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.