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.