years old and he can’t stand the desperation of again waiting in the tedium of the shelter—a place where there is little to entertain an adolescent. On top of that, it’s a place where he has to be confined because, even though immigration agents know that he and others there are seeking asylum, if seen on the streets and suspected of being Central American, agents will detain them until their custodians claims them. Wilson is haunted by this contempt for poor youth; he’s fleeing a country that would rather see him dead than help him and he’s arrived in another country that’s just the same—where people would rather ignore him than ruin their day. This is why his life is at risk.

When Wilson observes something, his right lid covers half his eye. The other remains wide open. It’s as though he were half asleep, so when he looks straight on, it gives you the impression that this eye is focused inward, looking at his own thoughts. Then, it’s like he wakes up, and he gets a dumbfounded look on his face, innocent, like a child.

But Wilson knows the evil of adults and their darkest desires. Wilson knows what is hiding in the dark heart of men. Rumor has it that Wilson made his way to the train tracks in exchange for sex with the man who gave him food and guided him from Honduras to Tenosique. In Mexico, Wilson has survived this way as well. Just like Black says, here in Tabasco there are many men who require these kinds of favors (see La Vida Corta). Married men, single men, separated, divorced men with children, old men… all kinds of men.But the most cynical aspect of machismo keeps these kinds of relations in the shadows: they condemn homosexuality while engaging in sex with young boys, which is a crime.

Like Wilson, Nelson also hangs out on the train tracks. He is fourteen years old and also from Honduras. He entertains himself begging for money at intersections in Tenosique. He gets together with a group of migrants to walkthrough this town where the wind brings the ashes from the sugar refinery that pollutes the air and covers their faces with ashes. He tells me that one day he was with Wilson, begging near the train lines, when a man in his 40s approached them. He looked at both of them and asked Wilson to go with him to a room. “I kept looking at Wilson and the old man. I accompanied them to a building, and they went into a bathroom and they locked themselves in, you see? I didn’t stick around to listen. The old man gave me a couple of pesos to go buy cigarettes. I left and came back a while later… and well…they came out and the old man bought us beer, cigarettes, snacks… Well you know what they did, you see?” He laughs. “Wilson nailed the old guy!”

The indifference toward young people like Wilson forms a part of us, but it stays in the depths of the ocean where no one cares to look. Young  people like Wilson, are faced with an impossible choice right from the beginning. Most young Central American migrants come from poor neighborhoods where gangs and other criminal groups have a strong presence. Authorities in their home countries often criminalize youngsters with this background, so many decide to go north in order to get ahead, but are faced with a society that either prefers to turn a blind eye towards their need, criminalizes them as well or that sees them as merchandise to be exploited either as mules, kidnap ransoms or bodies to satisfy human desire.



 On the streets of Tenosique. Photo by: Irving Mondragón

On the streets of Tenosique. Photo by: Irving Mondragón

Don Simón has a wife. He’s a Christian, he says. He lives alone, as far as we know. His house consists of two rooms and the living room. He has photos of his family in a small sitting room where he receives visitors. Black had already told me about Don Simón. He’s an old man who lives by the tracks, on Camarón street, where it’s common to see migrants panhandling. Black tells me that when young men pass by Don Simón’s house, he offers them food. He treats them well. He gives them clothes, and he invites them in. He asks them to do small odd jobs and he pays them. He lets them use the computer so they can check Facebook, and then he starts to touch them. “But this old jerk, he knows the Sureños, the [MS-] 13 here in Tenosique. They go to his house when the boys are there and the 13 offers to let them pass drugs, do you understand? For a bag of chips, Wilson gives it to any old asshole.” That’s how Black talks.

One day I arranged to see Wilson but he didn’t show up. I tell Black that we should look for him. He’s in the house of the old man, Black tells me.

“Here I give them food, no marijuana, no beer, they just do little odd jobs for me and that’s it. I have daughters, I’m a teacher, I’m a Christian…” Don Simon strains to justify having Wilson in his house. I look at him with scorn. 

“Wilson, let’s get out of here!” I tell the boy.

“We came all the way here looking for you,” says Black while smiling with evil delight at Don Simón.

“You have no reason to be here. Let’s go!” I say shortly, raising my voice. Wilson leaves the house of the old man, his eyes shining with anger and shame. Black and I follow him. He walks on; he doesn’t wait for us. He goes away.

“Fucking old man, son of a bitch,” I say to Black.

“Don’t get involved,” Black responds. “Don’t get involved in problems on our account. We’re no one.” Angry, I turn to look at him, but his eyes stop my words dry. Black has the hardest look I have ever seen in my life; it’s the reflection of a multitude of experiences and emotions that come together in his eyes. The look in his eyes simply doesn’t have a name.

That night I call Pedro Ramírez, an activist in the region who works on issues of prostitution and trafficking. It’s dangerous work. I tell him what happened. Ramírez knows Don Simón. Upon mentioning him, Pedro just says, “Yes. Yes, he gives them food and he pays them for any errand, then he asks for sexual favors. Don’t doubt it.”

Black was right.

I see Wilson a few more times. He tells me with an embarrassed laugh, at first, and then totally naturally, the quantity of men who approach him and his friends to offer them money or other things in exchange for sleeping with them. He tells me that on the Tenosique’s river lookout men also offer them money for sex. “You only have to speak out loud a little bit and super quickly they say something to you.” It’s the accent, I think to myself. They prefer the Central Americans because if anything happens to them, no one is going to demand justice on their behalf. And it’s true. According to the general attorney (fiscalía) of Tabasco, crimes against migrants are on the rise. Reported crimes have risen from 102 in 2012 to 385 in 2015, and this is only counting reported crimes. Out of all crimes, reported 90% go unpunished.

One day, I meet up with  Black. He is lost in thought. He asks me if I really care about Wilson. I tell him that I do. “Well he’s in Don Simón’s house. Let’s go get him.” In the hardened stare of this gang member a little bit of the humanity that he’s rarely received rises to the surface.

“Let’s go,” I tell him.

The heat reaches 40 C /104 F  in this place. Black and I are sweating like pigs while we walk to the old man’s house. When we arrive, the door is open, only the mosquito nettings blocks our entrance into the house. I just say “Hello, good afternoon” in a loud voice, twice. I look at Black, and we enter. The old man and Wilson aren’t in the living room. They’re in the room to the side without a door, where there’s a computer, a chair, and a bed. Wilson is seated at the computer while the old man is seated on the bed, looking at him.

“I already told you that Wilson is not allowed to come here. What is he doing here?”

“Geez! This is his life!” He says while gesturing towards the computer.

Wilson looks at us with disbelief. “Let’s get the fuck out of here, Wilson” Black tells him, dry and hard. His bee-like eyes are red. Wilson obeys without making a sound. The two boys leave. 

“He is not allowed to come here. Do you understand me? It doesn’t matter if he shows up, you do not receive him. Am I understood?

The old man babbles a few things like “He comes here to eat… I don’t give them pot or cigarettes… I’m a Christian… No, he won’t come back here.”  He mutters these last words and finally he shuts up.

I leave the house. Wilson and Black are already gone.

There’s a part of our modern mentality that feeds the most twisted desires. Nowadays, youth learns that everything is a commodity that can be bought and sold, including our own bodies and this idea stays in their marrow. This message rings even stronger for people like Wilson, who has experienced, poverty, scarcity, abuse and indifference first hand. If he thinks like this, then, who is responsible for submitting his body to the slavery of this criminal market? We know that youngsters like Wilson cross the Mexican territory everyday, it is all over the news, but still we remain indifferent. Our frivolity is the most terrifying thing I have seen lurking in the darkness of our hearts.

A few weeks later, the boy with the half-closed eye learns that his refugee claim has been denied. Black tells me that Wilson got on the train. He would try to meet up with him further on, but nothing was for sure.



 Cerca de las vías del tren, migrante corriendo, Tenosique, Tabasco. Créditos Fotográficos: Irving Mondragón

Cerca de las vías del tren, migrante corriendo, Tenosique, Tabasco. Créditos Fotográficos: Irving Mondragón

Un día lo veo en uno de esos albergues para migrantes en tránsito por México dibujando árboles, pasto y personas con círculos y palos. Las personas que él dibujaba tienen expresiones extrañas, así como su mirada.

Tiene 13 años. Habla poco. Le da pena. No es muy alto. Es de cuerpo bien formado y de huesos anchos. Ya parece un pequeño adulto. Entre risas de niño me saluda.

Wilson es amigo del Black, un pandillero hondureño de 16 años que anda en estos caminos donde la muerte pasa seguido. Wilson vive en uno de estos albergues para migrantes que son parte de la iglesia católica. Y aunque reciben dinero de organizaciones internacionales, no saben qué hacer con tantos menores que llegan ahí de manera permanente. En el albergue le dijeron que se quedara a pedir refugio, pero él nunca entendió bien qué era eso. Ni la COMAR (Comisión Nacional de Ayuda a Refugiados) ni el ACNUR (Alto Comisionado de las Naciones Unidas para los Refugiados) ni los del albergue ni los de migración supieron explicarle qué pedía.

Lo único que Wilson me dice es que tenía que esperar a ver si le daban “papeles”. Pues ahí se quedó cinco meses y al final le negaron el refugio. Para él la espera ha sido una tortura y su decepción fue completa al saber que no tendría papeles. Me cuenta que en la entrevista lo traicionaron los nervios y después de reírse sin razón, ya no pudo contestar preguntas. Él no encaja en la categoría internacional y nacional de “refugiado” tampoco en la de “protección complementaria”. Tiene la posibilidad de volver a solicitar “el estatus o condición de refugiado”. Pero emocionalmente ha quedado un poco destruido y no quiere volver a ilusionarse. Así que nadie va a ayudarlo.

Es que él tiene 13 años y no aguanta la desesperación de volver a esperar y esperar sin hacer nada en un albergue en donde hay poco que hacer para un adolescente. Y además, él tiene que permanecer ahí encerrado porque, aunque los de migración sepan que, tanto él como otros menores están pidiendo refugio, si los ven en la calle y sospechan que son centroamericanos, se los llevan y los encierran como presos hasta que los que tienen su custodia vayan por ellos.  A Wilson lo persigue el desprecio hacia la juventud más pobre, huye de un país que prefiere verlo muerto antes que ayudarlo y llegó a otro igual: donde la gente prefiere no saber nada de él porque les arruina el día. Por estas razones su vida peligra.

Cuando Wilson observa algo, su párpado derecho cubre la mitad de su ojo. El otro está bien abierto. Es como si estuviera medio dormido, entonces cuando se queda mirando fijo, parece como si ese ojo se metiera dentro de sus pensamientos para mirarlos. Después como que despierta y se le queda una mirada boba, medio inocente, como de niño.

Pero Wilson conoce la malicia de los adultos y sus deseos más obscuros. Wilson sabe qué hay en el obscuro corazón del hombre. Dicen en las vías que Wilson llegó hasta acá a cambio de cogerse al hombre que le daba comida y lo guió desde Honduras hasta aquí. Y aquí en México también, Wilson ha sobrevivido de esa forma. Porque verán, aquí en Tabasco, así como dice el Black (vea el otro relato), hay muchos hombres que requieren de ese tipo de favores. Hablo de hombres casados, con hijos o solteros, viejos, separados, divorciados, adultos, de todo. Decido averiguar si lo que se dice en las vías es verdad. El aspecto más cínico del machismo mantiene estas relaciones bajo la sombra de la doble moral: desprecian la homosexualidad, pero la ejercen hasta la criminalidad.

Nelson es otro morro de 14 años - también de Honduras- que anda por las vías del tren. Le divierte charolear por las calles de Tenosique. Se junta con varios para caminar por este pueblo en donde el viento arrastra las cenizas del ingenio cañero que contamina el aire y les llena de ceniza las caras. Él me cuenta que un día andaba con Wilson ejerciendo el charoleo cerca de las vías del tren y un hombre como de 40 años se les acerca. Los mira a los dos y le pide a Wilson que lo acompañe a un cuartucho “yo me quedé viendo a Wilson y al viejo. Los acompañé hasta una cuartería, y se metieron a un baño y se encerraron ¿vea? Yo no me quedé a escuchar. El viejo me dio unos pesos para que yo fuera a comprar unos cigarros, me fui y al rato llegué… y pue’… ellos salieron y el viejo nos compró cerveza, cigarros y churros… pue’ ya sabe usted qué hicieron ¿vea? ¡hay no! ¡jajaja! ¡Wilson se pisó al viejo!”.

La creciente indiferencia ante estos jóvenes está presente. Forma parte de nosotros. Todo queda en lo profundo del océano donde nadie quiere mirar. Desde el principio, los chichos como Wilson deben enfrentar la imposibilidad de la opción. La mayoría de los jóvenes centroamericanos provienen de barrios pobres en los que hay una fuerte presencia de grupos criminales o pandillas. Y las autoridades de esos países, normalmente, criminalizan a los jóvenes que viven en estos contextos. Así que muchos deciden irse al norte para salir adelante, pero se topan con una sociedad que prefiere ignorarlos o también criminalizarlos o utilizarlos como mulas, o pedir rescate por ellos o utilizar sus cuerpos para la explotación sexual.



  Por las calles de Tenosique.  Créditos Fotográficos : Irving Mondragón

Por las calles de Tenosique. Créditos Fotográficos: Irving Mondragón

Don Simón tiene una esposa. Es cristiano, dice él. Vive solo, hasta donde sabemos. Su casa son dos cuartos y la sala, de un piso. Tiene fotos de su familia en la pequeña salita donde recibe visitas. El Black ya me había platicado de Don Simón. Es un viejo que vive por las vías, en la calle de Camarón, donde es común ver a los migrantes charoleando. El Black me cuenta que cuando los jóvenes pasan por la casa del viejo Don Simón, él les ofrece comida, los trata bien, les da ropa, los invita a pasar a su casa, les va pidiendo que hagan algún trabajito estúpido y les paga, los deja usar la computadora par que se conecten a Facebook y así empieza a tocarlos. “Pero ese viejo culero, conoce a los sureños, a los 13 de aquí de Tenosique. Ahí llegan con él cuando hay güiros y ahí los 13 les ofrecen pasar droga ¿me entiende? ¡e-eh! Wilson por una bolsa de churros le anda dando por todos lados a cualquier viejo culero.” Así habla el Black.

Un día quedo de ver a Wilson y no lo encuentro. Le digo al Black que vayamos a buscarlo. Anda en la casa del viejo, me dice.

“Yo aquí les doy de comer, nada de marihuana, nada de cervezas, solo me hacen algunos trabajos y ya. Yo tengo hijas, soy maestro, soy cristiano…” Don Simonsito se desvive cual villana de telenovela por justificar el hecho de tener a Wilson ahí metido en su casa. Yo solamente lo miro con ganas de arrancarle la cabeza.

¡Hey Wilson vámonos de aquí! Le digo al morro ¡Hasta acá te venimos a buscar! dice el Black mientras le sonríe con malicia a Don Luis.

¡Aquí no tienes por qué estar! Vámonos de aquí. Le digo en corto con la voz encendida. Wilson sale maleado de la casa del viejo, sus ojos brillan de coraje y vergüenza. El Black y yo salimos tras de él. Se adelanta, no nos espera. Se va.

¡Maldito viejo hijo de puta! le digo al Black. No se meta, no se meta en problemas por nosotros, nosotros no somos nadie. Lo volteo a ver con enojo, pero sus ojos paran mis palabras en seco. El Black tiene la mirada más dura que he visto en mi vida; es como el reflejo de una multitud de experiencias y emociones que se agrupan en sus ojos, simplemente la expresión es sus ojos no tiene nombre alguno.

Esa noche llamo a Pedro Ramírez. Él es un luchador social en esta región y trabaja los temas de prostitución, trata, etc. Un trabajo peligroso para cualquiera. Le cuento lo que había pasado. Ramírez conoce a Don Simón. Al mencionárselo sólo me dice “Sí. Si él les da comida y les paga por cualquier mandado, después les pedirá favores sexuales. No lo dudes.”.

El Black tenía razón.

Vuelvo a ver a Wilson un par de veces más. Me dice con risa penosa, al principio, y luego con  mucha naturalidad, la cantidad de hombres que se le acercan a él y a otros de sus amigos a ofrecerles dinero o cualquier otra cosa por acostarse con ellos. Me dice que en el malecón de Tenosique también les ofrecen dinero por sexo. “Sólo hay que hablar un poco y ligerito le dicen a uno”. Es el acento, me quedo pensando. Prefieren a los centroamericanos porque pase lo que les pase, aquí nadie va a pedir justicia por ellos. Y esto es verdad. De acuerdo con la fiscalía de Tabasco, los crímenes cometidos en contra de migrantes han ido en franco crecimiento. Los delitos reportados han aumentado de 102 en el 2012 a 385 en el 2015, y esots son solamente los delitos que han sido denunciados. Además, de todos estos crímenes, el 90% no han sido resueltos.

Un buen día quedo de ver al Black y llega pensativo. Me pregunta que si de verdad me importa Wilson y yo le respondo que sí. “Pues está en casa de Don Luis. Vamos por él.” En la dura mirada de ese pandillero se asoma un poco de la humanidad que a él pocos le han dado. Vamos, le respondo.

El calor alcanza los 40 grados en este lugar. El Black y yo sudamos como puercos mientras caminamos hacia la casa del viejo. Llegamos. La puerta está abierta, solo el mosquitero nos impide entrar a la casa. Digo “hola buenas tardes” en voz fuerte y dos veces. Luego miro al Black y entramos. El viejo y Wilson no están en la sala, están en el cuarto de a lado que no tiene puerta y en donde está la computadora, una silla y una cama. Wilson está en la computadora mientras el viejo lo contempla sentado en la cama.

Ya le dije que Wilson no puede venir aquí ¿qué  hace él aquí?

¡Ay! Es que ¡esto es su vida! Me dice mientras me señala la computadora.

Wilson nos mira sin creer que estuviéramos ahí. Ya habla, vámonos a la mierda de aquí Wilson. Le dice el Black, seco y duro. Sus ojos de avispa estaban rojos. Wilson obedece sin chistar. Ellos salen.

Él no puede venir aquí ¿me entiende? No importa que el venga, usted no lo va a recibir ¿me entendió?

El viejo balbuceaba cosas como “él viene aquí a comer… no los dejo fumar marihuana ni cigarros… yo soy cristiano… no, ya no va a volver.” Finalmente se calla.

Salgo de la casa, Wilson y el Black ya se han ido.

Algunas semanas después, el chico del ojo apagado se entera que le han negado el refugio. El Black me dice que Wilson se ha subido al tren. Él iba a tratar de verlo más arriba, pero nada es seguro.


(Español abajo)

In the first of this two-part series, the Linea 84 Collective employs ethnographic journalism along the Mexico-Guatemala border to reveal the intricate stories of young Central Americans running away from their home countries, becoming part of the flow of undocumented immigrants and therefore a target of increasingly militarized security policies in the North and Central American region.

Specifically, in the regions of Tabasco (Mexico) and El Petén (Guatemala), state protection is scarce and repressive actions are abundant. Both shape the everyday life of CentralAmerican youth fleeing to the north. Drawing from research in migrant shelters, along train tracks, and in various local towns, we enlist ethnographic journalism to move beyond reporting events to focusing on the ways young people make meanings of these everyday events and their impacts on social life.

In what follows, the authors complicate common representations of migration by deftly weaving together the overwhelming presence of death, the experience of deceit, suspicion, mistrust and loneliness with visceral moments of conversation and music, thus showing the ultimate uncertainty of the migrant trail. “La vida corta” tells the story of “Black”, a young Honduran migrant who travelled periodically from his home country to Monterrey (in Northern Mexico) crossing territories controlled by organized crime, unreliable authorities and mistrustful locals until one day he disappeared without a trace. In “Everything is for Sale Here” we see howWilson, a 13 year old asylum seeker, is abused in the country he is asking for protection by older men, some of whom present themselves as merciful individuals ready to help young migrants in need.


 Close to the water treatment pipes, where migrants bathe in Rio Usumascinta, Tenosique, Tabasco. Photo by: Irving Mongradón

Close to the water treatment pipes, where migrants bathe in Rio Usumascinta, Tenosique, Tabasco. Photo by: Irving Mongradón

I was supposed to meet up with Black, but he didn’t show up at our meeting spot. I went to look for him again the following week. Nothing. I looked for him everywhere. I had met him a month earlier, and we met regularly. He always showed. I went back to “Golden Dreams” – a little town on the side of the road from El Ceibo, very close to the Guatemala border. I waited for five hours. Boys on motorbikes turned their heads to look at me. They knew I was looking for Black. I think they pitied me. The heat was intense, and I couldn’t stop sweating. Each time I turned to look at them, the look on my face made it clear that I wasn’t going to move. They started speaking amongst themselves and, finally, one of them put on his helmet, got on his motorbike, started the engine loudly, and stopped right in front of me. He just stared at me.

“I’m looking for Black.”

 “No,” he told me with a shake of his head.

“When is he coming?” I asked. He shook his head no again. He took off his helmet, and then I saw it in his eyes. “He never made it to Monterrey,” he told me. He started the engine and left.

This trail that migrants take northward is very long. The trail devours them. It extends beyond the borders with seemingly no end. People who walk this trail are already taken for dead.

I left “Golden Dreams.” I never saw Black again. I’m certain he’s dead.

* The title is a word play of “la vida loca” (the crazy life) which is a common saying among gang members used to describe their hectic lifestyle.



 Near the railroad tracks in Tenosique, Tabasco. Photo by: Irving Mondragón

Near the railroad tracks in Tenosique, Tabasco. Photo by: Irving Mondragón

“What’s your name?”

I ask a boy with bee-like eyes who was listening to la Santa Grifa— a hip-hop band— on his phone.

“Well, fuck” I thought. Here we are in the southern border of Mexico, this guy is Central American, and this hip-hop group is from Tamaulipas. It piqued my curiosity. Tamaulipas is very far away, it’s a border state in the north of Mexico with more than 4000 firearm deaths in the last 7 years. This state also has a role in everything that has to do with immigration; it is one of the most dangerous border crossing points for those headed to the United States. La Santa Grifa know how to talk about all this violence, even though they don’t rap directly about coyotes, shelters, or migrants.

The boy utters some name while looking side to side to observe the people’s comings and goings. He wears a backwards baseball cap, dark pants, and a light shirt. I sit next to him on the low wall around the dining hall of aCatholic shelter that receives people who are in transit through Mexico. The majority of these places work to defend migrants’ human rights. They provide a combination of humanitarian assistance and human rights attorneys who help migrants seek asylum. And for better or worse, these actions  have earned the Catholic church power and prestige among organizations and institutions that deal with migrant defense issues. The Church combines faith and law to get in the game.

“Where are you headed?” I ask.

“Monterrey,” he answers shortly.

His answer surprises me. Monterrey is in the border state of Nuevo León, not that far away from the border with the United States. A lot of people passthrough this city, waiting for a few days, sometimes weeks, before heading to the border towns like Piedras Negras, Reynosa, or Nuevo Laredo where they wait until the border “opens” and “make the jump” to the other side. To be clear, they wait in line with drugs and weapons until it is their turn to pass.

But the boy doesn’t tell me he’s going to the United States.

“And why are you going there?” I inquire.

“I work there and then I come back down to see my jaina (chick) and my family in Honduras.”

In recent years, Mexico has become a destination for many Central Americans. They establish themselves here not because Mexico is the land of plenty but because people seek to escape the chaos governing their countries. Some get stuck in Mexico. Others disappear. The authorities persecute them. They beat them. At the end of the day, whether by choice or force, Mexican authorities are part of the criminal business, holding migrants indefinitely in detention centers as they wait for justice to arrive. But justice never arrives, only bureaucratic, institutional, formal, sterilized state violence. The Mexican and Central American governments inflict violence without pity nor remorse—all at the behest of U.S. securitization policies. Funded by the U.S. State Department and trained by U.S. Border Patrol Tactical Unit, elite military units in Central America seek to curb outmigration. Rather than attend to the needs of families and communities, in practice, these special military-police and anti-gang units inflict violence upon migrants.  

Many Central Americans have been able to establish themselves inMonterrey, a prosperous city in northern Mexico.  To make it to this city means that one has to know how to move across Mexico.

“So, you work there, you come and go. But it’s very dangerous going through these paths, going up and down. This is no-man’s-land,” I tell him.

“Yep. A lot of Zetas in Veracruz,” he shrugged.

In addition to Tamaulipas, Veracruz is one of the riskiest states for those headed north. It is a bastion of the Zetas who control parts of the south and northeast Mexico. The Zetas emerged from the former armed wing of the Gulf Cartel, when Osiel Cárdenas Guillén was their leader. They are an armed group who initially was at the service of a cartel which was composed of deserters from the elite Mexican army unit known as the GAFE (Grupo Aeromóvil de Fuerzas Especiales), many of which were trained by the U.S. military. Now they serve only themselves. After the capture of Cárdenas, the Zetas became mercenaries. With neither the leadership nor the contacts to become a drug cartel, the Zetas had something much more valuable; the knowledge and ability to exact violence efficiently in order to control all other lucrative illicit industries. With their capacity for destruction, they controlled criminal networks in the Gulf Cartel’s territory. They co-opted human smuggling.

To gain control of human smuggling in Mexico, the Zetas started threatening  coyotes, guides, recruiters, and entire communities that lived off of the passage of people. They forced them to become their allies and pay them taxes… to become their employees. Any resistors were killed. Migrants became the spoils of war. Mass kidnappings, like that of the San Fernando massacre, began in earnest at the end of 2008.

“But look,” he tells me, “I already know my way around here like the palm of my hand. I go through ‘Golden Dreams’ and I arrive here. I run, I move quickly, nimbly, and like I tell those who come with me…” Black glances at a trio of young men whose eyes are heavy from marijuana and continues, “If they can keep up, they follow me. If not…”

People walk by and he stops talking. He’s prudent. He knows that here, everyone hears everything. “I’ve got a pound of weed with me, do you understand? I’m just passing through here and I’ll be on my way.”

“I understand you. I’m sure you smoke all that by yourself, right?” The ice breaks and we start talking about la Santa Garifa. Black became a member of the Mara Salvatrucha when he was 13 years old, but not a member who is sympathetic to them or who dreams of being part of a gang, no. He was trained. You can see it when he speaks, and how he acts. He’s got street, insider wisdom (clecha). But he’s not a boss.

When I ask him why he left Honduras, he tells me dryly:

“Look. Here’s how it is. I lived with my jaina (chick). I went into an 18 (gang) territory to sell drugs and mess around with a girl there. I didn’t ask for permission to sell and she was the girl of a member of the 18. You can’t do that. When I go back to Honduras,I put on makeup, a skirt, a wig and that’s how I can go visit my family and my girl. I can’t be there for very long. So I head back up and I bring with me something to sell and be able to endure the route.”

Who knows if this is the whole story? We never finish talking. All I know for sure is that he knows how to get to Monterrey from Honduras, with all its dangers.

“Have you thought about staying here in Mexico?” I ask him. His beady eyes look around. He hasn’t yet started to speak when someone moves next to us.The conversation stops dead. He turns to look at me and says, in a low voice,“We can’t talk here.”

We agree to meet up in a week in “Golden Dreams” at the edge of the highway, where other young men like him gather with their motorbikes.

“So who do I ask for?”

He looks at me. He fixes his gaze.

“They call me Black.”

He turns and leaves. I watch him as he walks away. He has the letter “B”embroidered on that backwards cap.



 Train tracks at Salto de Agua, Mexico. Near the border with Guatemala.Photo Credit: Irvin Mondragón

Train tracks at Salto de Agua, Mexico. Near the border with Guatemala.Photo Credit: Irvin Mondragón

One week later I’m standing in Golden Dreams. It is a small town close to the Guatemalan border. According to official statistics, its population is about 300. It is a forgotten little town at the edge of the border. There is nothing in this place except it is part of the trail migrants take.

After waiting for three hours, I think that Black isn’t going to arrive. Then he appears, seated on the back of a motorbike with one of the kids who gather on the edge of the highway. This is where I get to know Black, and where I begin to understand a part of the world where adolescents fleeing the violence in Honduras live.

Since he was 11 years old, Black has seen dead bodies. His neighborhood, one of the poorest, is considered one of the “hottest” in San Pedro Sula. He describes days of “slaughter” that have not ended yet. People are terrified to leave their home because they are surrounded by death.  In a single day, there could be “one dead body on the corner, another in front, just up from the store, on the other street, and so people live in the midst of dead bodies.” At first, Black asked about so many murders, but he quickly learned that it was better not to ask. Cadavers formed part of his daily life. That’s how he started to ignore death and to live with the end of life every day. Later, he became a member of theMS-13 (Mara Salvatrucha). He describes his history casually. For Black, to be a marero is not that different from seeing dead bodies from the sidelines. Becoming a marero is part of the same situation: poverty, inequality, anti-gang operations, death squads, and unstoppable migration of youth. It is simultaneously overwhelming and banal.

By becoming a gang member, subject to torture and disappearance by the police or the military, he became no one to the Honduran state. But if we are frank, Black, who never told me his real name, was never really anyone to the Honduran government. People like him are no one to us. Dismissing him as a gang member allows us and the government to rationalize that he deserves the worst kind of death. It allows us to sleep calmly at night. Let’s not deceive ourselves. Now he is someone, but someone who deserves to die at the hands of whoever, wherever. It doesn’t matter.

Black “had to distance himself” from the gang and was thereby banished him from his country. He had to flee, so he crossed through Guatemala and went north. He started working in Monterrey at odd jobs to earn a few pennies, party, eat, and occasionally return, dressed as a girl for safety, to Honduras for a few days. His life was this route—back and forth to the north and to the south. The doors closed in every country. He could not stay in Honduras; the government there would not protect him. To Mexico, he was a headache. The United States wasn’t even a consideration. So he risked his life and kept moving. He sold a little bit of weed to travel to Monterrey – and once there, he smoked the rest himself. 

He knew people along the whole route, the majority of whom were young guys like him – some Mexican, others Hondurans, Guatemalans, Salvadorans. Many of them panhandled along the train tracks or in the streets of the passing towns. Black didn’t like to beg, so he didn’t panhandle. The boy with the beady eyes knew life along the train tracks, starting in Tenosique. He knew how young men like him survived.

We saw each other a few times in this town and talked in the oppressive heat. “Here, there are rules,” he said. He told me that those who more or less control what happens along the rails are those with food stands, or those who rent rooms to Central Americans. There’s Don Pepe, a Honduran of about 40-50years old who has a Cuban accent because he lived for many years in Miami. He always looks out from his stand at those who arrive. Above all, the women.  He sizes up new arrivals and doesn’t let them start fights near his place. Don Pepe’s catch phrase is “Here, we are going to behave ourselves.” He offers rooms for rent and sells Honduran food. He doesn’t hesitate to take out a stick and break it over the head of anyone who bothers his clientele or who causes disturbances. He also doesn’t hesitate to call immigration.

In front of the station, Don Goyo rents dirty rooms and sells fruits, vegetables, beer and probably drugs to nationals and foreigners alike. Who knows who he’s affiliated with, but things have gone well for Don Goyo. He has a son who is an astute scoundrel. His son is Don Goyo’s eyes and ears on the streets. Together, they ensure new arrivals don’t cause any problems, at least not near their business. Black says Don Goyo and Don Pepe know all of the groups that assault, rape, and kill; that’s business in these parts. They let the youth panhandle and walk around there, but they don’t like homeless people from any country and they don’t want trouble.

The boy with the penetrating stare knew many boys in this place. You start to recognize the young guys who are always walking through. One time I asked him how else they made a living, besides panhandling. “You’ll see,” he told me.

Before he disappeared, Black introduced me to Wilson. The first day I met Wilson, he walked up to us and Black immediately began heckling him, shaking with laughter and calling,  “Hey you, and how’s Don Simón? Ha ha.” It was clear that Black was making fun of him. Wilson laughed, but he looked away with shame. Wilson’s right eyelid almost always covered half of his eye. It seemed like he was high but that was just his facial structure.

“Wilson goes to an old jerk’s house who lives along the train tracks,”said Black. “Don Simón likes the young ones like Wilson.”

This Don Simón operates like this: The boys go by panhandling and then Don Simón offers them soda, a bag of chips, and has them do odd jobs – move rocks from one side to another – the most useless things in the world. He gives them money, then he lends them the computer, so they can connect to Facebook. Then he starts to touch them.

“Here in this place. Like this, look!” Black says while he gathers his fingers together, indicating a whole lot. “There’s a ton of jerks like this Don who look for young boys like Wilson. Because Wilson gives it to them in exchange for some snacks and a beer he’ll do anything.”

Black laughs an evil laugh at Wilson, his beady eyes on fire, his cheeks red from laughter.

I met Black around seven times in a month. The last few times that I saw him, he said it was getting harder for him to move north. He was having difficulty passing. Because of all the Mexican groups that control the route –the Zetas, immigration, the police, and the military – the path was increasingly blocked. His way of surviving was coming to an end. His biggest problem had always been getting through Veracruz, and each time it took more work to avoid conflicts in this territory. I told him that he should just stay in Monterrey, but he laughed and said, “No. This is how la vida loca (the crazy life) is.” Words of a gang member.

“Well,” I say, “What the hell are you doing, dude, going up and down? Are you going after the dream of living on the train tracks?”

Black keeps laughing and answers, “What dreams are you talking about?”His look hardens, but he keeps laughing, and now he’s making fun of me.

“Fine,” I say.

I see Black a few more times. In these last encounters, he tells me that traveling through Palenque, Querétaro and other places has started to worry him, and he also accompanies me to get Wilson out of Don Simon’s house.

Black has vast experience dealing with the criminal underworld, but even so the paths he knew started to close to him. He had to find another way to get to Monterrey. But as I said, Black disappeared. He was a 16 year old with the experience of an old man who no longer dreams.

This is la vida corta.



En esta primera serie de dos relatos, el Colectivo Línea 84 se centra en el área fronteriza de México y Guatemala para investigar y difundir, a través del periodismo etnográfico, las complejas historias de los jóvenes centroamericanos que huyen de sus países y se convierten en parte del flujo de migrantes sin documentos y, por lo tanto, en el blanco de la creciente militarización contenida en las políticas de seguridad de norte y Centroamérica.

Específicamente, en el área fronteriza del estado de Tabasco, México y el departamento de El Petén, Guatemala la escasa protección del Estado y los actos de represión del mismo, se tejen en la vida diaria de los jóvenes centroamericanos que huyen hacia el norte. A partir de la investigación realizada en albergues para migrantes en tránsito, las vías del tren y en varios poblados fronterizos, el periodismo etnográfico se instaura como herramienta de difusión y análisis para ir más allá del reporte de eventos y se centra en los significados y el sentido que ciertos eventos cotidianos tienen en los jóvenes migrantes y en la vida comunitaria.

En los siguientes relatos, los autores complican las representaciones comunes de la migración, entrelazando la abrumadora presencia de la muerte, la experiencia del engaño, la sospecha, la desconfianza y la soledad con conversaciones puntuales y música para mostrar la máxima incertidumbre del camino de los migrantes. La vida Corta cuenta la historia del Black, un joven migrante hondureño que viajaba constantemente de su país de origen a Monterrey (en el Norte de México). Periódicamente, el Black cruzaba territorios controlados por el crimen organizado, autoridades corruptas y personas locales desconfiadas hasta que un día desapareció sin dejar rastro. En el relato Aquí todo se vende, Wilson, un solicitante de refugio de 13 años, experimenta el abuso por parte de hombres mayores en el país en el que busca protección; algunos de ellos se presentan como personas caritativas quienes buscan ayudar a jóvenes migrantes necesitados.



 Cerca de las tubería para tratar el agua, y donde los migrantes van a bañarse. Rio Usumascinta, Tenosique, Tabasco. Créditos Fotográficos: Irving Mondragón.

Cerca de las tubería para tratar el agua, y donde los migrantes van a bañarse. Rio Usumascinta, Tenosique, Tabasco. Créditos Fotográficos: Irving Mondragón.

Quedé de verme con el Black, pero no llegó a nuestro punto de encuentro.  Lo volví a buscar a la siguiente semana. Nada. Lo busqué por todos lados. Tenía un mes de haberlo conocido, nos veíamos regularmente y siempre llegaba. Regresé a Sueños de Oro –un pueblucho a la orilla de la carretera del Ceibo, muy cerca de la frontera con Guatemala. Estuve ahí casi cinco horas, esperé y esperé. Los chicos de las motos me volteaban a ver. Sabían que lo buscaba. Creo que al final les di un poco de lástima. El calor era intenso y yo no paraba de sudar. Cada vez que volteaba a verlos, les decía con la mirada que ahí me iba a quedar. Empezaron a secretearse algo y, finalmente, uno de ellos se puso un casco, subió a su moto, arrancó con fuerza y se paró frente a mi. Solo se me quedó viendo.

Busco al Black. “No” Me dijo con la cabeza. ¿Cuándo viene? le pregunté. Volvió a decirme que no con la cabeza. Se quitó el casco, se me quedó viendo fijo y entonces lo vi en sus ojos. Nunca llegó a Monterrey. Me dijo. Arrancó y se fue.

La vida en este camino que recorren los que migran al norte es una gran calle larga. Larga, larga y los devora. Va más allá de las fronteras y parece que no tiene fin. Por aquí caminan los que ya dimos por muertos.

Me fui. Nunca más volví a ver al Black. Seguro está muerto.



 Cerca de las vías del tren, Tenosique, Tabasco. Créditos Fotográficos: Irving Mondragón.

Cerca de las vías del tren, Tenosique, Tabasco. Créditos Fotográficos: Irving Mondragón.

¿Cómo te llamas?

Le pregunté a un chavito con ojos de avispa que estaba escuchando a la Santa Grifa en su teléfono ¡Aaaaa chinga! Pensé. Estamos en la frontera sur de México, este morro es centroamericano y los de la Santa Grifa son de Tamaulipas. Me dio curiosidad. Tamaulipas está muy lejos y es uno de los estados fronterizos del norte de México con más de 4000 muertos por armas de fuego en los últimos 7 años. Ese estado tiene historia en todo este asunto de la migración porque es uno de los puntos de cruce fronterizo más peligrosos para las personas que van a Estados Unidos. La Santa Grifa sabe hablar de toda esa violencia aunque no hable ni de coyotes ni de albergues ni de migrantes.

El chico me respondió con cualquier nombre mientras miraba de un lado a otro, observando a la gente que iba y venía. Tenía puesta una gorra hacia atrás, unos pantalones obscuros y una playera color claro. Me senté a su lado sobre la barda del comedor. Estábamos en uno de estos albergues católicos que reciben a la gente que migra hacia los Estados Unidos y andan en tránsito por México. La mayoría de estos lugares defienden los derechos de las personas migrantes. Son unos híbridos raros de asistencia humanitaria y defensa de derechos humanos con abogados que, hoy en día, pelean casos de refugio. Con estos albergues, la iglesia católica ha ganado prestigio y poder dentro de los movimientos sociales de defensa de derechos humanos. Combina la fe y la ley para entrar al juego.

¿Para dónde vas? le pregunté. A Monterrey. Me dijo en corto. Me le quedé viendo, me sorprendí. Esa ciudad está en el estado fronterizo de Nuevo León y a pocos kilómetros de la frontera con Estados Unidos. Mucha gente pasa por esa ciudad a esperar unos días, a veces semanas, antes de moverse a los puntos fronterizos como Piedras Negras, Reynosa y hasta Nuevo Laredo para dar “el brinco” al gringo; la gente espera a que se “abra” la frontera. Para ser más claros, esperan a que les toque el turno para pasar. Las drogas y las armas generalmente también están en la lista. Pero el morrito no me dijo que iba para Estados Unidos. ¿Y a qué vas allá? le dije. Allá trabajo y luego bajo otra vez a ver a mi jaina y mi familia en Honduras.

Me quedo pensando que desde hace algunos años México se ha convertido en lugar de destino para muchos centroamericanos, algunos se establecen aquí y no porque México sea la tierra de la abundancia sino porque la gente huye a donde sea del caos que gobierna esos países. Y también la gente queda atrapada en el territorio mexicano porque hacemos el cruce a los Estados Unidos cada vez más atroz. Aquí en México las personas migrantes desaparecen, la autoridad las persigue, las golpea o terminan formando parte de los negocios criminales por decisión propia o por la fuerza; también, a autoridad migratoria mexicana detiene a las personas por tiempo indefinido en centros de detención migratorio lo que la hace parte de toda esta represión. Para acabar pronto, la justicia para todas estas personas nunca ha visto la luz. Lo que tenemos aquí son constantes “violaciones a derechos humanos”; es decir, el nombre burocratizado, institucional, formal, estilizado que ahora le damos a la violencia de Estado. El abuso  del uso de la fuerza es lo que el gobierno mexicano –y también los gobiernos centroamericanos– ejercen sin clemencia. Y lo hacemos porque así dictan las políticas de seguridad regional que se imponen los desde los Estados Unidos.

Estados Unidos ha financiado y entrenado grupos especiales policíaco-militares y anti-pandillas en el Triángulo Norte Centroamericano para frenar la migración. Lo que ocurre es que estos grupos terminan persiguiendo a las personas que huyen de la violencia en Centroamérica. Mientras, México –a través de policías, agentes de migración y militares– es el filtro migratorio más grande para los gringos.

Bueno, pues Monterrey es una ciudad próspera del norte de México, y muchos centroamericanos ya han logrado establecerse ahí. Pero para llegar a esa ciudad hay que saber moverse.

Allá trabajas, vas y vienes. Es bastante peligroso andar por estos rumbos subiendo y bajando. Aquí es tierra de nadie. le dije al morrillo. Sí, mucho Zeta por Veracruz, me respondió.

Veracruz, además de Tamaulipas, es uno de los estados en donde hay más riesgos para las personas que van de camino al norte, todavía es bastión de los Zetas, quienes controlan buena parte del territorio del sur y noreste mexicano. Les hablo del famosísimo ex-brazo armado del Cartel del Golfo, cuando Osiel Cárdenas Guillén era su líder. Los Zetas es el primer grupo armado, al servicio de un cártel, compuesto por desertores de los grupos de élite del ejército mexicano: los GAFE (Grupo Aeromóvil de Fuerzas Especiales). Varios de sus miembros recibieron entrenamiento en Estados Unidos. Los Zetas también son el primer grupo que, después de la captura de Osiel, se convirtieron en la primera y más poderosa organización de mercenarios: es cierto que ya no tenían líder y tampoco los contactos para convertirse en un cartel de la droga, pero finalmente tenían algo mucho más valioso en estos tiempos; tenían en sus manos todo un gran capital: todo el conocimiento y habilidades de ejercer la  violencia de manera eficiente y organizada para controlar todas las actividades ilegales o criminales lucrativas en sus territorios en un país donde la violencia también es ley. Todo esa capacidad de destrucción la utilizaron para controlar las actividades criminales que operaban dentro de los territorios que ya controlaba el cártel del Golfo. Y así incursionaron en el tráfico de personas.

Les cuento un poco. Los Zetas, para controlar el tráfico de personas, empezaron a amenazar a coyotes, guías, enganchadores y a comunidades completas que se beneficiaban del paso de la gente; los obligaron a  aliarse con ellos y pagarles cuotas, tenían que convertirse en sus empleados. A quienes quisieron seguir por la libre, los mataron. Así fue como las personas que migran se convirtieron en un botín y empezaron los secuestros masivos por ahí a finales del 2008. La masacre de San Fernando es un ejemplo de su poder.

Pero mire –me dice el Black– yo ya conozco aquí como la palma de mi mano: paso por Sueños de Oro y llego hasta acá. Yo voy corriendo, voy ligero, y como les digo a esos que viene ahí conmigo. El morro voltea a ver a un trío de chavos que se les caen los ojos de marihuanos y me dice: si aguantan, me siguen sino…

Pasa gente y el morro se calla. Es prudente. Sabe que aquí todo mundo escucha todo. “Aquí ando una libra de marihuana ¿Me entiende? Aquí vengo de paso y me voy”. Te entiendo. Seguro sólo te la fumas ¿vea? Se rompe el hielo. Hablamos de la Santa Grifa. Este morro tiene 16 años y desde los 13 es pandillero de la MS. Pero no de esos que “simpatizan” o “alucinan” con alguna pandilla, no. Este joven tiene escuela, se le nota al hablar, se le nota al actuar. La clecha la lleva. Pero no es un jefe.

Cuando le pregunté por qué había salido de Honduras, me dijo en seco:

Mire. Así está el cuadro. Vivía con mi jaina. Me fui a meter a territorio de la 18 a vender droga y pisar con una de ahí. No pedí permiso para vender y ella era jaina de uno de la 18. Eso no se puede. Cuando bajo a Honduras, me pinto la boca, los ojos, me pongo una falda, una peluca y así voy a ver a mi familia y a mi jaina. No puedo estar allá mucho tiempo. Entonces me subo y llevo algo para vender y aguantar el camino.

Quién sabe si esa era toda la historia. Nunca terminamos de hablar sobre eso. Lo que era cierto es que conocía bien el camino hasta Monterrey desde Honduras. Así como todos sus peligros.

“¿Has pensado en quedarte aquí en México?” le pregunté. Sus ojos de avispa miraban para los lados. No había empezado a hablar cuando una persona se para justo a lado de nosotros. Mata la palabra al sacar el aire. Voltea a verme y me dice en voz baja: aquí no se puede hablar.

Quedamos de vernos en una semana por la mañana en Sueños de Oro, ahí a la orilla de la carretera, donde se juntan otros morros como él con sus motos.

Y por quién pregunto. Le dije.

Me mira, me clava la mirada.

Me dicen El Black.

Se da la vuelta y se va. Lo veo mientras se aleja, tiene bien bordada una “B” en su gorra.



 Las vías del tren de Salto de Agua, Mexico, cerca de la frontera con Guatemala. Créditos Fotográficos: Irving Mondragón.

Las vías del tren de Salto de Agua, Mexico, cerca de la frontera con Guatemala. Créditos Fotográficos: Irving Mondragón.

Una semana después estoy en Sueños de Oro. Es un pequeño pueblo muy cerca de la frontera con Guatemala. Muy pocos habitantes, unos 300 según los datos oficiales, y muy cerca de la frontera con Guatemala. Es un pueblucho perdido al filo de la frontera. No hay nada en este lugar excepto que los migrantes pasan por aquí.

Pensé que el Black no iba a llegar después de esperar como tres horas. Pero apareció sentado en una moto detrás de uno de los morros que se reúnen en un pedacito de tierra en donde, efectivamente, estacionan sus motos a la orilla de la carretera. Así fue como empecé a conocer al Black y parte del mundo en el que viven los adolescentes que huyen a donde sea de la violencia que hay en Honduras.

Verán, desde que tenía 11 años, el Black vio muertos. Su barrio, uno de los más pobres, es también uno de los más “calientes” en San Pedro Sula. Cuenta que había días en que se desataba la “matazón” y la gente solo quedaba asustada porque sus casas estaban en medio de puro muerto. En un mismo día podía haber “un muerto en la esquina, otro enfrente, arribita de la tienda, en la otra calle y así las casas en medio de puro muerto”. Al principio se preguntaba por qué, pero aprendió rápido que eso mejor no se pregunta cuando uno muere a balazos a plena luz del día. Así empezó a ignorar la muerte y a vivir con el fin de la vida todos los días. Simplemente los cadáveres empezaron a formar parte de lo cotidiano y comenzó a ignorarlos. Después se hizo pandillero de la MS-13. Lo dice con toda naturalidad. Ser pandillero es como ver muertos todos lo días, así como la pobreza, la desigualdad, los operativos anti-pandillas, los escuadrones de la muerte y la migración desenfrenada de jóvenes que solo tienen esta aplastante realidad.

Al ser pandillero se volvió nadie para el estado hondureño y digno de ser torturado y desaparecido por policías y militares. Pero si somos más honestos, el Black, quien nunca me dijo su nombre, siempre fue nadie para el gobierno de Honduras. Siempre fue nadie para nosotros. Volverse pandillero solo permite decir que merece la peor de las muertes. A nosotros nos permite dormir tranquilos. No hay que engañarnos. Nos consuela pensar que debió ser un mártir de la pobreza; un santo sin justicia en vez de ser un pandillero que escupe en nuestra frivolidad. Ahora el Black es alguien, pero alguien que merece morir a manos de quien sea y donde sea, no importa.

Lo que pasa con el Black es que “se tuvo que alejar” de su pandilla y eso lo desterró de su país. Tuvo que huir. Entonces cruzó Guatemala y llegó a México. Subió al norte. Empezó a trabajar en Monterrey de cualquier cosa para ganarse unos centavos, salir de fiesta, comer y volver un par de días a Honduras vestido de mujer para que nadie se lo reconociera. Su vida era este camino hacia el norte y hacia el sur. Tiene las puertas cerradas en todos los países: en Honduras ya no puede quedarse y el estado no lo va a proteger; en México es un dolor de cabeza y en Estados Unidos mejor ni hablamos. Así que siempre se la ha rifado mientras se mueve. Mientras camina va vendiendo un poco de marihuana para llegar a Monterrey –el resto de la mota se la fuma.

Tiene conocidos en todo este camino, la mayoría son jovencitos como él; algunos mexicanos, otros hondureños, guatemaltecos o salvadoreños. Muchos de ellos charolean, o sea van pidiendo dinero en las vías del tren o por las calles de los lugares por los que pasan. Al Black no le gusta pedir, así que no charolea. El muchacho ojos de avispa conocía muy bien como se mueven las aguas en las vías del tren que empiezan en Tenosique; sobre todo cómo viven los jóvenes como él.

Nos vimos varias veces en ese pueblo y platicábamos mientras aguantábamos el pinche calor. “Aquí hay reglas” me decía. Los que más o menos controlan lo que sucede en las vías son los que tienen puestos de comida y cuartuchos que rentan a los centroamericanos. Ahí está Don Pepe, un hondureño de unos 40-50 años con acento cubano porque vivió mucho tiempo en Miami. Ese mira siempre desde su puesto a los caminantes que llegan. Sobre todo a las mujeres. Ofrece cuartos y la comida hondureña que vende. Les mide el agua a los que llegan, no permite que armen escándalos cerca de su lugar y su frase más conocida es “papito, aquí, nos vamoa compoltal”. No duda ni tantito en sacar un palo y quebrarse al que moleste a sus clientes o le arme algún escándalo. Tampoco duda en llamar a migración.

Enfrentito de la estación tenemos a Don Goyo, un mexicano que también renta pocilgas y vende frutas, verduras, cervezas y muy probablemente drogas a nacionales y extranjeros. Quien sabe con quién estará aliado, pero a Don Goyo le ha ido bien. Tiene un hijo que es un malandrín muy astuto y es sus ojos y oídos en la calle. Ellos aquí también controlan que los que lleguen no armen problemas, por lo menos no cerca de sus lugares. Don Goyo y Don Pepe saben y conocen, dice el Black, a todos los grupos que asaltan, violan y matan. Así es el negocio. A los jóvenes los dejan charolear y andar por ahí, pero no les gustan los vagos de ningún lado.

El muchacho de la mirada aguda conocía a muchos morros por estos lugares. Morros que uno empieza a reconocer y siempre andan por aquí. Una vez le pregunté cómo le hacían además de charolear para conseguir varo. Ya va a ver, me dijo.

Antes de que desapareciera, el Black me presentó a Wilson. Un día ese chico se nos acercó y el Black empezó a chingarlo, se botaba de risa, lo veía como cualquier cosa y le decía “¿E vo’ y como está Don Simón? jeje-jeje” Era claro que el Black se burlaba. Wilson se reía, pero volteaba la mirada a otro lado con un poco de vergüenza. El párpado derecho de Wilson casi siempre está a la mitad de su ojo. Parece que está medio drogado todo el tiempo, pero no, así es su cara. “Wilson va donde un viejo culero que vive por las vías del tren” dijo el Black “le gustan los güirros así como Wilson.” El tal Don Simón opera así: los morros pasan charoleando y entonces Don Simón les ofrece fresco, una bolsa de churros, los pone a hacer trabajitos –pasar piedras de un lado a otro– lo más inútil del mundo, y les da dinero, luego les presta la computadora para que se conecten al facebu’ y así empieza a tocarlos. “Aquí en este lugar ¡Así, mire!” me dice el Black mientras amontona todos sus dedos. “¡Montón de culeros como ese Don que buscan güirros así como Wilson! porque Wilson les da ¡e-e! Ese por unos churros y una cerveza hace cualquier cosa.” El Black se ríe con malicia de Wilson, sus ojos de avispa se encienden, sus mejillas se ponen rojas, rojas de la risa.

El Black y yo nos topamos como 7 veces en un mes. Las últimas veces que lo vi, me decía bien serio que le estaba costando trabajo subir al norte. estaba teniendo problemas para pasar; entre las bandas mexicanas que controlan los caminos por los que pasa la gente, los Zetas, la migra, la policía y los militares, al Black se le estaba cerrando el camino y se le estaba acabando la forma de sobrevivir.  Su mayor problema siempre había sido pasar por Veracruz y cada vez le costaba más trabajo evitar conflictos por esos territorios.  Le dije que se quedara en Monterrey, pero se rió y me dijo “No. Así es la vida loca”. Palabra de pandillero.

Bueno, le digo, y tú cabrón ¿qué putas haces de arriba para abajo? ¿andas persiguiendo el sueño de vivir en las vías?

El Black se sigue riendo y me responde “¿De que sueños me habla?”. La mirada se le hizo dura, continua con su risa, ahora se burla de mi. Bien, le digo. Todavía vi al Black varias veces. Me acompañó por Wilson a casa de Don Simón en otras ocasiones. Sus andanzas en Palenque, Querétaro y otros lados lo dejaban cada vez más preocupado. El Black tiene una experiencia inmensa lidiando con todos los malandrines de los alrededores, pero aún así los caminos que conoce se le empezaban a cerrar. Tenía que buscar otra forma de llegar a Monterrey. Pero como ya les dije, el Black desapareció, era un morro con la experiencia de un viejo sin sueños. Sólo tenía 16 años.

Así es la vida corta.

Literacy Tests, Love Letters, and Shifting Borders

By Kate Vieira


Literacy is a culturally dependent set of practices and resources that some have more access to than others—yet somehow, it remains a basis on which to redraw the border.  


Shifting Borders

We often think of borders as incontrovertible facts. If you have an atlas (or an app with an atlas), you can trace with your finger the outline of a seemingly contained country. Here is a river. Here is a desert. Here is a bounded territory that can be measured in kilometers or in miles.

But from the perspective of people who have moved, are moving, or are planning to move, the view is different. The lines keep getting redrawn. Depending on your papers, your phenotype, your last name, your religion, and on the whims and decisions of those in charge, the borders shift. The perimeter of what is a livable space within the U.S. constricts.

In 2017 and the early parts of 2018, the Trump administration has proposed or has just gone ahead and: rescinded DACA, closed the doors to refugees from certain countries, rescinded protective status for many, upped immigration enforcement, and restricted family reunification.

The result is that the shape of previously known territories is shifting underneath our feet. Borders are being rewritten.


A Wall and an English Test

There has been much talk of a wall in order to cement the border with Mexico into steel. Less discussed has been another technology of border policing: the English Test. As part of Senate Bill 1720, the RAISE act, currently in committee, the U.S. would institute a “skills-based points system” for entry, part of which would rely on an English test as a tie breaker.

Particular versions of the U.S. border are enforced by guns, the national guard, and Customs & Border Protection—and also by English literacy. Of the many recent threats to humane immigration policy, an English literacy test as a prerequisite for legal entry may seem benign. 

It is not.


Literacy tests have historically perpetuated white supremacy

 The 1917 Immigration Act expanded the Chinese Exclusion Act, discriminated based on ability, and instituted a literacy test to limit migration from countries deemed racially undesirable. The test itself, involving reading a short passage in any language, did a poor job of actually stemming immigration.

But its ideological effect was still pernicious: It cemented the link between literacy and racial desirability as a basis for immigration policy. One’s whiteness was in part determined based on one’s literacy. And one’s literate ability was in part determined by one’s whiteness. As part of this process, literacy was coded as what scholar Prendergast has called a “white property right.” As a method of racially engineering the U.S. populace, literacy tests laid the groundwork for the race-based immigration quotas of the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act. To differing degrees, the targeted included: Southern and Eastern Europeans, Africans, and Middle Easterners. Asians were excluded entirely.

Literacy tests are not objective

 Now. You may be thinking, how can literacy be a tool of white supremacist immigration policy? People can either read or they can’t. Right?

Actually no.

Literacy is a much squishier skill than it seems. In fact, many scholars call it a practice rather than a skill. It is a thing you do that is tied up in your context—your culture, your language, your gender, your sexuality, your race, your family, your class, your body, your brain, the materials you are using to read and to write . . .

In my research for my book about literacy and immigration, I interviewed a woman, Cristina, who tried three times to pass the English literacy test associated with naturalization. She had come to the U.S. as a child and left school to help her family make ends meet. A bilingual caretaker for the elderly, she described to me how the U.S. had been her home for over 30 years. But to become a citizen, she had to prove her belonging in English literacy.

She paid for the naturalization test three times ($675 a pop). Three times, she failed.

She was already a permanent resident, so the failure or passing of this test did not mean restricted entry. But the case raises a question relevant to the RAISE act: What exactly is being tested under the name of literacy? For Cristina, it seemed what was being tested was how badly her parents needed the five dollars an hour she likely earned in her work on the factory line instead of going to school.

Popularly, we often believe that literacy measures intelligence. Moral fitness. Inner strength. It does not. Rather, literacy is a culturally dependent set of practices and resources that some have more access to than others. As such, literacy is not a sensible basis on which to redraw the border.

Literacy testing, by the way, can also be biased. Cristina passed her test on the fourth try. She recalled having to write the colors of the flags and the color of her car. In the end, she told me, this tester was nice.  “I don’t know why the others didn’t let you pass,” she said he said.  And just like that, she became “American,” or at least, as she put it, “American by paper.”


The proposed literacy test is not about literacy

English literacy tests make about as much practical sense as a border wall. Remember, literacy in any language is tied up in its social context. To really test someone’s potential to use literacy well in the U.S., test makers would have to account for specific living situations, jobs, and geographies. And they would have to do so in multiple languages, since English is not the U.S. official language, and since in many areas English is not the lingua franca.

To really develop a rocking integration of literacy into immigration reform, the U.S. might dispatch teams of literacy instructors to help potential migrants develop multilingual and multimodal portfolios of writing that they could use stateside for political participation and community engagement. Likewise, literacy instructors from migrants’ communities could teach U.S. host communities about migrants’ cultures of literacy, so that host communities would be prepared to learn from migrants’ many linguistic gifts.

If this scenario seems utopian, it’s because the proposal of an English literacy test isn’t about literacy development at all. If it were, the administration would already be investing in culturally relevant, multilingual literacy education for all of us who call the territory that is currently part of the U.S. home, so that we could better communicate with our neighbors.


Literacy is not a wall

At its heart, literacy and language are about communication. There’s a writer. There’s a reader. There’s a text.


In that dialogic process, there is the potential to make meaning, to open up some space in an increasingly suffocating cartography.

The same bill that unquestioningly proposes the English literacy test as ‘tiebreaker’ also proposes restricting family reunification, the process that replaced the 1924 race-based quota system, and through which a mother or son or spouse can officially invite a family member to the U.S. Such invitations involve writing what in Portuguese is called a carta de chamada, literally a letter that calls, a letter that unites. The family reunification policy has never been perfect. But in writing this kind of bureaucratic love letter, there is the possibility that borders can be revised with the words of the people who know them best—those who have crossed them.


Kate Vieira is professor of English at UW Madison and the author of American by Paper: How Documents Matter in Immigrant Literacy (University of Minnesota Press, 2016) and Writing for Love and Money: How Migration Promotes Literacy Learning in Transnational Families (under contract, Oxford University Press). You can learn more about her work here: www.katevieira.com. Doctoral candidate Calley Marotta provided research and editorial assistance for this post.

Migration as Clickbait

by Michele Statz and Lauren Heidbrink

(This piece is copyrighted by the American Anthropological Association and was previously published by Anthropology New)

The demonization of young migrants and their families may be shocking, but these policies and practices are neither new nor surprising.

On October 24, 2017, United States Customs and Border Protection apprehended an unauthorized 10-year-old girl with cerebral palsy while an ambulance transported her to a Texas hospital for emergency surgery. After a well-publicized outcry from members of Congressphysicianslawyers and celebrities, she was released on November 23.

Also in October, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), denouncing the ORR director E. Scott Lloyd’s anti-abortion activism and ORR’s unconstitutional refusal to release an undocumented and unaccompanied youth in their custody to obtain an abortion. In response, ORR argued that the 17-year-old woman could request deportation and then seek an abortion. Nearly a month after “Jane Doe” received a state court order allowing her to have an abortion without parental consent, and likewise after a dramatic and polarized legal battle, a federal appeals court in Washington ordered that she be allowed to obtain an abortion “promptly and without delay.”

These two cases are shocking for many people; they elicit and implicate deeply-held views around women’s health, the treatment of people with disabilities, and governmental overreach. That they simultaneously involve youth, and unauthorized migrant youth more specifically, confronts the public with an unfolding and likely unsettling reality—namely, the ongoing contradictions of immigrant “management” in the US.

There is ample, and indeed growing, popular press on the contradictions of immigration detention, much of it depicting young migrants as delinquent and their parents as liable. As scholars of global youth, we are familiar with this material both as clickbait and as evidence of the racialized trends our work more deeply documents. What is less intelligible to us, and increasingly surprising, is that anthropological knowledge—expertise developed through sustained ethnographic engagement—remains peripheral to these accounts. Often, it is silent.

We can and must do better.

Pernicious and enduring

  Activity with youth about migration in Sibinal, Guatemala.  Photo credits: Lauren Heidbrink

Activity with youth about migration in Sibinal, Guatemala. Photo credits: Lauren Heidbrink

From the immediate treatment of children and families, these contradictions extend to the administration’s callous repeal of Temporary Protected Status for nearly 200,000 Salvadorans, many of whom have lived in the US for over a decade. Meanwhile, Congress’s gutless behavior on matters of border security trades away Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) for increased border security and enforcement. These negotiations are more destructive than many realize, including the possibility of Democrats settling for pernicious interior enforcement measures and the ongoing neutralizing of sanctuary cities through incentives to local and state law enforcement. Meanwhile, families continue to be torn apart.

These expedited portrayals and partial reports only bolster narratives of surprise, novelty, and immediacy, as if such structures and effects are new rather than familiar and long-standing.

And anthropology was…?

Anthropologists’ absence from media and political discourse on immigrant detention has critical consequences for the public, for policymakers, and most importantly, for the individuals at the center of our research—youth who are often reduced to the all-too-familiar, xenophobic stereotypes of vulnerable victimsdelinquents or gang members, or carriers of disease.

Take, for example, ethnographic research with unaccompanied migrant youth in the US. As our own work documents, organizations and advocates largely rely upon racialized and often infantilizing tropes as they care for and advocate on behalf of young people (Heidbrink 2014Statz 2018). At the same time, unaccompanied children explicitly challenge conceptualizations of child passivity through their unauthorized and independent presence, and implicitly via their movement through multiple geographic and institutional sites in search of care, education, or employment.

The victimization narrative persists—ignoring young migrants as social actors, decontextualizing the conditions spurring their migration, and criminalizing parents—yet our ethnographic data actively thwart it. Research with Chinese and Guatemalan youth powerfully unsettles popular and policy assessments of caregivers as “unenlightened parents” and communities as “backward cultures.” It refutes legal claims in which migratory debt is framed as “parental abuse.” Here, belonging emerges as practiced and sustained over time and across distances; debt is understood in terms of relationality, binding youth to family and wider communities.

By concurrently and critically focusing on the social agency of young migrants, we challenge these portrayals, revealing a contextualized understanding of how and why young people are on the move. This in turn helps illuminate the unanticipated consequences of policies and advocacy efforts on youth and their families, even as they are deemed “successful.” Anthropologists are uniquely poised to challenge and expand the narrow parameters by which young migrants, their parents, and their cultural contexts are covered in the media (Heidbrink and Statz 2017). Our research is not unique, we work within broadinternational networks of scholars doing critical and timely research on migration, youth, policy and bureaucracy. As anthropologists, we are not surprised by the injustices and contradictions. That we are not surprised—but the public is—indicates a massive professional failure on our part.

Anthropology must matter

At the AAA Annual Meeting in November, incoming AAA President Alex Barker argued that “it is not enough for anthropologists to be social critics…the anthropologist’s responsibility to illuminate requires thinking in dark times.” Yet as evidenced by the many media articles and broadcasts that notably do not reference academic publications, we have failed to illuminate—even when our public audience is most unsettled and in need of information.

To elucidate the remarkably unsurprising nature of immigration policy and management in the US, we must reach broader and more diverse publics. Many of us are doing this in collaboration with our students and in support of undocumented students, and we recognize that these efforts, all of which are motivated by time-intensive, community-engaged fieldwork, are often derailed by expectations of free academic labor for peer review or by delayed publication in professional journals. With full appreciation for the important work of moving key theoretical debates forward in our specialized fields, we must also translate our teaching and research into accessible and timely formats. In other words, what we know and what we do must be presented as compelling, rigorous, and competitive across diverse digital platforms.

It is not just “who” but “how”

While democratizing access to academic knowledge via open access journals is an important step, researchers of im/migration must be even more expansive in how we communicate. Through multimedia formats—blogs, podcasts, photo journals, digital stories—we can reach broader and more diverse publics. Our collaborative work with Youth Circulations, a site dedicated to bringing youth-centered research to global public and academic audiences, reveals this. With over 8,000 unique visitors and growing, it is a powerful reminder of the demand for nuanced, informed, and accessible analysis.

In an era when the relevance of higher education generally and social sciences specifically are under assault, and when im/migrants are perpetually spotlighted—or surveilled—in media, policy, and law enforcement, anthropologists of migration are urgently tasked with demonstrating the relevance and power of our applied knowledge. In other words, what we already know about immigration injustice in the US matters. Through community events, public art exhibits, public lecturespodcasts, and op-eds, anthropology must bring our research to a broader public. We must likewise train students on the importance of and skills to ethically conduct engaged scholarship. In the meantime, as Christopher Mooney recently argued, institutions of higher education must also accord value to public, engaged scholarship by recognizing it in tenure processes and incentivizing it through institutional grants and service credit.

Anthropology has failed to effectively engage in public policy

Applying our knowledge to public policy brings with it complications, contradictions, and ethical dilemmas. For example, migration scholars are routinely asked to draft affidavits as country conditions experts in support of asylum petitions. So doing, we wrestle with how to effectively support individual claims to limited forms of legal relief while not essentializing cultures and countries, which immigration law is wont to do. This is profoundly challenging, but also a powerful opportunity. Just as we do in fieldwork, engaging with these dilemmas in practice often yields productive insights and clarity in our innovation. It likewise introduces, and occasionally demands, the value of collaboratively processing and evaluating our public efforts with colleagues facing similar choices.

There are, of course, more deliberate and sustained opportunities for engaged public work. It is not enough to critique the intended and unintended consequences of public policy; our response must be to harness our experiences and the expertise of the communities with which we work to address or even bypass these consequences. This includes participating in broad national networks and trainingin engaged public policy and even bringing our work and anthropological understandings into direct public service.

Dismantling shock

While the increased public attention to the intricacies of young people’s experiences of migration and detention is important, the shock value accorded to the discrimination of society’s “most vulnerable”—abused, pregnant, disabled, children—is overdue and sadly misplaced.

Public anthropology is increasingly tasked with demonstrating the mundaneness of realities such as this. The glaring conspicuousness by which state actors demonize young migrants and their families may be shocking, but these policies and practices are notably not new and not surprising. Rather than supply data as BuzzFeed fodder, anthropologists must make efforts to dismantle the surprise and novelty of these realities by offering the socio-political context and lived histories that evidence the discrimination that im/migrants in the US have experienced all along.

Michele Statz is an anthropologist of law and assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Biobehavioral Health at the University of Minnesota Medical School, Duluth. She is author of Lawyering an Uncertain Cause: Immigration Advocacy and Chinese Youth in the U.S. (2018). She is co-editor of Youth Circulations.

Lauren Heidbrink is an anthropologist and assistant professor in the Department of Human Development at California State University, Long Beach. She is author of Migrant Youth, Transnational Families and the State: Care and Contested Interests (2014). She is co-editor of Youth Circulations.

Cite as: Statz, Michele,  and Lauren Heidbrink. 2018. “Migration as Clickbait.” Anthropology News website, February 6, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.760

Conversations Among First-Generation Latinas on Migration and Social Work

Curated by Celeste Sánchez, MSW

In 2016, 15 social work students from Loyola University Chicago attended a summer immersion course about migration in Mexico City. Many of us—as immigrants or children of immigrants—found ourselves in new territory as we gained insight into our own families’ histories and our communities in the U.S. and Latin America. Yet, this trip—and indeed our graduate education—was largely geared for white students, not for us. In this series, we reflect and grapple with our experiences, perspectives, privileges, fears, challenges, and hopes as first-generation Latinas. We share here some of our conversations, poetry, and reflections as we lean on our mutual discoveries and ongoing conversations during this impactful experience.


Migration and Social Work Education

By María Vidal de Haymes

I am a professor of Social Work at Loyola University Chicago, and I am also an immigrant.  My decision to enter into social work as a profession was deeply influenced by my experience as an immigrant.  

I am from Cuba, and my family migrated to the United States and Venezuela in pieces following the Cuban revolution in 1959.  My two older brothers left the island first. In 1963 my parents, my sister, and I were reunited with them. A small Cuban community formed in Lincoln, Nebraska as some of the children of the orphanage were reunited with their families and some formed families of their own.

My earliest memories are of playing on the floor in a classroom where my parents attended ESL classes. By the time I was in my middle school years I accompanied older members of the Lincoln Cuban community to doctors’ visits, appointments at the welfare and social security offices, banks and so on, to translate and to help them navigate these complex systems. It wasn’t because I was so knowledgeable of these systems at young age; I just spoke English and there were not any bilingual professionals or translation services available in Lincoln at that time. Here, I began my path towards social work. As a child my eyes were opened to the vulnerability of the immigrant adults and families around me, including mine; the barriers they confronted to employment, integration, and needed services. I also quickly began to understand the difference access to the services could make in the life of individuals and families. My role expanded to teaching newcomers that were living with us how to take the bus, apply for jobs, search for an apartment, enroll in ESL classes and basically make their way in a new context.  

By the time I enrolled in college, I knew that I wanted to study social work. After all, it seemed as though my life experiences were already taking me down that path. I feel that my undergraduate and graduate studies in social work prepared me well in many ways but never addressed the concern that first drew me to social work – the situation of migrants. Yet, I found my field placements and employment invariably focused on work with immigrants and refugees. It was my language abilities that once again positioned me to work with immigrants, but again, with no other specific preparation. I do not even recall a single article assigned for any of my classes or a lecture that focused on social work practice with immigrants and refugees.  

In 1992, having completed my doctoral studies, I accepted a faculty position at Loyola University Chicago, teaching social welfare policy, community practice, and diversity courses. It wasn’t until seven years later that I rediscovered my inspiration for entering into social work when I met founder and Director of Jesuit Migrant Services of Mexico, Fr. Vladimiro Valdes, and later attended his migration studies certificate program for parish leaders in communities heavily impacted by out-migration and Central American transit migration. While five of our six team members in attendance were immigrants and all were social workers working with immigrants, we realized how limited our vision was. Our work and understanding of the immigrant experience was largely that of immigrants in destination communities, of social workers engaged in immigrant and refugee resettlement. We were quite blind to the situation of communities of origin impacted by emigration and the associated family separation, or situation of migrants in transit. This experience profoundly marked us and inspired our development of a program of study that would provide the similar experiences and insights to our students that Jesuit Migrant Services had provided us.

Given the limited advances in the integration of migration studies content in social work curriculum, in 2010 Loyola University set out to address this curricular focus on migration in social work by establishing a sub-specialization in Social Work Practice with Immigrants and Refugees. We have partnered with a number of researchers, academics, and activists from U.S., Mexican, and Central American institutions of higher education, and transnational governmental and non-governmental organizations[1] to offer students opportunities for migration-focused study abroad for short and extended periods, including:


 Prayer of migrants. Photo credits: Carly Miller.

Prayer of migrants. Photo credits: Carly Miller.

●      A 2-week long migration-focused summer immersion course in Mexico City;  

●      A two-way undergraduate and first and second year MSW summer–block field placements Mexico for Loyola students and in Chicago for our Mexico partner institutions;

●      A border immersion course during Spring break in Nogales, Arizona/Sonora, Mexico; and

●      Credit bearing Spanish language classes for social workers in partnership with the Universidad Autónoma de México (UNAM) Chicago’s satellite campus.


Our migration studies program is a work in progress. It is far from perfect, but it offers a sincere and earnest attempt to provide a rich migration focused course of study for our students. We were recently awarded a three-year grant to incorporate inter-professional and transnational practice dimensions to the program. Over the next three years we will be working towards 1) integrating a U.S. and Mexican students from our partner organizations in the course and fieldwork offerings; 2) adding a U.S. based immersion course and field research options; and 3) integrating students from the fields of medicine, anthropology, psychology, and law. The goal is to prepare a transnational cadre of health, law, social work, and human service professionals for practice with immigrants and their families in communities of origin, transit, destination, and return. 

We are confident that we are offering our students a unique opportunity to develop a more complex understanding of migration from multiple vantage points and perspectives, but we recognize the need to continue to adapt and refine the program. Adaptation is need to reflect the ever-changing dynamics of migration, governmental policies, changing country contexts, professional practice trends, as well as varying class composition. A recent challenge, and one that is quite welcome, has been the increase in the number of 1st and 2nd generation Latino students participating in the program. For them the experience of migration is palpable. After all, for many, it is a variant of their family experiences that they witness in our visits to shelters and with nongovernmental organizations. Their family narratives are echoed in the testimonies of the migrant/teachers that we encounter, and that, in turn, becomes abstracted and theorized in the academic lectures. The inclusion of these narratives and experiences as a focus of study in the curriculum is a step forward from my era as a social work student, but we still have a long way to go to create spaces that are both relevant and targeted for 1st and 2nd generation students.


Dr. Vidal de Haymes is a Professor in the School of Social Work and directs the Migration Studies Sub-specialization and coordinates a migration-focused international social service exchange between Loyola University, Universidad Iberoamericana-Mexico City, Jesuit Migrant Services of Mexico, and Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago.

 [1] Our primary partners have included: Universidad Iberoamericana-Mexico City,  Catholic Charities of Chicago, Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Occidente (Jesuit University of Guadalajara- ITESO), Jesuit Migrant Services of Mexico, the Network of Jesuit Migrant Services of Central and North America (Red de Servicio Jesuita a Migrantes Centroamerica y Norteamerica -SMJ & CA/NA), Kino Border Initiative, and  Escuela Nacional de Trabajo Social de la Universidad Autónoma de México, ENTS-UNAM (The National School of Social Work).


The Unseen

By Cynthia Velasquez

 Photo credits: Author.

Photo credits: Author.

A desire

A plan

A lifeline

A must

A journey of hundreds of miles

A journey

A journey full of danger




La Migra


La Bestia







The Unknown






Sore Feet

A journey for a better life

A better life-

For Money

For Jobs

For Safety

For Dignity

A life without documentation

A life in fear

A life away from loved ones,

from the land you love

A life surrounded by foreign language

A life working long hours for low pay

A life being discriminated

A life...




A life deserving dignity

A life seeking better opportunities

A life fleeing violence,




A life deserving to be seen


To be seen more than by status

By birth country

By language

By skin color

A life deserving to be known more than as ILLEGAL



A phrase

A title

A word

A word that does not define a life









Words to describe-



Cynthia Velasquez is a child of two Guatemalan immigrants. She graduated with a Master of Social Work degree in May 2017 and now works with young adults to achieve their passions through care management and therapeutic services.



Lo Que Vi

By Gisel Romero

 Solidaridad. Creditos: Autora.

Solidaridad. Creditos: Autora.

Fue muy fuerte ver a tantos centro americanos
Rumbo a los Estados Unidos, en tan peligroso camino
Incluyendo a una madre con su bebé y jóvenes de la edad de mi hermano

Ver a mi gente lejos de su tierra, en busca de otra vida
Una vida que no se da en su propia tierra
Me sentí tan conectada a ellos
Pero también mundos aparte
Por mi privilegio de ser ciudadana del país de las barras y las estrellas
Sin necesidad de ir a buscar una "vida mejor"

Y peor fue ver que entre nosotros mismos, latino americanos
Nos tratamos como extraños, cuando somos hermanos
Con una historia compartida y más de migración

Que impotencia y rabia
Los sistemas de opresión y dominación
Como nos tratan, como trapo viejo
Y como nos ciegan a dividirnos entre nos

Lo que me queda es la esperanza
Que es nutrida de la lucha de mi gente
Y la certeza que como están las cosas, vamos mal
Toca pelear


Gisel Romero is the proud daughter of Honduran immigrants, which has greatly shaped her perspective of the world and instilled in her an inclination for social justice from a very young age. She imagines a much more beautiful, just, and inclusive world where there will be liberation for all peoples; she is committed to making such a beautiful world a reality. Gisel received a Master of Social Work degree and currently works as a counselor with high school girls, many of whom are the daughters of immigrants in a predominantly Latino and immigrant neighborhood in Chicago, Illinois.


La Distancia

By Gisel Romero



Es la distancia…

Que duele tanto

Por invisible

Y también palpable


Palpable como pasan las horas

Sin alcance a la familia

La pérdida de sonrisas

Abuelos, Hermanos, Tíos


Aún Más Doloroso

Madres y Padres


Es la distancia

Que duele tanto

Por invisible

Y también palpable


Palpable lo que hace falta

Y quien hace falta

Las caricias que no se sienten

Los abrazos, los besos, las lágrimas


Aún Más Doloroso

La briza calurosa de la madre patria

Que se convierte en remembranza


Es la distancia

Que duele tanto

Por invisible

Y también palpable


Palpable el sueño lejano

La incertidumbre de lo extraño

El anhelo de los recuerdos

Los cuentos de la infancia


Aún Más Doloroso

Haber perdido un momento especial

Y el miedo de nunca regresar


Es la distancia

Que duele tanto

Por invisible

Y también palpable


Palpable el corazón roto

El confín de una foto

La separación

Solo sosegada por una línea de teléfono


Aún Más Doloroso

Solo oír la voz

De los que me vieron crecer

Sin un encuentro cercano


Es la distancia

Que duele tanto

Por invisible

Y también palpable


Palpable la convicción de la oración

Sin poder dar una bendición

Pero permanecer fuerte

Porque de mi depende mi gente


Aún Más Doloroso

El reto de la producción

Por la meta de un millón

Que nunca veré yo


Es la distancia

Que duela tanto

Por invisible

Y también palpable


Palpable el dolor

De la impotencia de no poder cambiar

La condición de la pobreza

En la tierra donde nací

Aunque trabajo sin fin


Aún Más Doloroso

Querer regresar

Pero no poder


Es la distancia…

Que duele tanto

Por necesaria y detestada

La puta distancia


Gisel Romero is the proud daughter of Honduran immigrants, which has greatly shaped her perspective of the world and instilled in her an inclination for social justice from a very young age. She imagines a much more beautiful, just, and inclusive world where there will be liberation for all peoples; she is committed to making such a beautiful world a reality. Gisel received a Master of Social Work degree and currently works as a counselor with high school girls, many of whom are the daughters of immigrants in a predominantly Latino and immigrant neighborhood in Chicago, Illinois.



‘Guilt’ in Spanish

By Jessica Tapia

 Collage credits: Author.

Collage credits: Author.

It has been several months since my trip to Mexico City (CDMX) and what I now remember as the two most emotional and overwhelming weeks of my life.

I felt a mix of emotions, including frustration, sadness, and disappointment over the current state of immigration, and I also experienced happiness because I truly enjoyed the time I got to spend exploring such a vibrant city. However, I also felt sick to my stomach because no matter how many nightly group reflections I sat through or how many pages of my journal I filled, I still struggled inside. It was not until I got back home that I finally understood that what I had been carrying around with me was a feeling of guilt. I realized I felt guilty over my level of privilege.

I had tried talking to my parents and colleagues about my CDMX experience, but they did not seem to understand. I felt like maybe I was not explaining myself well enough. Sometimes I would even wonder if my experiences were as impactful as I had made them out to be in my mind.

I picked up a Spanish-English dictionary because I thought that by using the word ‘guilt’ in Spanish that my parents would better understand me. In Spanish, ‘guilt’ translates to remordimiento. The definition of the word says that it is a feeling you experience after having done something bad. I thought, “Something bad?” But I didn’t do anything wrong.” I went on this trip to bridge my own experiences with immigration with learning ways I could help immigrant communities back home in Chicago. After all, this was the community that raised me.

I did not anticipate such significant feelings of guilt. I had not done anything wrong, yet it felt so unjust. I was born in the U.S. I received a quality education. I can work legally. I can get health benefits and I can travel freely. Others cannot.

Sometimes it feels like my struggles do not matter – that I am first generation or that I have served as a cultural broker for my family my entire life. It does not matter that growing up most of my clothes were from the Salvation Army. It does not matter that I put my mother to bed instead of the other way around because most of the time she was so tired from work that she always—and still does—falls asleep before the 8 o’clock telenovela. When comparing my experiences to those of the teenage boys we met at the comedor alongside the infamous train tracks of La Bestia, the struggle does not compare.

The comedor is a soup kitchen we visited in a town not far from the Mexican capital. We arrived in our half-empty, air-conditioned bus equipped with a bathroom, as migrants stood outside the comedor in the shade. I immediately felt embarrassed for our ridiculous display of American privilege. I offered to help in the kitchen thinking that by hiding in the kitchen, I would feel less ashamed.

The migrants at the comedor were mostly teenage boys, the same age as my little brother back home. As I thought about the reasons why these boys had to leave their home countries, the traumas they endured, and their uncertain futures, I began to cry because I thought about how unjust the whole situation was. I tried not to let them see my face and thought to myself: “What are you doing, Jessica? Why are you the one crying? You are not the one living day-to-day and putting your life at risk like these young men are!”

It was a privilege to serve them even one meal. It was uncertain when they would eat again. How many would actually make it to the border? How many would get picked up and sent back? And, how many of these boys would die before they arrived in the U.S.? I wish I could relive that experience with more respect and dignity.

My parents were born in Mexico and grew up in large, poor, and uneducated families. They left their country because they needed better financial opportunities. They wanted to better themselves and provide for their families back home. Now, most of my aunts and uncles are living in the U.S., both lawfully and undocumented. At family gatherings, I listen to their conversations and they all say the same thing: it is better to be here than in Mexico. I grew up in an incredibly diverse neighborhood with neighbors who were also immigrants from countries all over the world. I went to school with their children and I was lucky to learn about their lives.

I still have family in Mexico. I have cousins who cannot find jobs. I have cousins who want to go to college but their parents cannot afford it. I think about them and how they want to better their lives but systems and institutions prevent them from doing so. I compare all that I have to what little they do have and it just is not fair.

My privilege exists and the guilt continues.

Now when I sit with my students in counseling sessions, I remember this. I remember that I need to be stronger and more present to my clients. I cannot let these feelings of guilty and privilege weigh me down. And, I should respond with respect and dignity. I remind myself daily that I must use my privilege to help those who have less.  


Jessica Tapia is a bilingual mental health clinician providing therapy and case management services to clients of all ages and stages in life. She is daughter to Mexican immigrants and honored their sacrifices and dreams by graduating with a Master of Social Work from Loyola University Chicago.


Comedor El Samaritano

Por Celeste Sánchez

(English translation below)

 Créditos fotográficos: Autora

Créditos fotográficos: Autora

El comedor “El Samaritano [1]” ubicado en Bojay, Hidalgo, México apoya a migrantes, principalmente centroamericanos, con atención médica, alimentos, un lugar para descansar, y ropa. Durante una tarde nosotras tuvimos la oportunidad de ir a visitar el comedor, las personas que a diario laboran allí, y a los migrantes que buscan apoyo y descanso en esta casa del migrante. La siguiente pequeña reflexión intenta capturar un poco esa experiencia.

Mi gringitud quedaba completamente expuesta. No había manera de explicar ni disfrazar mi privilegio al bajar de ese bus. Nosotras estábamos viajando cómodamente para “apoyar” a migrantes centroamericanos que dejaban sus países a pie, en bus, en tren y encontraban un pequeño refugio en el comedor de Bojay. Creo que nunca había sentido tanta pena como en ese momento. Aunque yo no quisiera, mi realidad era la siguiente: yo era parte de ese grupo de gringas que bajaba del autobús de “rock stars.”  

Justo al bajar del lujoso bus, pasaba el tren en las vías que nos separaba de los jóvenes migrantes que hacían fila y se recostaban contra la pared del comedor. El temblor que dejó el tren tardó en irse. Fue como un gran sacudón que llegó a plantearme en una realidad de la cual yo me debo, pero una realidad que jamás tuve que experimentar personalmente.

Es la experiencia que yo más esperaba; lo que más anhelaba en este viaje. Ya no quería escuchar a más “expertos” de diversos temas que tienen que ver con migración, ni quería creerme “experta” porque había escuchado y anotado algunos datos sobre personas que migran y sus circunstancias. Quería compartir y aprender de los expertos verdaderos.

Después de saludar a los jóvenes migrantes que esperaban hacer una llamada a sus seres queridos y buscaban descansar y alimentarse, las monjas y voluntarias nos dieron un pequeño tour del comedor. Sentía pena y no podía concentrarme completamente en lo que nos contaban y nos compartían sobre los acontecimientos y trámites diarios del comedor. No podía dejar de pensar que le quitábamos tiempo preciado a las voluntarias y le quitábamos el tiempo a los que en verdad merecían esa atención que nos brindaban a nosotras.

Pensaba y sigo pensando en las personas que inician un viaje, sin saber exactamente qué les espera, pero que de igual manera encuentran el coraje para intentarlo. Estas mismas personas, con sus penas, su cansancio, sus esperanzas compartieron con un grupo de extrañas sus nombres, sus viajes, sus vidas en sus países, sus sueños al llegar a EEUU…Nos permitieron compartir alimentos, nos permitieron cargar y arrullar a su bebé, y nos contestaron nuestras curiosidades a pesar de que éramos unas desconocidas.  

 Nunca quites la sonrisa más bonita. Créditos fotográficos: Autora.

Nunca quites la sonrisa más bonita. Créditos fotográficos: Autora.

Sentí y sigo sintiendo un gran privilegio al saber que, aunque fue breve, pude servir a estos hombres, mujeres, jóvenes. Me regalaron el honor de poder apoyar en dar acceso a las necesidades básicas que ofrecen las voluntarias de Bojay todos los días para que las personas migrantes descansen y sigan su camino con un poco más de fuerza.

La experiencia de asear inodoros y regaderas para el uso de aquellos que buscan cruzar fronteras para llegar al país en el cual yo nací, y que me hace dar por hecho tantas cosas, es algo que jamás quiero, ni debo olvidar. Que gran honor sentí al asear para ellos. Que orgullo el poder ayudar a preparar para los que inevitablemente utilizarían ese espacio al día siguiente. Un pequeñísimo gesto de solidaridad al hermano luchador que pasa por el mismo camino que les tocó a mis padres.

Mil gracias a todos aquellos que nos permitieron compartir y aprender con ellos.


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, California y asistente de investigación en una investigación sobre la deportación y reintegración de jóvenes en Guatemala.


[1] El comedor está en proceso de expansión para convertirse en albergue.




Food Kitchen: El Samaritano

 By Celeste Sánchez

The following is an English translation with the acknowledgement that it does not fully encompass what was felt, and expressed in the original Spanish language piece.

The soup kitchen “El Samaritano[1]” located in Bojay, Hidalgo, Mexico provides support for migrants, mainly Central Americans, with medical attention, nourishment, a place to rest, and clothing. During an afternoon we had the opportunity to go and visit the soup kitchen, the people that on a daily basis work there, and the migrants that look for rest and support in this home for migrants. The following small reflection tries to capture a part of this experience.

My gringa-ness was completely exposed. There was no way to explain or disguise my privilege as I got off of the bus. We were traveling comfortably to “support” Central American migrants that left their countries on foot, by bus, on a train and found a small refuge in the soup kitchen of Bojay. I think I had never been as embarrassed as in that moment. Even if I did not want to, my reality was the following: I was part of that group of gringas that got off of the “rock star” bus.

Just as we got off of the luxurious bus, the train passed by on the track that separated us from the young migrants that were in line and leaning against the wall of the soup kitchen. The tremor that the train left lasted a while. It was like a violent shake that planted me in a reality to which I owe myself to, but a reality that I never had to endure personally. That was the experience I was waiting for the most; what I was yearning for on this trip. I no longer wanted to listen to more “experts” on various themes that have to do with migration, nor did I want to think I was an “expert” because I had listened and taken some notes on people that migrate and their circumstances. I wanted to share with and learn from the real experts.

After saying hello to the young migrants that were waiting to make a phone call to their loved ones and were seeking some rest and nourishment, the nuns and volunteers gave us a small tour of the soup kitchen. I was embarrassed and I could not fully concentrate on what they were telling us and shared with us about the daily procedures and happenings of the soup kitchen. I could not stop thinking that we were taking away precious time from the volunteers and taking time from those that truly deserved the attention they were giving to us.

I thought and continue to think about the people that begin their trip, without exactly knowing what awaits them but that still find the courage to try. Those same people, with their hardships, their fatigue, their hope shared with a group of strangers their names, their journeys, their lives in their home countries, their dreams when arriving to the USA…They allowed us to share their nourishment, they allowed us to carry and lull their baby, and they answered our curious questions even though we were strangers.

I felt and continue feeling great privilege knowing that, even though it was brief, I was able to serve these men, women, and youth. They gifted me the honor of being able to help in giving Access to the basic needs that the volunteers of Bojay give every day so that migrant people can rest and continue their journey with a little more strength.

 Never stop your most beautiful smile. Credits: Author.

Never stop your most beautiful smile. Credits: Author.

The experience of cleaning toilets and showers for the use of those that look to cross borders to arrive in the country where I was born, and makes me take things for granted, is something that I never want to or should forget. I felt a great honor cleaning for them. What great pride to be able to help prepare for those that inevitably will use the space the following day. An extremely small gesture of solidarity to the fighters that go through the same path my parents had to go through.

Many thanks to those that allowed us to share and learn with them.


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, California and as a research assistant on an investigation regarding the deportation and reintegration of youth in Guatemala.



[1] The soup kitchen is in the process of becoming a shelter.


A Conversation

by Celeste Sánchez

The following audio recording emerged in response to the written pieces presented in this series and a general desire to share more about our experience as children of immigrants during the trip to Mexico. We invited other Latinos/children of immigrants to analyze our contributions in an effort to further unpack the meaning(s) of our lived experiences. We felt our reflections and poetry might resonate with others who shared our experiences as children of immigrants. Here, we share their questions and our responses. Many thanks to Alejandra Montes, José Ortiz-Rosales, and 2 other friends for taking the time to read our work and providing genuine and thoughtful comments that simultaneously challenged us and provided solace.



Responsibility and Adventure: Tongan Youth and Circular Migration

Mary K. Good, Wake Forest University

Following the politically-driven riots in 2006, where looting and destruction of property was largely blamed on wayward youth, the nation of Tonga began to critically examine the emergent issue of youth unemployment and under-employment. The Tonga National Youth Congress and Tonga’s Ministry of Internal Affairs Division of Training, Employment, Youth, and Sports, along with several transnational non-governmental organizations and foreign government aid organizations, rolled out a variety of programs aimed at developing youth skills and offering pathways to employment. However, with about 60% of the population under the age of 25 (Tonga Census 2011), the numbers of youth seeking employment still outnumber available jobs, particularly on outer islands where fewer wage-earning opportunities exist. Thus, many youth and their families consider immigration to find work. Income from a temporary job overseas can sometimes exceed an entire year’s salary in Tonga. This economic incentive, coupled with a deeply engrained sense of moral responsibility to help one’s family and the prospect of an exciting adventure in the company of friends, leads many youth into circular migration—a pattern of movement that has become emblematic of life in parts of Tonga.


The nation of Tonga is a chain of small yet widely dispersed islands in the Pacific Ocean. Some estimates of Tongan immigrants and people of Tongan heritage living outside of the country exceed the country’s population of roughly 110,000. On the island of ‘Eua, where I conduct fieldwork, people of all ages appear to be in near-constant movement within and beyond the nation’s boundaries. School-age children go to live with relatives on another of the country’s islands to attend school. Students in primary and secondary grades move further afield, traveling for school holidays or, for those with the means, completing a few years of school abroad to improve their English skills or take coursework unavailable at home. Older youth go back and forth between various islands in Tonga to fulfill family obligations or for temporary work. Some young people eventually attend university in Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, China, or Japan. Out-of-school youth leave Tonga occasionally for marriages or medical procedures, but the majority of youth travel overseas from ‘Eua for temporary work.

 A small shop in the Tongan capital city of Nuku‘alofa with a “help wanted” sign sitting out front. Jobs like the one advertised here for a “shop boy” are often low-paying, further motivating youth to consider circular migration for employment. Photo credits: Author.

A small shop in the Tongan capital city of Nuku‘alofa with a “help wanted” sign sitting out front. Jobs like the one advertised here for a “shop boy” are often low-paying, further motivating youth to consider circular migration for employment. Photo credits: Author.

Talking to Tongan youth from ‘Eua about their experiences of moving between islands and nation introduces a more nuanced picture of youth circulation in the Pacific. Young people’s stories highlight the unique place youth occupy within Tongan social organization as they balance the relatively carefree dependency of childhood and the responsibilities of adulthood.

 The choice to work overseas signals an acknowledgement of the traditional moral obligation to help support one’s extended family. After dropping out of high school and helping around the house for a few years, Maile first went to Australia in her early twenties as part of a group that went through the process of acquiring seasonal work visas, traveling overseas, and then working together in the same region to harvest fruit. As several research participants described to me, a relative overseas working for a farm or factory sponsors a group of family and close friends from their “home” village in Tonga for contract work ranging from six weeks to six months. These arrangements through social networks offer assurances of secure employment both in the present and for the future.

 Two youth pose for a selfie while working on a strawberry farm overseas. Photo credits: M. Takai.

Two youth pose for a selfie while working on a strawberry farm overseas. Photo credits: M. Takai.

In conversation with her parents, Maile decided to work overseas. Reflecting her growing responsibility and sense of agency within her family, she recalled, “I was happy to work…I’m not married yet, my parents are still alive, and I can help out our household…there wasn’t anyone in our family who could work, everyone was just staying at home...I’m happy to just go and work, to help my parents.” Maile’s father and siblings sustained their family through subsistence work on their farm and fishing, supplemented by occasional remittances from relatives abroad. Without the commitments and responsibilities of marriage and children, Maile wanted to help her family by providing the monetary resources that have become increasingly necessary to life on ‘Eua.  Her account also reveals how youth participate in the “distributed agency” of the family in Tonga when it comes to migration and other major life events (Small 2011). Youth are able to make intentional, goal-directed decisions to migrate for work, but they do so with the advice of, and for the ultimate benefit of, their entire family network.  

Youth on ‘Eua now represent an ideal category for waged work because of their relative flexibility and freedom from ties of childcare, religious duties, producing traditional exchange materials, or other locally-based obligations. However, working in formal waged employment, particularly that which demands circular migration, removes them from contexts for socialization into more traditional cultural roles and responsibilities. This creates a globally-inflected paradox: youth take on market-sector jobs in order to uphold cultural obligations to help extended family, yet in so doing, their ability to maintain and reproduce traditional cultural values may be compromised.

 Tongan youth on a Sunday outing pose in front of the Maori memorial obelisk at One Tree Hill (Maungakiekie) in Auckland, New Zealand. Photo credits: Author.

Tongan youth on a Sunday outing pose in front of the Maori memorial obelisk at One Tree Hill (Maungakiekie) in Auckland, New Zealand. Photo credits: Author.

Beyond satisfying moral responsibilities to family, transnational movement offers Tongan youth new adventures and fun experiences. “We lived with my aunty and her family, all my cousins, in a neighborhood that was all Pacific Islanders…there was a Tongan family next door, a Samoan family on the other side, and a Maori family in back of our house,” Timote tells me, smiling as he recounts his trip to New Zealand. “I worked in a warehouse with a crew of all Tongan guys. We worked all day, and then we would go out at night.” A mischievous gleam comes into his eyes. “We’d go to the bars, meet girls. I met a lot of nice palangi (i.e. white, non-Pacific Islander) girls. It was fun. I also had a Samoan girlfriend. You could meet lots of people, go to bars, not like here [in Tonga].”

Alongside the monotony and physical demands of employment, many young men and women recalled the out-of-the-ordinary enjoyment of meeting new people from all over the world and exchanging ideas with friends from very different cultural backgrounds. Seeing the size and scale of cities overseas, the range of architectural styles of buildings, and new plants made even shuttling to work sites seem exciting. As enthusiastic Facebook users, many ‘Euan youth post photos of their trips to local landmarks on days off or casual scenes of daily life, such as the lines to weigh their containers of harvested fruit, or meals and prayer groups among workmates. Like their friends still at home, Tongan youth working overseas balance between a strong desire to help their families and make their parents proud on the one hand, and curiosity-driven wishes to experience all the intriguing novelty that a new place provides on the other.

According to Lee (2003), Tongan youth who grow up overseas or live there for longer periods of time can confront issues such as racism and poverty. A lack of visibility and resulting lack of access to social services has also emerged as a significant challenge to Tongan and Pacific Islander immigrants in some areas. While the youth with whom I spoke recounted experiences overseas that were not always easy or pleasant, few experienced exploitation in ways that plague other migrant labor.  Traveling in groups with other Tongans and, in some cases, having relatives living abroad with whom to stay, acted as a safety net to mitigate hardships and allowed youth to fulfill their responsibilities to contribute to family resources while experiencing other ways of life.

All names used here are pseudonyms. Reported speech was translated into English from the original Tongan by the author.  


Dr. Mary K. Good is Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Wake Forest University. Her research focuses on youth, global modernity, and morality in Tonga, with a special interest in how young people navigate moral frameworks in their use of digital media. Research presented here draws from her current ethnographic project on experiences of school-to-work transitions, unemployment, and entrepreneurship among Tongan youth.