A Space to Belong: Newcomer migrant youth in Hartford

by Sophia Rodriguez

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

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

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

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

01HPL Demographics overview.jpg

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


Home and belonging

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


An Undocumented College Student’s Journey of Hyperdocumentation in Drawings

by Aurora Chang and Espiritu*

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

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


Espiritu’s Journey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


In her own words and images

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

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


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


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


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



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

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


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

* Espiritu is a nom de plume.

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

By Elena Jackson Albarrán

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


A Virtual Reunion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Historical Legacies of Youth Diplomacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

De-centering US Visions of Development

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

By Giovanni Batz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


The Blame Game: Criminalizing migrant parents

by Lauren Heidbrink and Michele Statz

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Jakelin Amei Rosemary Caal Maquin, a Keq’chi girl from Alta Verapaz, Guatemala died in Border Patrol Custody this week. She was 7 years old.  Various rumors swirled about the cause of death. Among these were dehydration and septic shock after migrating through the desert, though her father said they had only been walking for 90 minutes, not a day as CBP [Customs and Border Patrol] suggested. CBP said she was fine upon arrival, even her father signed an English-language document attesting to her health. Her father, who speaks Keq’chi, and not English or Spanish, said he did not understand the form. Other news outlets reported a high fever and cardiac arrest. DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen called the incident "heartbreaking," adding, "This is just a very sad example of the dangers of this journey."- claiming that her death was unavoidable if only her father, 29-year-old Nery Gilberto Caal Cuz, had not risked her life by undertaking such a treacherous journey. Whitehouse Spokesman Hogan Gidley further abdicated responsibility, stating: “Does the administration take responsibility for a parent taking a child on a trek through Mexico to get to this country? No.” But do not be misled. Jakelin’s death was avoidable, and remains a direct result of CBP’s inhumane policy.

Death presents an “inconvenience” for Customs and Border Patrol, even as many deaths occur on their watch. Indeed, Jakelin’s death serves as an inconvenient, public reminder of the absence of medical care providers along the border, the conditions of custody, and the broad violence of the U.S.’ deportation regime.

At the same time, Jakelin’s death offers the Trump administration an entirely convenient opportunity to redirect the narrative, to deflect the dehumanizing and unjust practices on the border and turn Jakelin’s death into a cautionary tale for would-be migrants. As Julio Ricardo Varela writes, “Jakelin died from cardiac arrest caused by severe dehydration and shock a day after she and her father turned themselves in to CBP on the U.S.-Mexico border in New Mexico. But according to the Trump administration, her death was her fault, and it was her dad’s fault…”

On Youth Circulations, we pay careful attention to the ways in which children and youth like Jakelin are variously depicted in media and institutional discourses--as delinquents, ideal victims, economic actors, and so on (See Heidbrink 2014; Statz 2016).  What is often less considered is how the parents of young people are implicated in such narrations. This is an increasingly clear and consequential process, with family members pathologized as neglectful, violent, poor, or otherwise deficient for presumably “sending” or being complicit in youths’ migration journeys. And we heard it again this week from Secretary Nielsen: “This is just a very sad example of the dangers of this journey. This family chose to cross illegally.” Rather than consider the complex conditions and deep histories spurring migration, Nielsen’s claim is entirely directed toward Jakelin’s father. Sad. Dangerous. A choice.

Nielsen’s words powerfully evidence the deep-seated demonization of young migrants’ parents as overt policy and practice in the U.S. Recall that in February of 2017, then-Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary John Kelly signed a memo promising to penalize anyone who “directly or indirectly” facilitated smuggling of a child across the border. In it, “parents and family members” are explicitly identified as subject to removal and criminal prosecution if they have paid to have their children brought into the U.S. The memo provides that parents or relatives who have taken in unauthorized children may face criminal smuggling-related charges and prison time; others can be placed in deportation along with children. Later, the Trump administration operationalized this policy further, with CBP now sharing with ICE information obtained from the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) about the sponsors of children in their custody, including their names and locations.

While the Trump administration attempts to divert blame to the brutality of the desert, to Jakelin’s parents, and even to Jakelin, do not be mistaken. Trump and CBP killed Jakelin. Full stop.

To read more about the ways US policies criminalize the parents of migrant children and youth, please visit:  Heidbrink, L. and M. Statz. 2017. Parents of Global Youth: Contesting Debt and Belonging. Children’s Geographies 15(5): 545-557.

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.

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.

Dr. Dre and Deportation: U.S. Pop Culture, Place, and Belonging

by Tobin Hansen

How might the music we listen to, films and television we watch, and books we read connect us to the community and nation where we live? And for people displaced to new communities, like the deported men with whom I work in Nogales, on the northern Mexico border, how does popular entertainment culture reveal ties to home in the United States? My ongoing research with deportees illuminates how decades of living in Phoenix, Los Angeles, Tucson, and other communities enables many forms of strong identification with U.S. places, people, and cultures. One way is through mass entertainment. John Wayne movies, John Grisham novels, Sublime songs, and Seinfeld episodes, to name a few artifacts deportees mentioned, and the wider pop culture universe shape ways people make sense of the world. The universe of our popular cultural consumption tells a lot about our identities: where we are from, our age, our community and family history—including race and social class—and personal taste. Moreover, it encourages us to understand belonging as broader than legal residency or citizenship and as encompassing many ways of forming part of a community and a nation.

Dustin, deported after 33 years residing in Arizona, shows his body art. A calf tattoo depicts a football helmet with the Phoenix Cardinals’ logo. Photo credits: Tobin Hansen.

Dustin, deported after 33 years residing in Arizona, shows his body art. A calf tattoo depicts a football helmet with the Phoenix Cardinals’ logo. Photo credits: Tobin Hansen.

Over 16 months I conducted fieldwork in Nogales, Mexico with 56 men who had migrated to the United States as children decades earlier and lived an average of 29 years in U.S. communities before being deported back to Mexico. Deportees, such as Alfredo, expressed an intimate relationship with U.S. entertainment culture. Alfredo was born in Mexico in 1988 and grew up in East Los Angeles from six months old, before being deported in 2011. In one casual conversation on a cold, March morning in 2017, Alfredo dredged up elementary school memories that he had not recalled in years: “I was in a play one time. Like a Shakespeare play. I don’t remember which one. I was, like, the bad guy. It was in fourth or fifth grade.” Then with a laugh, he remembered that it wasn’t Shakespeare, but a production of Mary Poppins. As he told me about it, he sang with a grin, “‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, even though the sound of it is something quite atrocious.’ We sang all of those songs!”

For others, U.S. pop culture inspired their own artistic expression. Paco was born in Mexico in 1971 and lived in south-central Phoenix from 1972 to 2013. He free-styled rap lyrics when we spent time together—about life in Phoenix, family, deportation, or to clown, in his words, on people we spent time with. Paco kept a shoebox in his bedroom closet with lyrics of dozens of rap songs that he had written, several of which he recorded and mixed on a desktop computer and played for me on various occasions. Paco had many influences, from 1990s west coast rappers Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre to southern trap-style rappers like Gucci Mane. And echoes of Tupac Shakur were detectable in Paco’s thematic choices, lilting delivery, and backbeats.

Roy, deported after living in California for 47 years, has a copper engraving of American actor John Wayne on his living room wall in Nogales, Mexico. VHS copies of John Wayne films are stacked in front of his television. Photo credits: Tobin Hansen.

Roy, deported after living in California for 47 years, has a copper engraving of American actor John Wayne on his living room wall in Nogales, Mexico. VHS copies of John Wayne films are stacked in front of his television. Photo credits: Tobin Hansen.

Connections between cultures and social identities are nebulous. Ideas, symbols, objects, and expressions circulate unevenly and constantly shapeshift; they may be embraced more by some than others and are even seen differently by the same person over time and in different contexts. Moreover, the lightening dissemination of mass media means that music, movies, shows, websites, video games, magazines, and books can be produced in one or many places; combine a mishmash of elements; and be distributed globally. In fact, culture is often so amorphous and ever-changing that the notion of “culture” itself seems crude. Certainly, when you look closely, so-called national cultures—a “U.S.” or “Mexican” culture—are much too messy, with boundaries much too blurry, to be described concretely. And cultural constellations within individuals and communities are densely layered and complex. The deportees I work with were often purveyors of Latinx inflected forms of U.S.-based culture, such as George Lopez standup routines, lowrider magazines, and Cheech and Chong movies. They were sometimes also familiar with Mexican-produced entertainment culture, such as kitsch 1970s Vicente Fernandez films, the farcical sitcom El Chavo del Ocho, and rural musical genres like banda and norteño. Paradoxically, much mainstream U.S. pop culture that deportees connected with portrays Mexicans or Mexican-Americans in stereotyped caricatures, when they are portrayed at all. But my interlocutors’ fluency with mainstream U.S. pop culture underscored its formative place in their lives.

Viewing deportation through the lens of popular culture can seem to distract from more important immigration issues. Militarization and migrant deaths in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands are urgent, as is rigid interior enforcement and the exclusions or expulsion of hundreds of thousands of people every year, including 17,548 to Nogales, a city of 234,00 inhabitants, in 2017 alone. Moreover, people’s motivations to pick up and migrate—environmental degradation, violence, global inequality, and hope for something better—are often dismissed. These pressing matters make Stephen King fandom seem trivial. But popular culture points to the layered, sophisticated ways that our lives become enmeshed in the world around us. Anthropologists have shown in deep time how human expression—from the origins of storytelling to ancient pictorial representations on rocks—has always revealed our relation to the social worlds we inhabit. Popular culture provides us with meanings and symbols with which to order the world.

Alfredo, Paco, and others referenced popular culture for many reasons: to take comfort in the familiar, as a way of expressing their own identity, to project a mutual identification with others, and to assert a connection to the United States. And when we shift our understandings of belonging to see beyond legal categories—temporary visitor, legal resident, citizen—and to appreciate the many ways that people’s lives are socially and culturally intertwined with people and places, then we gain broader perspective on the actual and enduring impacts of immigration policies and enforcement practices. That is the only way to work toward greater understanding of the relationship between home, identities, and cultures and hope for a future in which we may all make home in a place where we are ourselves.


Tobin Hansen is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Oregon. His research has been funded by the University of Oregon’s Department of Anthropology, Center for Latina/o and Latin American Studies, Center for the Study of Women in Society, Center on Diversity and Community, Global Oregon Initiative, and Wayne Morse Center for Law and Politics; the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research; the Social Science Research Council, with funds from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; and the University of California, San Diego’s Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies.

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 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.