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.