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.

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