Rethinking Home: A Powerful Look at Return Migration via Film

Contributed by Tatyana Kleyn, The City College of New York and Director & Producer of Una Vida, Dos Países (One Life, Two Countries) 

Una Vida, Dos Países: Children and Youth (Back) in Mexico is a 30 minute documentary film with free educator resources that explores the experiences of US-born or raised students who have spent all or most of their lives in the US and returned with their family to Oaxaca, Mexico. The film is a rich teaching tool for conversations in schools about immigration and identity. To read a recent New York Times article featuring the film, please click here.

We drove for four days through California, New Mexico and Arizona to get to the El Paso, Texas border [with Mexico]. There I spent my last moments in the US. I turned around and said, ‘I will be back, I don’t know when, but it’s a promise.’ I took my last breath on that side of the border and turned around, leaving not just friends and family, but a life I will never forget.
— Melchor, 17 years old
  Photo credits: Ben Donnellon

Photo credits: Ben Donnellon

People from all over the world dream about migration to the United States for “a better life.”  Some receive permission from the US government to immigrate, in the form of a green card or visa.  Others cross into the country without papers when it is nearly impossible for them to attain the required permission.  Currently, there are more than 11 million people in the US who are unauthorized and are the topic of contentious immigration debates in our country.  Melchor (quoted above) and his family belonged to this subcategory of migrants during their 10 years in the US.  

While we hear a lot about immigrants coming to the US, less is known about what happens when they leave.  The discourse is often around deportations and the rising numbers of individuals the government forces to return to their country of origin.  However, other families who are in the US without papers find that circumstances related to living undocumented also force them to return.  This phenomenon reminds us that migration is not a linear process, but a cyclical one.

 Photo credits: Ben Donnellon

Photo credits: Ben Donnellon

Aside from deportations, there are a range of reasons families make the difficult decision to return.  These include reuniting with elderly family members they have not seen in years (or those their children have not even met); medical issues that require long-term healthcare that undocumented immigrants cannot access in most states in the US; discrimination via state policies that prohibit undocumented immigrants from accessing drivers licenses, college education, or financial aid; racism and xenophobia that many immigrants of color face on a regular basis; and the economic struggles of supporting a family while living in the shadows and being exploited of by the labor system.  

In order to share the stories of these returned families, and to focus on their US born and raised children, I was part of a team with Ben Donnellon, William Perez and Rafael Vásquez that created a short documentary to delve into these phenomena.   Una Vida, Dos Países: Children and Youth (Back) in Mexico explores how elementary and secondary students struggle with their identity, language learning and loss, and schooling.  The film shows some of the benefits of being “back,” such as meeting grandparents and enjoying delicious fresh Mexican food, but it also shares the challenges that returning youth face - fitting in, using Spanish for academic purposes, communicating with family who speak indigenous languages, and the economic struggles that make education an obstacle for them.  

The goals of the film are to raise awareness about this growing population of students, some of whom are dual US and Mexican citizens.  The film is also accompanied by a Spanish-English bilingual curriculum for secondary schools in the US, Mexico and beyond.  The lessons prepare the students to watch the film and to delve deeper into the areas of identity, language, economics and policies. 

A resource guide for educators in Mexico, whose students cross literal and figurative borders throughout their lives, also accompanies the documentary. These include the most obvious border, the artificial division between the US and Mexico, in addition to borders that are crossed from one state to another while living in the US.  Another border students cross daily is languages, such as English, Spanish, and, in the case of some of the families in the film, Zapotec (an indigenous language spoken in certain parts of Mexico).  These students also cross cultural borders as well as those across school systems.  For all these reasons I use Lynn Stephen’s (2007) term transborder to describe them. 

 A group of transborder high school students, who call themselves “The New Dreamers,” meet to discuss the realities and challenges of being back in Mexico. Photo credits: Ben Donnellon

A group of transborder high school students, who call themselves “The New Dreamers,” meet to discuss the realities and challenges of being back in Mexico. Photo credits: Ben Donnellon

That these students are now (back) in Mexico does not mean that is where they will stay.  Those who are dual citizens of the US and Mexico, (if they were born in the US to at least one Mexican citizen parent), can freely travel between the two nations as long as their documentation is up to date.  Many who were undocumented in the US still see that country as their home, and many hope to return.  However, applying and receiving papers or re-crossing countries’ borders without authorization are tremendously costly and difficult for Mexicans.  But regardless of where they will be in the future - the US, Mexico or another nation - they bring with them a wealth of resources. including their multilingualism, cross-cultural capabilities and in-depth understanding of how national and transnational policies – or the absence of them – impacts people at the most human level.  

The film and accompanying resources can be accessed via: For additional updates on the film, screenings and the transborder students, join us on Facebook and Twitter. The film and resources were funded by the US-Mexico Foundation.

This blog was originally published on the American Immigration Council’s Education blog, Teach Immigration on March 28, 2016.  The American Immigration Council’s Education Department strives to promote a better understanding of immigrants and immigration by providing educational resources that inspire thoughtful dialogue, creative teaching and critical thinking. Please click here for more information.

Child Protection or Security Agendas? NGOs address the Syrian Refugee Crisis in Lebanon

by Estella Carpi and Chiara Diana

     In the wake of the massive influx of refugees from Syria to Lebanon (2011-2014), some international NGOs have intervened in specific regions of Lebanon to prevent Lebanese and Syrian youth from “radicalizing” themselves and joining armed groups. In the presence of security and political risks, these NGOs play a sizable role in territories that often become destinations for refugees and migrants. We recognize their work as an effort to “neutralize” social spaces by stifling any factor causing local instability. 
     In this framework, youth quickly come to be addressed as objects of concern but rarely as subjects of decision-making and aware action. Our study seeks to unpack international NGOs’ discourses about children’s vulnerability and protection, which are generally formulated according to universalized conceptions of childhood. This research is aimed at understanding the space between global security agendas, child protection, and humanitarian action. Finally, our study shows the controversial character of humanitarian agencies that alternate between depoliticizing younger generations and complying with the social order established by local power holders.

Syria’s conflict is impacting neighboring countries in myriad ways. Since the conflict started in 2011 as a result of several anti-government street protests and the consequent heavy shelling of the opposition areas, more than one million Syrians fleeing violence and political persecution arrived in Lebanon. Among these Syrians are those who are registered with United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and in search of social and legal protection.

Refugee influxes are generally considered to pose diverse challenges, ranging from the political to the socio-economic. Here, we choose to focus on the humanitarian programs meant to prevent North Lebanon-based children from joining armed groups currently combating in Syria. An example of these is Disarmament–Demobilization–Reintegration programs (DDRs) directed by international NGOs at 15-18 year-old youth. These programs target childhood in a bid to avert suitable conditions for armament.

Through ethnographic research, semi-structured interviews with two large international NGOs, and in-depth interviews with local residents (both Syrians and Lebanese) in North Lebanon, our study primarily focuses on the Akkar region and the city of Tripoli.

The research we are presently conducting unpacks international NGOs’ discourses about children’s vulnerability and protection, discourses formulated according to universalized conceptions of childhood. It also demonstrates the controversial character of humanitarian agencies that alternate between depoliticizing young generations and complying with the social order established by local power holders.

  Informal refugee camp next to the Syrian border. 'Akkar (North Lebanon), 2013. Photo taken by Estella Carpi.

 Informal refugee camp next to the Syrian border. 'Akkar (North Lebanon), 2013. Photo taken by Estella Carpi.

A number of international NGOs[1] attempt to dissuade children who resettled in Lebanon from joining combating factions - especially the several armed Syrian opposition brigades—while prompting their families to send them to school and lead a “decent life.” Some of these NGOs provide vocational training to 14 and 15 year-old teenagers who dropped out of school in an attempt to discourage them from joining armed factions. “If the youth have education and professional skills, they won’t fear for their income and they won’t feel hopeless. That’s how they end up warring or even becoming suicide bombers,” an NGO worker affirmed during an interview.

Similarly, another international NGO offers common school programs to Syrians and Lebanese children and youth, as the education and overall future of both communities are jeopardized. Indeed, young men from both nationalities are in fact recruited in takfiri (Salafi ideology) armed groups combating in Syria. As “beneficiaries,” both Syrian and Lebanese children do not need to be “infantilized,” that is to say, emptied of their political afflatus. In any situation of conflict and violence, they are always defensible since they are presumed to never have individual viewpoints. While here we are not promoting practices which would simply place blame on children and youth, we rather seek to highlight that the youth are the easiest vessels of humanitarian sympathy and generosity (Rieff 2002: 26), and this belief often leads to the humanitarian misconceptions of childhood that we will illustrate below.

 Informal refugee camp next to the Syrian border. 'Akkar (North Lebanon), 2013. Photo taken by Estella Carpi.   

Informal refugee camp next to the Syrian border. 'Akkar (North Lebanon), 2013. Photo taken by Estella Carpi.


Although the Syrian government criminalized the recruitment of children by armed forces and non-institutional groups in 2013, such legal protection measures continue to be disregarded by all warring sides. As mentioned above, employment is considered the most effective dissuasive factor to avoid war recruitment. As a 2015 livelihoods assessment indicates (Save the Children and UNICEF 2015), families are struggling to meet their basic needs and feel they have no other alternative than putting their children to work, marrying off their daughters, and allowing their children to join armed groups. Moreover, official work permits are unlikely to be obtained nowadays for the Syrians who have relocated to neighboring nations. Without work permits, those working illegally risk imprisonment, fines, return to refugee camps, or even deportation to Syria. In addition, some children live in areas without functioning schools, as they have mostly been bombed by the Asad military aviation. Joining an armed group remains one of their few available options (HRW 2014: 2).

Nevertheless, it seems to be quite difficult to gather reliable and detailed information about recruitment efforts inside Syria and in the neighboring countries. Indeed, war recruitment is a strategy that is inherent neither to Jihadist groups nor to Lebanon. For instance, in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, a child labor assessment found that 30% of children interviewed had been approached for recruitment (UNICEF 2014). Therefore, in the whole region affected by the Syrian crisis, joining presents benefits to children. Children who join armed groups can in fact receive monthly salaries of up to US$400. Others participate without pay in order to join family members or friends, or because they have suffered on a personal level at the hands of one of the warring parties and desire to exact revenge.

There is also very limited information about the willingness of children and young boys to join and serve armed groups in Syria today. However, generally, it has been noted that many children and adolescents are abducted and conscripted at an early stage. They latter turn into loyal fighters (Depuy and Peters 2010: 67). Likewise, young people recruited by government forces, or informal groups of government-affiliated thugs–Asad’s shabbiha in Syria—are often told that they are protecting their families and homes against “terrorists” who oppose the government. In this sense, indoctrination in governmental armed groups becomes a continuation and expansion of state propaganda.

Reflecting media biases, international NGOs likewise maintain a number of misconceptions about the children they aim to serve. In fact, Syrian refugee children are homogeneously represented as vulnerable. They are quickly classified as innocent victims and impartial, with little opinion about the current conflict. More specifically, according to the analysis we have conducted so far, the misconceptions of the international NGOs are threefold. The first misconception resides in the definition of childhood and child vulnerability, influencing how need and aid are imagined. Indeed, the translation of “vulnerability” variously refers to local conceptions and ways of being addressed in Lebanon. “Vulnerable people” in Lebanon are often referred to with the expression “mustad’afun,” which literally means “the weakened.” This particularly stresses the political agentivity behind the low status and miserable condition of the individual. In other words, individuals are not weak per se, but they have been weakened by historical processes, usually started by political foes.

The second misconception of the international NGO apparatus lies in the standardization of age-focused individual rights and social categories as a result of a universalization of western cultural standards. Indeed, childhood is not approached as a relative process that varies according to culture and context, but rather as a fixed age range.

Thirdly, the NGOs addressing children tend to view regional sectarianism and violence as innate characteristics of Lebanon and Syria and as the very cause of conflict, thereby ignoring the territorial political issues and their connections to the whole region. Nevertheless, the lack of a constructive sense of citizenship and engaged civic participation are certainly not to be blamed on the international NGOs’ action per se, but rather on the longstanding state abandonment and state hostility in the northern Lebanese region, in addition to the widespread use of violence as an instrument to pursue political goals and elitist privileges.

NGO language and implementation strategies thus largely influence and reify the category of “children in need,” who, in the Lebanese context, are merely associated with war and displacement. In brief, youth quickly come to be addressed in terms of objects of concern and rarely subjects of decision-making and aware action.

 Syrian primary school for refugee children, Tripoli (North Lebanon). Photo taken by Estella Carpi, 2013.   

Syrian primary school for refugee children, Tripoli (North Lebanon). Photo taken by Estella Carpi, 2013.


As our current analysis indicates, the international NGOs that operate in North Lebanon believe they can act in a social void, one in which armament and recruitment are regarded and addressed as motivated simply by the ongoing conflict in Syria and hardly ever correlated to longstanding social rifts and unresolved political issues–sometimes not associable with community frictions–which concern the local residents to greater extent.

From a local perspective, the children who join the activities promoted by these NGOs are not viewed in the same way as those exposed to higher risk of being recruited or voluntarily recruiting. According to the in-depth interviews that we conducted thus far with Tripoli’s residents connected to armed groups in Syria, the families whose children join the international NGOs’ activities are generally affluent or plugged in international networks. This local perception is noteworthy, as it illustrates how non-beneficiaries view addressed vulnerability as an empowered condition, as the privileged social status of some social groups. The parents collaborating with these NGOs are therefore believed as unwilling to send their children to fight, not being themselves prone to political violence. 

On the one hand, our interlocutors have so far expressed perplexity about the external–essentially “western”–way of conducting studies on this issue. In an interview conducted in Tripoli, two Lebanese, ‘Abdallah and Walid, recounted, “international NGOs lack direct access to local communities, and end up addressing families that are not much prone to let their children fight in Syria and that have not been politically oppressed. How can they imagine having tangible results?”
On the other hand, the local interviewees who were neither addressed nor approached by international NGOs highlighted how their children were not “manipulated” to undertake violence for the parental cause, but rather they reasserted that childhood is integral part of the parental effort to implement local and regional social justice. The recruitment of young boys in armed groups, across Lebanon as elsewhere, is a product of much complex social factors which are not simply associable with “evil adult recruiters” or structural features. While international law wants to see adults as conveyers of an inherently and unchangeably “violent culture,” it aprioristically tackles children as unaware perpetrators and objects of manipulation (Rosen 2010: 50), therefore detachable from the local predominant culture and society in which they grow up. To the same extent, these international NGOs tend to believe that the institutional and cultural environments they are able to provide structurally enable children to start a better life, or at least protect them against armed violence on a sustainable basis.

While international humanitarianism is unlikely to see any act of the child as an expression of local culture and therefore “blameless,” the violence of adults is deemed as inherent to the cultural pattern at hand. This marks the epistemological contradiction which underlies the NGO efforts to foster an unconditioned primary depoliticization of children in North Lebanon. At the antipodes of a conception of childhood as politically engaged and aware beyond their exposition to war recruitment, international human rights protectors are overlooking a much more needed protection for children exposed to state and non-state terrorist attacks in schools and public spaces. This clearly points to a close correlation between child recruitment prevention and the generalized concerns of international security apparatuses. Our study will provide insights on how such global politics concerns are addressable through the ongoing NGOization of Lebanon.

Works Cited

Depuy, K. E., Peters, K. (2010) War and Children. A Reference Handbook, Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger Security International, in the Contemporary Military, Strategic, and Security Issues.

Human Rights Watch (2014) Maybe We Live, and Maybe We Die. Retrieved from:

Rieff, D. (2002) A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis. With an Afterword on Iraq, New York City, NY: Simon & Schuster Publishers.

Rosen, D. M. (2010) “Social Change and the Legal Construction of Child Soldier Recruitment in the Special Court for Sierra Leone”, in Childhood in Africa, an Interdisciplinary Journal, Issue 1, Vol. 2, p. 48-57.

Save the Children and UNICEF (July 2, 2015) Small Hands, Heavy Burden. How the Syria Conflict is Driving More Children into the Workforce. Retrieved from:

UNICEF (2014) Assessment of the Situation of Child Labor among Syrian Refugee Children in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

Estella Carpi is presently a Research Fellow at Lebanon Support (Beirut) and a Research Consultant for the New York University (Abu Dhabi). She received her PhD in Social Anthropology from the University of Sydney (Australia), with a research project on the social response to humanitarian assistance in Beirut’s southern suburbs and in the Akkar villages (Lebanon). In the past she also worked as a researcher at Trends Research & Advisory - Abu Dhabi, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) – Cairo, and the International Development Research Center (IDRC) – Cairo, mostly focusing on social development, welfare, NGOs, and humanitarian emergencies in the Middle East. She has lectured extensively in the Social Sciences in Italy, Lebanon, and Australia. After studying Arabic in Milan and Damascus (2002-2007), she wrote her MPhil dissertation in Linguistic Anthropology on the everyday speech in contemporary Lebanon (2008). To access all her publications:

Chiara Diana is a Research Associate for the French Center for Economic, Juridical, Social Studies and Documentation (CEDEJ, Egypt). In 2015, she received her PhD in History from the Institute for Research and Studies on Arab and Muslim World (IREMAM) and the Aix-Marseille University (France). Her thesis research is a socio-history of social and political construction of childhood in Egypt during the Mubarak era (1981-2011). In the past, she taught at the Aix-Marseille University and the University of Sorbonne Nouvelle (Paris). Her current research interests include childhood and youth in Arab countries, activism and political socialization of young generations in revolutionary, post-revolutionary and conflict contexts. Her latest work is entitled “Children’s Citizenship: Revolution and the Seeds of an Alternative Future in Egypt” in Herrera Linda (ed.) and Sakr Rehab, Wired Citizenship: Youth Learning and Activism in the Middle East. New York: Routledge (2014). To access her publications:

[1]The NGOs included in the present study will remain anonymous in order to protect the identity of their beneficiaries and their specific territories of intervention.


“The Stress Along the Way”: Medicalization and Transit Migration

by Kristin Yarris and Heide Castañeda

This month, Youth Circulations features a series of conversations between two migration scholars, Heide Castañeda (University of South Florida) and Kristin Yarris (University of Oregon). In this series, Drs. Castañeda and Yarris creatively and critically examine representations of the circulation of Central American and Mexican migrants through what they describe as "a zone of transit" in Western Mexico. Their research is funded by The Wenner Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, and is a collaboration with Dr. Juan Manuel Mendoza of the Universidad Autonoma de Sinaloa.

Kristin Yarris: 

Several participants in our project on Transit Migration through Mexico’s Pacific Route recently attended a workshop offered by two organizers with Doctors without Borders-Mexico (Médicos sin Fronteras, or MSF). While MSF doesn’t have a field site where we work, they do partner with migrant shelters--particularly those in the south and north of Mexico-- where they attend to the physical and mental health needs of migrants traveling through Mexico to “El Norte,” or the USA. In our field site, during this workshop, MSF was seeking to train local NGO staff and others working to protect the health and safety of migrants in transit, teaching people to recognize the signs of mental distress, and discussing appropriate responses.

Unlike the rhetoric dominating U.S. media during the current political cycle, which portrays migrants as criminals, “rapists” and drug traffickers, anthropological fieldwork shows that Central Americans traveling north through Mexico are highly vulnerable. These are people fleeing extreme conditions of poverty, violence and failed states and traveling with few possessions other than the clothes they are wearing and the few pesos they manage to carry in their pockets (Vogt 2013). MSF’s humanitarian assistance thus becomes essential and life-saving for migrants in transit through Mexico-- especially along the tracks of freight trains used as transportation, where migrants suffer traumas including falls, limb loss, rape and sexual assault, robbery, and extortion.

The images here are from a brochure distributed during the MSF workshop described above, which was held in August, 2015. What I find provocative in these images is the way the pamphlet transforms the violence and extremity of transit into a medicalized version of suffering: “estrés” (stress). My concern is that medicalizing transit violence and its mental health effects as “stress" risks shifting our gaze away from the sociopolitical dimensions of migrant suffering. Further, medicalization individualizes both psychosocial distress and the responsibility to respond to it. “Stress”, in particular, whether in U.S. or Mexican popular discourse, also implies an orientation to the individual sufferer, who must “manage stress”, as part of our responsibilities as neoliberal subjects.

These critiques of the medicalization of suffering are not new. Indeed, medical anthropologists have exposed how the individuation of harm reduction responses may save lives but do little to alleviate social suffering (Garcia 2010) and may exacerbate conditions of extremity (Jenkins 2015).  When I look across the images in MSF’s brochure– of migrants jumping across moving train cars, lying on the side of train tracks, or sharing a cigarette while ostensibly waiting to jump onto a moving train – and compare these images of danger and risk to the professionalized stress language contained in the bullet-points of text – “What is Stress? A physiological response we have when we perceive life’s demands as overly-difficult” – I perceive a troubling disconnect between medical discourse and migrant reality. And yet, I am able to critique this brochure from an academic distance, as I’m not currently in the field but instead sitting comfortably behind my laptop screen, analyzing images. So, I’m left with an unsettled feeling, both troubled by medicalization but also mindful of the crucial role MSF and similar humanitarian NGOs play in providing “primeros auxilios psicológicos” (“psychological first aid”) to migrants in transit, which can indeed be essential to migrants’ survival through a perilous journey.  

Heide Castañeda:

As Kristin points out, the images and text in the MSF pamphlet medicalize the violence and extremity inherent in the migrant journey, transforming it into a form of suffering called “estrés” (stress).  This occurs not only in the Mexican context; we have seen similar discourses about the mental health consequences of migratory transit in relation to Syrian refugees entering Europe. For the non-migrant viewer of the images, the individualization of this psychosocial distress onto migrant bodies works to remove any political imperative or ethical responsibility to respond. 

What strikes me also is that pathologizing the suffering that accompanies transiting from one place to another assumes that there is something abnormal about migration, or that it is somehow a new phenomenon. In fact, mobility has been a recurring feature of human populations across time and space, yet migration is still often discussed as if it were unusual. Time and again we encounter political and public debates that rely on an understanding of migration as abnormal. That migration is strange becomes “common sense.”

 At the same time, we of course recognize that this particular migration through Mexico – often but not always by Central Americans fleeing economic and political insecurity and underdevelopment – is particularly extreme. Not only are people migrating after having already suffered violences in their place of origin, but also travel along these routes is especially risky amidst harsh environmental conditions, dangerous modes of transportation, and interpersonal aggressions. In this case, MSF steps in where states fail and “do their best” despite the many critiques of short-sighted and depoliticized humanitarian aid. Indeed, MSF is among the few organizations that, despite observing neutrality and impartiality in the name of universal medical ethics, has also explicitly chosen to take a political stand for victims as part of their humanitarian efforts. 

Many of the images here show the dangers of travel (by train or by flimsy raft). One interesting photo shows two men sharing a smoke – is this supposed to indicate tobacco or marijuana use, to cope with estrés?  Perhaps, but I also see in the image camaraderie, solidarity, and the opportunity to share about one’s experiences. Maybe I am too optimistic, but this underscores that a migratory journey is not always a negative thing, nor really a “thing” at all. It is instead a social process. 

Kristin Yarris:

I agree that we need to be cautious about the tendency to medicalize migration-related stress or pathologize migration itself. As Heide rightly points out, migration is a social process and has always been one. Yet, I am also mindful of the very real violence of the journey that undocumented Central Americans make through Mexico on their way (usually) to the U.S., what Janis Jenkins (2015) might call a condition of extremity. Where the Mexican and U.S. states fail to protect migrants, NGOs like MSF respond by providing medical services and care at various points along transit routes through Mexico. This work is vital, often life-saving, and I value and respect our MSF colleagues in the field. Still, the tone and message of the brochure is unsettling to me, both for the brochure's ambiguity and for the ambivalence I feel about medicalizing migrant stress.

One area of ambiguity regards the target audience of the brochure - who is meant to receive these messages and what action(s) are the messages meant to provoke? At first glance, the pamphlet seems directed towards migrants themselves, given the tone, language, and how-to type instructions. On one hand, it is difficult to imagine migrants sitting down and reading such a brochure, given the instability and insecurity of their journeys. However, we have indeed encountered Central American migrants as far north as Sinaloa clutching onto the maps and printed guides that NGOs distribute in the South of Mexico, in shelters in Chiapas and Oaxaca. During interviews with migrants in a shelter in Sinaloa, I have witnessed travel-tired men and women pulling folded pieces of glossy paper from their jeans pockets; their edges worn and tattered from weeks of transit, the brochures and maps still serve as helpful guides for migrants making crucial decisions about their next northward steps. I am made to wonder if the benefit of this type of brochure lies well beyond the content of the message it contains. In other words, I am coming to see how such brochures become material instantiations of humanitarian aid, small tokens of social support – reminding migrants that, despite the dangers and marginalities of transit, they matter, they are cared for, and their lives have value. 


Works Cited

Garcia, A., 2010. The pastoral clinic: Addiction and dispossession along the Rio Grande. University of California Press.

Jenkins, J.H., 2015. Extraordinary conditions: Culture and experience in mental illness. University of California Press.

Vogt, W.A., 2013. Crossing Mexico: Structural violence and the commodification of undocumented Central American migrants. American Ethnologist, 40(4), pp.764-780.

Kristin Yarris is Assistant Professor of International Studies at the University of Oregon. Her research and teaching focus on global health, global mental health, migration, kinship and care.

Heide Castañeda is Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of South Florida. Her research lies at the intersection of cultural and medical anthropology and focuses on migrant health, constructions of citizenship, and how policy and legal institutions shape everyday experiences of immigrant communities. Current projects focus on: mixed-status families along the US/Mexico border; transit migration in Sinaloa, Mexico; effects of healthcare policies on immigrant communities; and immigrant youth movements in Texas and Florida. 

Visualizing Risk and Potential: Migrants in Zones of Transit

This month, Youth Circulations features a series of conversations between two migration scholars, Heide Castañeda (University of South Florida) and Kristin Yarris (University of Oregon). Drs. Castañeda and Yarris creatively and critically examine representations of the circulation of Central American and Mexican migrants through what they describe as a zone of transit in Western Mexico. Their research is funded by The Wenner Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, and is a collaboration with Dr. Juan Manuel Mendoza, of the Universidad Autonoma de Sinaloa.

by Heide Castañeda, PhD and Kristin Yarris, PhD

Heide Castañeda:

The image selected here portrays a woman and a young child on a ladder attached to a train. The boy seems to pause as he looks up towards her, while the camera captures the woman’s leg movement as, the caption reveals, she climbs onto a train. Without this detail, the viewer might assume they are disembarking. The viewer is drawn to the pair through the framing of the shot, with the length of the train extending into the distance in one direction and the ladder in another. The two people are foregrounded against the bare, geometric metal lines. The photographer also hints that this is a freight rather than a passenger train:  there are no windows from which passengers gaze; the metal frame is dirty, scuffed, and utilitarian; and on the lower left, a set of numbers with a meaning indecipherable to anyone but railroad employees. These numbers do not reference the human cargo depicted in the photograph. The landscape through which the train runs is unremarkable, neither welcoming nor foreboding – some trees, a sign, a utility line. The setting could be anywhere. While the pair is traveling – they are on a train, after all – they do not carry anything beyond the woman’s small purse. Their clothing is clean, casual, and everyday. 

An image, however, does not hold meaning a priori outside its relation to the viewer, who must fill in the missing information to make sense of it. Often, this is done using social conventions: Is the woman the child’s mother? She must be, the viewer might reason, since she appears to be the age of a parent, female, and clearly accompanying a young boy. The viewer might assume that a mother would not leave her child behind, nor let him travel alone, and thus the two journey together. The boy looks up at her, as if to say, I trust you, I will follow you. 

At other times, the viewer makes meaning though circulating public and media discourses: Are these two individuals fleeing northward to the U.S. from Central America?  The viewer might guess their origins based on their appearance, though the two-dimensional image masks other clues like the language they are speaking. A viewer might surmise that because they are hopping onto a train, that their origin was one of the so-called “Northern Triangle” countries of Honduras, El Salvador, or Guatemala.  Because of the flurry of news reports and public debates in the U.S. regarding a humanitarian “crisis,” border securitization, and refugee policy beginning in the summer of 2014, the viewer has likely heard or seen reports about women and children’s desperate and dangerous travels northward, often atop trains. Perhaps the viewer has encountered explanations about the circumstances from which they are fleeing. The circulation of visual representations, such as the one offered here, also have a broader social impact as part of such news reports, invoking and evoking an emotional response in the viewer.

Kristin Yarris: 

I appreciate Heide’s attention to detail in this photograph, particularly the way she calls the viewer’s eye to the relationship between the boy and the woman and likewise invites us to consider how social and political discourse surrounding the Central American migration “crisis” filters our response to this image. My response to this photograph occurs on several levels. First, I consider the photographer her or himself.  What is the role of the U.S. media, of photographers and journalists working for outlets such as the New York Times, in providing not only coverage of the movement of people across borders, but also an explanation as to why people migrate? In the historical moment we find ourselves in the U.S. today, when xenophobia and social exclusion seem to shade our responses to displaced persons; the potential role of the media in contextualizing the motives for migration, and in humanizing migrants themselves, seems more crucial and essential than ever.

I recall recently viewing a YouTube video making the rounds of social networking sites. Produced by Mexican human rights activists, the video was a comedic critique of journalists rushing to cover the “story” of Central American migration through Mexico. The clip compellingly satires journalists who sell images and narratives to media outlets and who draw attention to themselves as much as to the human suffering they are presumably attempting to portray. This video critique shapes my response to this image. I wonder: How many similar images circulate; how familiar has this image become, and will this familiarity result in a loss of empathy for migrant suffering? These questions push me to ponder my own role, as a researcher and U.S.-based academic, in portraying and analyzing Central American migration through Mexico. I am cognizant of how my own research reflects and may reinforce negative attention or response to migrants’ plight, and that it is my responsibility to work against this. At the same time, in the classroom, I have seen how my sharing of stories similar to the one told in this image effectively sensitizes students’ comprehension of the risks of migration, the desperation of migrants, and the responsibility to respond in humanitarian ways. 

On another level, my response to this photo is to probe further our assumptions about the relationship between the woman and the boy. What if they are not mother and son? What if they are, like many migrants we meet in zones of transit in Mexico, “fictive kin,” people making kinship or relatedness through the trials and tribulations of transit itself (Ibsen and Klobus 1972, Carsten 2004), violence and the threat of violence pushing co-nationals or even strangers to claim relatedness in attempts at self-protection and preservation of life of self and other? Should our response to migrants, our inclusion or exclusion of them in our social body, depend upon whether they are “real” kin or “really” deserving or “truly” portraying the reasons for their flight?

Images have equal or greater potential to pacify as they do to persuade.

Photographic images can be powerful in shaping human understanding. As we saw with the photograph of Alan Kurdi, a Syrian boy killed at sea while seeking refuge in Europe, some images come to have iconic power, shaping a movement in public opinion and garnering a political response. And yet, I remain somewhat cynical about the potential power of the visual image or video, largely given its ubiquity in contemporary online culture. Images have equal or greater potential to pacify as they do to persuade

My thoughts shift to the risks of photographs. One of our interlocutors in Sinaloa is a local woman who voluntarily prepares and provides meals for dozens of migrants each day, carrying them in her personal car to the side of the railway where she and the other volunteers she organizes hand out hot food in plastic cups to migrants riding the trains. This woman has been explicit with us that we are not to take any photos of her and her work, for she wishes to remain anonymous, an informal humanitarian, off the radar of NGO networks and international researchers.  In part, her concerns are for her safety, as she has been threatened by neighbors for “bringing criminals” into the community and by migration authorities for “abetting unauthorized migration.” In some ways, the risks she faces make her humanitarian work all the more impressive. And yet, as she resists documenting her efforts, I simultaneously recognize the power of images as tools for teaching and deepening understanding and humanitarian response, particularly important – as Heide points out – in contexts of political polarization like that in which we find ourselves in the U.S.

Heide Castañeda: 

I agree wholeheartedly that we must be open to alternative explanations about the relationship between the woman and the child. In our own joint fieldwork on transit migration in the state of Sinaloa, Kristin and I have encountered such “fictive” – but no less precious – kinship relationships among people who journey together. These include aunts or cousins who may present themselves as a child’s mother to ensure protection, or people who were strangers only days before decide it would be safer and logistically more feasible to travel as “husband and wife.” We know that family reunification with parents and spouses already living in the U.S. is a strong driver for migration from Central America, and have heard reports of parents saving up to pay between $6,000 and $8,000 to have their children brought to them. Sometimes they travel in custody of other family members – an aunt, grandmother, sister-in-law, or cousin – or trusted acquaintances such as a neighbor or family friend. When money changes hands, this further complicates popular and legal notions of human smuggling: Here, we find intimate relationships to an extent commodified as smuggler/guides are often family members or hometown acquaintances. Yet even when payment is not involved, we must be careful not to assume – especially in the context of migration – that care practices occur only within the nuclear family.  Still, if apprehended while entering the U.S., children will be separated from anyone who is not a parent or legal guardian and placed in the care and custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement

The broader issue Kristin raises is that many Americans simply are not familiar enough with the circumstances that lead people migrate. This naturally shapes their responses and potential calls to action. The push factors driving Central American migration to the U.S. include economic and political insecurity, violence, and underdevelopment. The failure of our politicians to achieve meaningful immigration reform has exacerbated this situation, since family-based petitions for legal status remain out of reach for most Central Americans already living in the U.S., leaving parents and their children few choices other than risking the dangers of migration. 

This is why photography is a powerful medium: It permits not only the documentation of the risks and desperations associated with migration, but in offering a human portrait of the journey, can provoke a sense of obligation to respond in meaningful ways. As the Department of Homeland Security currently enacts a series of raids targeting hundreds of Central American families, this issue must not be a convenient pawn in the political games of an election year. The circumstances spurring migration have not changed. People must be treated as refugees seeking protection and given meaningful access to due process provisions that exist under U.S. and international refugee law. 

Works Cited

Carsten, Janet. 2004. After Kinship. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Charles A. Ibsen and Patricia Klobus 1972. Fictive Kin Term Use and Social Relationships: Alternative Interpretations Author(s): Reviewed work(s): Source: Journal of Marriage and Family, Vol. 34, No. 4 (Nov., 1972), pp. 615-620 National Council on Family Relations

Heide Castañeda is Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of South Florida. Her research lies at the intersection of cultural and medical anthropology and focuses on migrant health, constructions of citizenship, and how policy and legal institutions shape everyday experiences of immigrant communities. Current projects focus on: mixed-status families along the US/Mexico border; transit migration in Sinaloa, Mexico; effects of healthcare policies on immigrant communities; and immigrant youth movements in Texas and Florida. 

Kristin Yarris is Assistant Professor of International Studies at the University of Oregon. Her research and teaching focus on global health, global mental health, migration, kinship and care.

A Primer for Governors: Legal and humanitarian repercussions of shutting borders to Syrian refugees

by: Anita Maddali, Esq.

Director of Clinics and Associate Professor of Law, Northern Illinois University

In response to the terrorist attacks in Paris, 34 U.S. governors have issued statements indicating that their states will not accept Syrian refugees.  Some intend to put a hold on allowing the government to resettle Syrian refugees within their states until the federal government’s screening process is vetted.  These same governors are asking the Senate Majority Leader and the House Speaker to include a provision in the spending bill to prohibit the admission of Syrian refugees.  

The Paris attacks have also created a platform for presidential candidates to make claims in which they align themselves on the side of safety, national security and a Christian ideology. Jeb Bush recently announced that he would only grant refugee status to Syrian Christians.  Mike Huckabee insisted that Paul Ryan should “lead and reject the importation of those fleeing the Middle East” or “step down” if he fails to do so. Reflecting earlier eras of xenophobia and gatekeeping in the U.S., these statements not only misrepresent actual domestic refugee processes, but they additionally ignore the United States’ obligations and commitment to accept refugees under domestic and international law. They likewise perpetuate an inaccurate and violent image of refugees themselves: According to the Migration Policy Institute, of the 784,000 refugees resettled in the United States since 2001, only 3 have been accused of terrorism-related activities, two of whom were not planning attacks in the States and a third whose plans were described as “barely credible.”  

Turning away refugees ignores the human face of suffering. More than half of the four million Syrian refugees who have been forced to flee Syria because of violence and terror within their country are women and children. These are people who desire and desperately need safety, security and peace for themselves and their loved ones. The very purpose of refugee law is to provide these things. Should we follow these governors’ actions and turn Syrian refugees away, then we as a nation are ignoring our obligations under both international and domestic law. We are responding to universal human needs with hate and fear rather than compassion.

To understand domestic and international law relating to refugees, some history is required. In 1948, the United States passed Displaced Persons Legislation (1). Under this legislation, the U.S. was to accept only 100,000 persons over a two-year period. Significantly, these individuals had to be registered as displaced on December 22, 1945—effectively excluding those displaced persons, primarily Jews, who entered camps for displaced persons in 1946 and 1947 (Divine 1972: 120 cited in Rodriguez and Legomsky 2015: 906). President Truman and others declared the legislation insufficient, stating that it reflected a restrictionist and anti-Semetic response. In 1950 Congress amended the Act, thereby permitting the admission of more than 400,000 refugees, including those who had been displaced prior to January 1, 1949 (Rodriguez and Legomsky 2015).

In 1950 the United Nations established the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to assist with the resettlement of the one million refugees displaced by the war.  A year later, the United Nations adopted the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which included the international definition of a refugee (2).  The U.S. did not sign the 1951 Convention, but became a party to it when it acceded to the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees (3). The 1967 Protocol removed the geographic and time restrictions from the 1951 Convention, which had limited the definition of a refugee to those individuals who were fleeing persecution as a result of WWII.

Despite the United States’ accidence to the 1967 protocol, it did not have an adequate domestic mechanism for accepting refugees. When Congress passed the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, it created a system of preferences, including a seventh preference category for the admission of those who faced persecution and were fleeing either a “communist-dominated country” or a country “within the general area of the Middle East,” as well as anyone “uprooted by catastrophic natural calamity” (Goodwin-Gil and McAdam 2007: 426-427). The annual ceiling for admission under this category was 17,400, a number particularly inadequate to address the growing number of refugees fleeing war and genocide of the 1960s and 70s. Because of the insufficient allowances of the seventh category, the Attorney General frequently used his authority to parole groups of refugees into the United States, even though parole is really a device intended for providing temporary relief (Goodwin-Gil and McAdam 2007).

In 1980 Congress enacted the Refugee Act (4). The Act  is significant for three critical reasons. First, it modeled the refugee definition after that provided in the 1951 Convention (amended by the 1967 Protocol). Refugee status thus requires persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion” (5). Second, under the Act the President, after engaging in “appropriate consultation” with Congress, determines the annual admission of refugees. In other words, there are no numerical restrictions. Congress also authorizes the President to allocate additional slots for an “unforeseen emergency refugee situation” occurring after the annual allocation is determined (6). Third, the Act created the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), within the Department of Health and Human Services.  ORR is responsible for administrating programs funded by the federal government throughout the U.S. to resettle refugees (7).

The Immigration Act directs the United States Refugee Admissions Program to designate areas of “special humanitarian concern to the United States in accordance with a determination made by the President after appropriate consultation” (8).  The current priority system is as follows:

  • Priority 1 – Individual cases referred to the program by virtue of their circumstances and apparent need for resettlement;
  • Priority 2 – Groups of cases designated as having access to the program by virtue of their circumstances and apparent need for resettlement;
  • Priority 3 – Individual cases from designated nationalities granted access for purposes of reunification with family members already in the United States.

Today, there are approximately 19.5 million refugees worldwide, with over 14 million under the mandate of the UNHCR. Fifty-one percent of the world’s refugees are children.  In 2014, an average of 42,500 persons were forced to leave their home per day. The term “refugee” encompasses only those who are outside their country of nationality and does not include those who are internally displaced within their country (although the President of the United States can specify special circumstances in which a person could qualify for refugee status if still in her country of origin). For instance, of the 14 million refugees under UNHCR’s mandate, over four million are from Syria.  However, there are 7.6 million Syrians internally displaced within Syria who are not designated as refugees.

UNHCR is required to find “durable solutions” for refugees under its mandate. These include: 

    Source : Syrian child asleep at the Hungary border.

Source: Syrian child asleep at the Hungary border.

  1. Repatriation – working with the person’s country of origin to ensure a safe return – an option that has been increasingly unavailable. In 2014, approximately 126,800 refugees repatriated, which is the lowest number since 1983; 
  2. Integration – integrating the individual into the host country; 
  3. Resettlement – an option for those who cannot return home.  Approximately 28 nations, including the United States, provide resettlement under UNHCR’s third durable solution option. Importantly, less than one percent of the 14 million refugees are permanently resettled, and the U.S. typically accepts approximately half of those referred for resettlement.

The process of preparing a case for resettlement is long and extensive, and it frequently hinders quick resettlement in emergency situations. Most often, it is the UNHCR who refers a case for resettlement, but it can also be a U.S. embassy or an NGO.  There are nine Resettlement Support Centers (RSC) that are funded by the Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration and exist throughout the world to receive and process these cases. RSCs collect biographic and other information necessary for the in-person interviews that the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) conducts with applicants. Cases are screened by the FBI and put through databases run by the Defense Department and other federal agencies. A person is checked for any grounds of inadmissibility, which would prohibit his or her admission.  It is approximately 18-24 months before an individual case is approved for resettlement within the United States.

Under his authority, President Obama allocated admission of 70,000 refugees for fiscal year 2015. This has been the allocated number for the past few years, but it’s important to note that in the past the number was much higher.  For instance, in fiscal year 1995 112,000 refugee admissions were authorized, and in 1991, the number was 132,000 (Rodriguez and Legomsky 2015: 912).  After the Vietnam War, 402,000 Vietnamese refugees were admitted.  At the same time, the number the President authorizes does not necessarily result in that number of refugees being admitted.  For example, 70,000 admissions were authorized for fiscal year 2002, but, as a response to 9/11 only 18,652 were admitted.  In 2003, 50,000 were authorized for admission, but only 25,329 were admitted.  Rodriguez and Legomsky 2015: 913.

Of the 70,000 refugees admitted into the United States during the 2014 fiscal year, only 249 were from Syria.  Since September 2015, the U.S. has accepted 1,854 Syrian refugees. In accordance with the Immigration and Nationality Act, President Obama announced that he would increase the 2015 allocation by 10,000, an amount that would derive from the 18,000 referrals submitted by the UNHCR.  More than half of these referrals are children.

The restrictionist response to the Syrian refugee crisis is strikingly similar to the U.S.’ response toward Jewish refugees during World War II. In July 1938, 67% of Americans opposed admitting refugees.  In January 1939, Americans were polled and asked whether the government should permit bringing in 10,000 children – mostly Jewish – to the United States. Sixty-one percent said no.  In the spring of 1939, the Nazis allowed the SS St. Louis, a ship carrying European Jewish refugees, to leave Hamburg for Cuba. Nazis arranged to have corrupt Cuban officials deny their entry, even though they were granted visas. After being turned away from Cuba, the United States denied the ship’s entry as with President Roosevelt’s announcement that the U.S. was unable to accept more refugees because of immigration quotas. The ship eventually landed in Holland, and Great Britain, Holland, Belgium and France accepted the refugees. Ultimately, however, over 600 of the 937 passengers on that ship were eventually killed by the Nazis. In retelling this story, Professor Bill Ong Hing (2000: 590-591), notes “When the United States refused the S. Louis permission to land, many Americans were embarrassed; when the country discovered after the war what happened to the refugees, there was shame.”

Today, ISIS has forced millions of people to flee their homelands to escape its terror. Just as many of the Jewish refugees perished, so too might many of the refugees America now seeks to reject.  This has many humanitarian consequences, but it also has security ones, as well – a fact ignored by political pronouncements favoring the refusal of refugees.  “The alternative now to an open-door policy is to leave the Syrian refugees and their children festering in Middle Eastern camps, creating the radical armies of the future.” This does not make me feel safer. In fact, it makes me feel shame. 

I am reminded of the words of Palestinian-American poet Naomi Shihab Nye who calls us to transform human suffering, not into more fear and oppression, but into kindness:

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

I call on all U.S. governors and their constituents to learn from history, to resist fear, and to transform the suffering of Syrian refugees into a life of hope in America. 



1. Act of June 25, 1948, Ch. 647, 62 Stat. 1009.

2. 189 U.N.T.S. 137.

3. 606 U.N.T.S. 267, 19 U.S.T. 6223, T.I.A.S. No. 6577.

4. Pub.L. 96-212, 94 Stat. 102 (March 17, 1980).

5. INA Section 101(a)(42).

6. INA Section 207.

7. See also INA Section 411.

8. INA Section 207(a)(3).


Works Cited

Divine, R. A. (1972). American immigration policy, 1924-1952 (Vol. 66). Perseus Books.

Guy S. Goodwin-Gill & Jane McAdam (2007). The Refugee in International Law (3d ed.): 426-27.

Hing, Bill Ong. "No Place for Angels: In Reaction to Kevin Johnson." University of Illinois Law Review (2000): 559.

Rodriguez and Legomsky. 2015. Immigration and Refugee Law and Policy, (6th ed).


Anita Ortiz Maddali is the Director of Clinics and Associate Professor of Law at the Northern Illinois University College of Law.  She writes about and teaches immigration law.  Prior to coming to NIU, she represented women and children who were fleeing violence and seeking asylum in the United States. She is a graduate of Northwestern University School of Law.

Beyond Trump: America's Dairyland and Multiple Regimes of Mobility

"...there is value in using Trump’s stumping as an entry point for understanding the powerful systems that regulate the movements of migrants..."

Julie C. Keller

Speaking to a crowd of thousands of supporters in Dallas recently, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump continued to vilify undocumented immigrants, declaring that the U.S. is the “dumping ground for the rest of the world; that “they’re all over the place”; and “it’s disgusting what’s happening to our country.” Given Trump’s leading position in the polls among other GOP candidates, this inflammatory anti-immigrant rhetoric appears to be resonating strongly with many conservative voters, who he describes as the “silent majority.”  Trump’s plan for immigration reform, as outlined on his campaign website, includes the construction of a wall at the Southern border funded by Mexico, ending birthright citizenship, and imposing financial penalties for cities that do not cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Described by fellow Republican candidate Marco Rubio as a “freak show,” we could write off Donald Trump as merely a celebrity candidate pursuing a theatrical campaign for notoriety. We could refuse to engage with his platform. But there is value in using Trump’s stumping as an entry point for understanding the powerful systems that regulate the movements of migrants. For instance, Trump’s campaign rhetoric and his proposed policies are evidence of a particularly intensified version of what political sociologist Ronen Shamir (2005) refers to as a “global mobility regime,” one characterized by “the prevention of movement and the blocking of access” and “premised not only on ‘old’ national or local grounds but on a principle of perceived universal dangerous personhoods.” This apparent stance of absolute exclusion, however, contradicts the realities of neoliberalism, a system that depends upon the transnational movement of both capital and cheap, exploitable labor. Of course, when we set Trump’s fiery rhetoric against the narratives of migrants, we see an even more complicated relationship between inclusion and exclusion—particularly when it comes to mobility.

Anthropologists and other social scientists have extended Shamir’s framework by emphasizing multiple regimes of mobility, a plurality that indicates that regimes “normalize the movements of some travellers while criminalizing and entrapping the ventures of others” (see, e.g. Glick Schiller and N. Salazar 2013). Adding to this line of inquiry, I ask: How are migrant workers entrapped in these mobility regimes? And, how do they push against them? To make sense of these multiple regimes of mobility, I draw on my transnational research from 2010 to 2012 with a population of Veracruzanos from Mexico who work on Wisconsin dairy farms. All but four of the 60 migrants I interviewed were men, and the average age of participants was 31 years old. Approximately half were young men under 30. How are migrant workers entrapped in these mobility regimes? And how do they push against them? The narratives below reveal the complex relationship between mobility and immobility, particularly for teen migrants whose stories are not often made central in the mobility scholarship. By examining multiple mobility regimes and migrants’ relationships to them, we contribute toward alternative narratives to counter the anti-immigrant rhetoric of Trump’s that has dominated the airwaves in recent months.

The Changing Dairy Industry in Wisconsin

Rising costs of production and lower milk prices have led many Wisconsin farmers on small and medium-sized operations—dairy farms with less than 100 cows, and between 100 and 499 cows, respectively—to expand their herd size. This pressure, paired with the perceived unreliability of local white Americans as milkers, and the emergence of new immigrant destinations, has resulted in a tremendous increase in low-wage immigrant workers on Wisconsin dairy farms in recent years. In 1999, immigrants made up just 5% of all hired dairy labor in the state. In 2008, sociologist Jill Harrison and colleagues (2009) conducted a survey of hired dairy workers in Wisconsin and estimated that immigrants made up over 40%. They found that the vast majority of immigrant dairy workers in Wisconsin come from Mexico, with the states of Veracruz and Guanajuato listed as the most common states of origin. Most of those who migrate to work on dairy farms are men, and 63% of the immigrant workers surveyed were married. Many are not legally authorized to work in the U.S. and have very few workplace protections.

From Mexico to America’s Dairyland, and Back

I met the Ximetl family through a relative of theirs, the owner of a restaurant in the village of Xoxotutla, a rural pueblo in the state of Veracruz.* We were briefly introduced on their doorstep, where I met Doña Yamile and two of her sons, David and Rico. Both men told me they had worked on dairy farms in Wisconsin, just as their father, brother-in-law, uncles, and cousins had. When Doña Yamile invited me in to talk, I told the Ximetls that I wanted to know about what life was like in Wisconsin, and about how and why migration from Xoxotutla to Wisconsin started in the 1990s. The stories they shared, stories of life on the dairy farms, often began with stories of border crossings.

Rico, the youngest son of Doña Yamile, returned from Wisconsin just two months before I met him. He was 17 when he first went to El Norte, and he spent three years in Wisconsin. There, he worked at a medium-sized dairy farm for 75 hours a week, earning $700 every two weeks, with no days off. With his earnings, Rico had a house of his own built in his village on the lot just beyond his mother’s house. When I asked about life in Wisconsin, Rico described to me his motivations for migration:

“To make something, a house…To build a house and return…It’s why I went… Because to suffer on the border with the walk, no water, the food runs out, the heat, the cold. And so because of that, I thought, I suffered. And so, I have to make something (of myself). And thank god I did it. That’s why I went. To have a house, a car.”

 Veracruz. Source: Julie C. Keller

Veracruz. Source: Julie C. Keller

Later, when I interviewed Rico’s brother, David, he explained that he and fellow travelers had come across a body in the desert, a migrant who had presumably died from dehydration and exposure to the elements. Rico’s older brothers explained that compared to the 1990s, the border was now very difficult to cross. The construction of the U.S.-Mexico border wall, which accelerated with the 2006 Secure Fence Act, made crossing without detection much more treacherous. Although supporters of the wall claim it has been successful at deterring unauthorized crossings, what is clear is that the barrier has pushed migration routes to more isolated areas that pose more hazards, making it more profitable for smugglers and resulting in increased migrant deaths.

As he reflected upon his life in the U.S., it was clear that the harrowing journey across the desert shaped the way Rico viewed his work in Wisconsin.  The dangerous conditions on the border that Rico and others described have manufactured what some have termed “workaholic migrants” (Harrison and Lloyd 2011). In this sense, the border and the multiple risks it presents for migrants is part of a national mobility regime that determines migrantsrelationship to work after they enter the U.S. Mobility regimes such as this intersect with other regimes at various geographic scales or institutional arenas, with different sets of agents maintaining or thwarting movement.

We can identify aspects of a local mobility regime, for instance, by centering on immigrant destinations and how movement is facilitated or prevented at the level of communities. Toward the end of my interview with Rico, I asked him if while living in Wisconsin he felt like he was part of the community.

Rico: No, hardly…Almost no one liked us. A few, well, a few. Some people. My boss liked Mexicans because he said they are hard workers and people from there don’t like to work. So that’s why. But some people don’t. They get angry that we are there.

Julie: Who?

Rico: People from there…They don’t like what they see. They get angry.

Julie: Who, for instance? Shop owners?

Rico: People. People in the street. They’ll call the police. That’s why we hardly left. We work and that’s it. We were in the house when we were off, but we almost never left…Only to buy food. Not more than every couple weeks.

Racially marked as “other” in predominantly white towns, and without the protection of a secure legal status, many migrant workers spent their time off work in the trailer where they lived on the farmer’s property. This exclusion from the broader rural Wisconsin community that Rico described was echoed by other Veracruzanos who I interviewed. Back in Wisconsin, I met Alonso, a 24 year old dairy worker from Xoxotutla who was employed at a large-sized farm—with over 500 cows— located about 10 miles from the nearest town. It was his third stint in Wisconsin and he first went to El Norte in 2004, when he was 16 or 17 years old. Each time he stayed three to four years before returning to Mexico. I asked him about the most difficult part of life in Wisconsin:

 “We don’t have the freedom to come and go. We have problems with the police… [In Mexico] you can go out, you can go eat with your friends, you can have fun for a little while. It’s very different.”

Alonso did not have a car, and he would leave the farm only once or twice a month with other workers who owned cars. Still, driving was risky. Many workers were ticketed or sent to jail when they could not show police a valid driver’s licensee. For unauthorized migrants, any interaction with the police, even due to a minor offense, intensified the threat of deportation. When I visited Xoxotutla, David said that his boss in Wisconsin did not like it when his employees drove to town. In this sense, driving was doubly risky. Workers risked getting pulled over by law enforcement and possibly detained, and they also risked appearing insubordinate at work.

 Wisconsin dairy farm. Source: Julie C. Keller

Wisconsin dairy farm. Source: Julie C. Keller

But the confines of this local mobility regime did not leave workers powerless. Employers typically could not prevent workers from seeking employment elsewhere, or stop them from leaving to return to Mexico at a moment’s notice. The farmers I interviewed frequently complained about workers who left with little warning, and they were concerned about how to keep those who they described as good workers. While in Xoxotutla, David called his former boss on the family’s land line and handed me the phone to introduce myself. The farmer described to me how wonderful David was as an employee, and that he would have him back in an instant if he could. David later told me that his boss wired money to him and his brothers in order to pay for them to cross again. Of course, the money was a loan that would be paid back from the worker’s paycheck.

Similar to the national mobility regime, the local mobility regime I describe here is embedded with deep contradictions. The movements of these young migrant workers on and off the farm are closely watched by employers and police alike, while their unauthorized movements northward across the border are encouraged—and even at times facilitated via loans—by farmers.

Juxtaposing Donald Trump’s stance on immigration with the narratives of migrant workers reveals just how complex regimes of mobility can be—their contradictions and intersections, as well as the various sets of agents involved in affirming them. Neoliberalism depends upon the cross-border movement of workers to fulfill economic demands for a deportable, and thus exploitable, low-wage labor force. Trump’s apparent position to universally exclude all unauthorized immigrants belies the state’s interest in maintaining the multiple mobility regimes in which transnational migrants, like the young men described here, are precariously situated. In observing campaign calls for ever more restrictive immigration policies, we should consider the various kinds of movement they are meant to both exclude and regulate. This study of the rapidly changing dairy industry in Wisconsin highlights these mobility tensions by revealing both the strong demand for cheap migrant labor as well as the confinement and surveillance that workers experience. Doing so will illuminate and disrupt popular tendencies to cast migrants as “dangerous personhoods,” as well as demystify “the frenzy of wall building today.” (Brown 2010: 79).  


*All names of participants, villages, and towns are pseudonyms.

Works Cited

Brown, W. 2010. Walled States, Waning Sovereignty. New York: Zone Books.

Glick Schiller, N. and N. Salazar. 2013. Regimes of Mobility Across the Globe. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 39(2):183-2000.

Harrison, J.L. and S.E. Lloyd. 2011. Illegality at Work: Deportability and the Productive New Era of Immigration Enforcement. Antipode 44(2):365-385.

Shamir, R. 2005. Without Borders? Notes on Globalization as a Mobility Regime. Sociological Theory 23(2):197–215.

Julie C. Keller, PhD, is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Rhode Island. She is currently writing a book based on her research on immigrant dairy workers entitled, Laboring in Limbo: Migration and Mobility from Mexico to America’s Dairyland and Back. This research was made possible with funding from the National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant.

Fast fashion, slow integration: Guatemalan youth navigate life and labor in Los Angeles

By Stephanie L. Canizales

Americans often associate factory work—and the violence and exploitation of manufacturing industries—with distant nations like China, Vietnam, India, and Cambodia. While stories of workers transported like pigs,” trapped behind barred windows and locked doors, and protected from death by suicide nets trigger broad concern, they tend to ultimately be cast off as the problems of “foreign” societies.

 Child working in textile industry.   Photo courtesy of The Guardian  .

Child working in textile industry. Photo courtesy of The Guardian.

The Emmy Award-winning documentary Made in L.A. brought the narrative of garment worker exploitation back to U.S. soil, but the film focuses on the experiences of adult women. My research thus addresses a critical and unexamined space of inquiry: It moves beyond media attention and scholarship on garment workers abroad or adult laborers in the U.S. to center on the experiences of garment working immigrant youth. This project uncovers the conditions these young people encounter and the ways labor exploitation affects the long-term integration of unaccompanied immigrant youth.(i) 

Youth at work

Since 2012, I have conducted research with Guatemalan Maya young adults between the ages of 18 and 35. Most arrived alone in the U.S. between four and 19 years ago. Although violence and poverty push some youth to emigrate, others migrate because years of violence and poverty have led to political insecurity as well as broken educational and occupational structures. In other words, for some the primary motivation is less immediately about violence or poverty than it is the lack of education and job opportunities in Guatemala. Some youth are further motivated by the desire to prevent the replication of their own suffering in the lives of their younger siblings.

 Young Guatemalan migrants living in Los Angeles describe that, in their home countries, many begin working various jobs as early as four years old. These jobs range from shoe shining to manufacturing to agricultural work in order to supplement their parents’ meager income. Many also assume garment work in factories or, more commonly, in their homes, where children and their parents sew denim pants, embroider shirts, or attach sleeves and buttons onto a blouse or other products intended for the U.S. market.

In societies ensnared by mass poverty and oppression, including the Central American countries of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, cycles of violence are naturalized and workplace exploitation is normalized.  Youth who aim to work to contribute to the family income but are unable to secure employment in their home countries view migration as a natural (and sometimes only) next step in ensuring their family’s survival.

This is the case of many of the Guatemalan youth who work in downtown Los Angeles garment factories. As youth share with me, they quickly discover that “uno no viene aquí a recoger dinero” (one does not come here to pick up money [off of the streets]). Instead, the same neoliberal economic policies that govern their work options, conditions, and livelihoods in Guatemala dominate the U.S. labor market. The structure of the garment industry in Los Angeles and the nature of the work of undocumented immigrants limit their options for financial stability and impact their mental, emotional, and physical health in the U.S.

My ethnographic research focuses on the integration experiences of Guatemalan young people who arrive unaccompanied in the United States and live and work in Los Angeles. I have spent over 500 hours participating in support groups, church youth groups, cultural events and community garden gatherings, as well as conducting formal and informal interviews.

Telling stories of poverty, hunger, and suffering, youths’ experiences evidence the impact of the expansion of free trade policies on migration. These policies have decreased local agricultural production and manufacturing, increased food insecurity, and undermined the public sector workforce. And while Central American leaders of the 1970s and 1980s attempted to reduce poverty through land redistribution or taxation of foreign companies, the U.S. thwarted these efforts by sending the CIA to remove these leaders, thereby introducing more violence to the region and further spurring migration.

Contemporary Central American migrants, including children and youth, leave their homes in search for families already in the U.S., but also as a strategy to provide for their families who remain abroad. Unfortunately, many youth who migrate in search of educational opportunities and work to alleviate their family’s poverty do not find refuge in the U.S. and continue struggling to make ends meet.(ii) 

The Los Angeles Garment Industry: poverty and exploitation in the shadows of affluence

The global clothing and textile industry is projected to generate nearly $3.2 trillion in 2015, and the global apparel industry represents 2 percent of the world’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The success of these industries is in part due to “fast fashion,” a term used to describe the transition of the fashion industry from two fashion seasons—Spring/Summer and Fall/Winter—to the production of 52 “micro-seasons” per year. While many do not notice this production trend, this shift in manufacturing style has been a long time coming.

 The Los Angeles Fashion District.   Photo courtesy of

The Los Angeles Fashion District. Photo courtesy of

“A few years ago, a factory supplying a major retailer would have expected to manufacture 40,000 garments across four styles for 20 weeks. Today it will be lucky to get commitment from the retailer to manufacture four styles at 500 garments per week for just five weeks. The remaining 30,000 will be ordered at the last minute, when the design team has worked out whether the mainstream consumer has been inspired by Taylor Swift, Daisy Lowe, Lindsay Lohan or none of the above” (Siegle 2011). New trends are released every week, filling the racks of stores like Anthropologie, Forever 21, the Gap, H&M, Zara, and other stores that arguably define the industry. The goal of fast fashion is for consumers to purchase as many garments as possible and as quickly as possible, or else risk feeling “out of style.While fast fashion keeps people buying, it also keeps people working.

Los Angeles, the epicenter of fast fashion, hosts a garment district that spans 100 blocks. The rise of the garment industry in Los Angeles in recent years has garnered praise, but it has also fallen under scrutiny, as when a drug cartel used a garment wholesaler to launder money from the U.S. to Mexico. In 2015 the Garment Worker Center in Los Angeles released a report arguing for the recognition of the plight of garment worker mothers who struggle to find childcare while at work. Some of the key findings in my own work in this field include high levels of exploitation, poverty, and marginality of garment working youth (Canizales 2015).

Many consumers remain unaware that sweatshop-like factories line the streets of a city like Los Angeles, which is commonly associated with fame, fortune, and luxury. In the last major study of the Los Angeles garment industry, sociologists Edna Bonacich and Richard P. Appelbaum (2000) define a sweatshop as:

 Map of Los Angeles Fashion District.   Photo courtesy of CBRE .

Map of Los Angeles Fashion District. Photo courtesy of CBRE.

A factory or a home work operation that engages in multiple violations of the law, typically the non-payment of minimum or overtime wages and various violations of health and safety regulations. According to this definition, many of the garment factories in Los Angeles are sweatshops. In a sample survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor in January 1998, 61 percent of the garment firms in Los Angeles were found to be violating wage and hour regulations. Workers were underpaid by an estimated $73 million dollars per year. Health and safety violations were not examined in that study, but in a survey completed in 1997, 96 percent of the firms were found to be in violation, 54 percent with deficiencies that could lead to serious injuries or death (3).

In 2014, I volunteered as an English language translator for garment working youth at wage theft hearings in the Los Angeles branch of the Labor Commissioners office. During this time, Labor Commissioner officials and pro bono attorneys expressed frustration with their inability to keep track of pop-up factories in Downtown Los Angeles and the informal channels through which licensed garment factories rent out spaces for other unlicensed manufacturers to set up shop. Also of concern is the structure of the garment production process that allows retailers, contractors, and manufacturers to deny responsibility of work place violations by redirecting blame elsewhere (Bonacich and Appelbaum 2000). As a result, licensed and unlicensed factories in Los Angeles are often not kept accountable for the work conditions and treatment their employees endure. And when asked, many youth cannot confidently say the name of contractor or factory where they are employed, since no clear signage is displayed outside many factories. The ways in which garment work shapes undocumented workers’ lives beyond the confines of these workspaces also remain hidden.

The everyday lives of young garment workers

Arriving between the ages of 12 and 17 and without a parent or guardian traveling with or awaiting them, Guatemalan youth workers enter Los Angeles’s low-wage labor force to support the families they leave behind. Many enter the garment industry, where they work 11-hour days for up to six days per week in Korean owned factories, many of which are managed by Latino floor supervisors.

Garment workers around the globe are paid piecemeal. That is, rather than being paid for the number of hours worked, workers are paid for the number of completed pieces — 2-cents per button sewn, 5-cents per sleeve, 11-cents per zipper. In this way, the onus of low payment is placed on the worker. Since workers do not select their daily assignments, they cannot predict the money they will earn. They instead work feverishly to make a few hundred dollars by the end of the month. By foregoing lunch breaks, trips to the restroom, or drinks of water, individuals attempt to maximize every minute. These conditions result in back and neck pain, migraines, eye aches, nervousness and anxiety. Some youth spend days and weeks living on the streets of L.A. because they are unable to earn enough for their rent.

 Unaccompanied Mayan garment worker youth greet guests visiting their weekend youth group meeting where prayers often focus on freedom from poverty. Photo courtesy of the author.

Unaccompanied Mayan garment worker youth greet guests visiting their weekend youth group meeting where prayers often focus on freedom from poverty. Photo courtesy of the author.

Many of the Guatemalan youth I interviewed report working in hot, dimly lit, poorly ventilated garment factories for anywhere between 58 and 66 hours of labor per week. A young garment worker in his or her first weeks on the job might make $85 per week. Over time, these young people make between $280 and $420 per week. Wage theft—when an employer withholds earned pay—is also frequently reported.

One of the most common forms of wage theft is through the denial of overtime hours. Youth describe how floor managers clock workers in and out each day. One young man showed me a time sheet that clocked him in between 2 and 5 minutes after 8AM and out at 5PM every single day for close to 8 months. He describes that he wakes up every morning at 5AM to be at work at 6AM and does not leave until about 7PM. Another young man calculated that over $8,000 was withheld by his employer during a one-year timeframe.

The LA Times recently covered garment factory wage theft, featuring the experiences of a 23-year-old Guatemalan man who filed a complaint with the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement.  The article reads,

In seven years, the Guatemala native has worked as a sewing employee in some 40 factories, he said in Spanish through his attorney, Kevin Kish. At most sites, the bathrooms were filthy. Once, he was pushed to the ground by an angry supervisor.

Almost all the facilities paid him per piece stitched— a quarter for a normal T-shirt or as little as two cents for a simpler garment. Laboring for 50 to 70 hours a week — Monday through Friday and a half-day on Saturday and sometimes Sunday — would earn him about $300, always paid in cash.

[He] filed his complaint after being fired for seeking a raise, he said. The claim was ultimately settled.

“I don't mind the work and even like it, but sometimes I feel ashamed because of the conditions in which I work and the amount I'm paid for it," he said. "But you get used to it, and you have to do it.’”

In a support group I observe as part of my doctoral research, young Guatemalan garment workers describe their work and financial struggles. A young man who works on garment repairs, which requires taking apart incorrectly made pieces but is paid according to how many damaged garments are re-sewn, explains:

Esta semana estuve haciendo reparaciones. Tuve que descoger medio día. No gane nada y ando un poco estresado. No me fue muy bien.” 

“I was doing repairs this week. I had to [take the clothes apart] for half of the day. I didn’t earn anything and now I am stressed. [This week] didn’t go well for me.”

Another young man shares that he attended work while sick; despite his discomfort, he worries about how it will affect him the next day.

La semana pasada tuve catarro. Eso me afecta mucho en el trabajo.… y después pienso en mañana. ¿Que voy a hacer con el dolor de cabeza mañana?”

“Last week I had a cold. That really affects me at work… and then I start to think about tomorrow. What am I going to do with a headache tomorrow?”

Of course, youth do not only think about themselves and their well-being. They also express concern about their families. This concern further motivates or convinces them to continue their work, and to fulfill the goals they set out for themselves when they left home.

One person describes,

Estuve peleando el dolor emocional porque no puede ayudar a mi mama. Pensé muchas cosas, “¿Que tal si se muere?” No pensé mas en eso. Pensé en lo que necesito lograr.

“I was fighting emotional pain because I wasn’t able to help my mom. I thought of many things, ‘What if she dies?’ I didn’t think about that more. I thought about what I need to accomplish.”

A young man who often contemplates suicide because of his severe loneliness and anxiety shares:

 “Vine con una meta aquí. Vine por mi mama. Sufre mucho. Me siento responsable por mi familia hoy. A veces me siento triste y solo pero tengo que aprender manejar eso. Mi vida es diferente hoy. Si me quito la vida, ¿quien va cuidar a mi mama?”

“I came with one goal here. I came here for my mom. She suffers a lot. I feel responsible for my family now. Sometimes I feel sad and alone but I have to learn to control that. My life is different now. If I take my life, who is going to take care of my mom?

These stories of violence and suffering are silenced and made invisible by the structure of the garment industry. Consider payment: When asked how they are paid, youth describe a process of going to the bank to cash their checks. These banks, they explain, are inside the garment factory. On the designated payday, garment workers are handed a single sheet of paper with what appears to be an image of a check. Workers then line up in the factory owner’s office and hand off their printed check in exchange for cash. This, of course, leaves the youth without proof of labor.

Ultimately, the entire work/pay transaction is done in-house. To some workers, the transaction feels legitimate and even honorable, but the garment factory owner’s meticulously controlled system and (falsely) documented trail leaves undocumented workers invisible-- without proof of work, payment, or presence in the factory. I have encountered numerous young people who might qualify for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) but are unable to apply because they do not have documents demonstrating their presence in the U.S. since arrival.

Similarly, many of the young people I have interviewed note the importance of education in changing their circumstances, but they are unable to attend school due to their work schedules or are unable to afford continuous enrollment in English classes. Those who attend class do so with tired eyes and little energy. The structure of the garment industry and the absence of a parent or guardian hinder the integration of unaccompanied youth in consequential and long-term ways.

The art of resistance

Resistance against systems of violence and oppression in the garment industry takes many forms, and indeed, worker strikes in Cambodia and China and protests in Bangladesh represent only a few of the most recent stories captured by the media. While garment workers in Los Angeles have not yet organized a movement against the injustices they face in the L.A. garment industry, many do engage in quotidian forms of resistance. In my research, youths' narratives of pride emerge as one such form. Though young garment workers often see workplace violations as simply the nature of the industry and life in the U.S.--particularly those who can only refer to work experiences in their home country--the skills they acquire through garment work, how hard they work, and the quality of the final products they create comprise meaningful, if not defiant, narratives for themselves and others. 

   P hoto courtesy of .

Photo courtesy of

The young man in the above LA Times article notes, “I don't mind the work and even like it.” Other youth in my research often share that despite the dehumanization that comes with the work conditions and the pay they receive, they feel pride and sometimes enjoyment in their work. To them, seeing a completed project brings a sense of satisfaction.  Youth who had engaged in garment work in their home countries might have worked from home or in a small factory. They thus think it is prestigious to be a worker of a U.S.-based factory with elaborate machinery. The ability to operate large and loud machines and to move from sewing zippers on Citizens of Humanity denim pants to seams of a chiffon dress prepared for Bloomingdale’s is a source of pride. This is what sociologists Jacqueline Hagan, Ruben Hernandez-Leon, and Jean-Luc Demonstat (2015) refer to as the Skills of the ‘Unskilled.’

Young garment workers are additionally aware of the prices of the garments they are sewing. Because of the cost of the item, the time and skill dedicated to its completion, and the target clientele, garment workers view their work as art. They may earn despicably meager wages, yet many youth see increased wages over a long period of time as an accomplishment. It is a symbol of skill, hard work, efficiency and patience. One young person explained to me, “Yeah, you start off getting paid very little but then you get paid more. That means you are moving quickly. It means you are learning.” Another enthusiastically agreed, “According to how you learn, you earn!” Though youth might not engage in strikes and protests, they humanize their experiences on the margins by resisting the notion that they are unskilled workers.


Global production and trade policies not only shape the lives and livelihood of those abroad but within our own borders as well. The influx of unaccompanied migrants in 2014 exemplifies the perpetuation of this historic trend. Though news coverage on unaccompanied children has waned, we must continue to focus on understanding the root causes and consequences of child and youth migration, especially those that are exploitative, violent, and deny young people’s human rights. At the same time, we must also turn our attention to the integration of young people in the U.S., supporting the institutions that create positive conditions for youth’s integration and well-being while reforming or dismantling those that impede integration and worsen the conditions of suffering for youth. Closer regulation of the garment industry will facilitate this not only for unaccompanied youth workers in the U.S., but low-wage, and potentially undocumented people, more broadly.

About the author

Stephanie L. Canizales is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Southern California. This research was generously funded by USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences, USC’s Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration, the UC Davis Center for Poverty Research, Canizales’ dissertation examines patterns of integration and belonging among unaccompanied Guatemalan youth in Los Angeles. The National Science Foundation’s Sociology Program generously funds her research.

Works Cited

Bonacich, Edna and Richard Appelbaum. 2000. Behind the Label: Inequality in the Los Angeles Apparel Industry. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Canizales, Stephanie L. 2015. “American individualism and the social incorporation of unaccompanied Guatemalan Maya young adults in Los Angeles.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 38(10): 1831-1847. DOI: 10.1080/01419870.2015.1021263.

García, María Cristina. 2006. Seeking Refuge: Central American Migration to Mexico, the United States, and Canada. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Hagan, Jacqueline, Ruben Hernandez-Leon, Jean-Luc Demonsant. 2015. Skills of the “Unskilled”: Work and Mobility among Mexican Migrants. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Menjivar, Cecilia. 2011. Enduring Violence: Ladina Women's Lives in Guatemala. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

[i] An “unaccompanied child” is a legal category applied to minors under the age of 18 who have no lawful immigration status and no parent or guardian willing or able to care for them in the U.S The young people with whom I work have not been apprehended and, therefore, are not juridically considered “unaccompanied children”. Yet ‘unaccompanied’, in many ways, accurately reflects the ways in which these youth migrated unlawfully and lived in the U.S. without a parent or guardian.

[ii] Guatemalan migrants who leave their homes in search of work cannot be categorized as economic migrants exclusively. The weak political, social, occupational, and educational infrastructure that spurs their migration is due, in large part, to the civil wars that plagued the Central American region in the 1970s and 1980s and have left a legacy of instability and institutional mistrust (Menjivar 2011; Rodriguez 2006).

Notes from the field: Humanitarian discourses, systemic erasures, and the production of victimhood in “Child, Bride, Mother”

By Briana Nichols and Lisette Farias

The following is a dialogue between cultural-linguistic anthropology and critical occupational science written by two PhD students working in Guatemala.

   Source : Stephanie Sinclair

Source: Stephanie Sinclair

Briana: What initially struck me about the image was her vacant stare.  The caption below the photograph explains, “Aracely was 11 when she married her husband, who was 34. Now 15, she is raising her son on her own.”  We see a girl, seated, her blue jean skirt, purple shirt, and her toddler son’s red shorts brilliantly contrast the weathered wooden shack behind her. With her son on her lap, she prepares corn. And perhaps intended to be most shocking to the non-Guatemalan viewer, she is breastfeeding.   

So what are we, the western, global north, New York Times consumer, supposed to understand from this image?  What emotions is it meant to evoke?  What is made visible, and what is obscured when images of the “developing world” are published for outside, selectively contextualized consumption?  

This photograph is one of fifteen in the “Child, Bride, Mother” exposé “documenting the issue of Child marriage” in Guatemala.  It is part of a larger transmedia project, “investigating: the world of prearranged child marriage,” by photojournalist Stephanie Sinclair entitled “Too Young to Wed” (Sinclair directs a non-profit organization by the same name).  

    Source : Stephanie Sinclair

Source: Stephanie Sinclair

As an anthropology PhD student working in Guatemala, I wonder about the power of the outsider, myself included, in the representation of the other, the unfamiliar, the shocking. When a photojournalist chooses to focus on child marriage, the subjects of her photographs are presented within that specific framing—a framing situated in discourses of childhood, human rights, and victimization. We often take for granted the nature of childhood, its implicit innocence, and the inherent need to protect children as vulnerable and non-agentive social beings (Bluebond-Langner and Korbin 2007; Poretti et al. 2014; Rosen 2007).  Fassin (2013) demonstrates how this global rhetoric of childhood is often viewed as common sense, despite its historically constructed and culturally situated nature. With this naturalization comes a legitimization of vulnerability, rendering children as the only “pure victims” and eclipsing the realities of sweeping structural violence and inequity. 

Sinclair’s “Child, Bride, Mother”  communicates a sense of moral outrage over the marriage of girls who are under 18 in the rural Department of Petén, Guatemala.  In the text accompanying her images, Sinclair describes these “underage brides” as traveling for hours “from the villages along the mud-soaked roads” and “parading endlessly through Petén’s hospital” to seek medical care. Sinclair characterizes the subjects of her photos as “physically immature and psychologically unready young mothers,” claiming these individuals are frequently abandoned by their husbands and left to raise their children alone.

    Source : Stephanie Sinclair

Source: Stephanie Sinclair

If viewed uncritically, this piece promotes an image of Guatemala where unknowing young girls are abused, impregnated, and abandoned by a society that does not care enough to adequately protect them. This discursive framing of Guatemala is gaining traction beyond Sinclair, and promotes a specific explanatory model with the potential to influence funding and policy priorities. Sinclair evokes a moral economy of childhood in which sin is ascribed to adults for allowing such abuses to befall young girls Fassin (2013), and blame is placed on local “cultures” viewed as deviant or defective (Poretti et al. 2014).  These images of “child brides” exist within a framework often mobilized by child right’s advocates which normalizes childhood as a period of “innocence and happiness” and in order to produce “damaged children” as icons of victimhood (Poretti et al. 2014).

The evocation of moral outrage and narratives of victimhood that surround the “child brides” of Guatemala obscure very real structural circumstances, such as inadequate access to healthcare, limited educational and employment opportunities, and massive land ownership disparities under which many rural and indigenous Guatemalans, young and old, live (Fisher and Benson 2006).  Not only do these conditions create significant survival obstacles for the rural and indigenous families who attempt to live off of their milpas (small plots of land), but they are also largely responsible for the forced mobility of rural Guatemalan workers in search of alternate ways of supporting their families.  Marion Carter (2002), who researches spousal support of maternal health in rural Guatemala, notes that the biggest impediment to spousal involvement is not “machismo” or patriarchal cultural norms—as Sinclair implies—but the absence of spouses due to forced migration. Sinclair treats the multiple factors impacting family survival decisions as inessential, but they are critical to understanding the context of the young women she is claiming to champion. Obscuring these factors promotes an understanding of the “child bride” phenomena in which deviant adult behaviour and “toxic” cultural norms take the blame while systemic failures and state responsibility is forgotten. Local culture is constructed as being in opposition to the “culture” of the rights of the child (Poretti et al. 2014 Rosen 2007), taking for granted a universal understanding of childhood that is imbedded in transnational politics, and indifferent to local context.  

    Source : Stephanie Sinclair

Source: Stephanie Sinclair

Many of my recent experiences in Guatemala focus on access to health care in rural communities.  It is only because of my research here that I recognize the circumstances Sinclair describes—walking hours to medical care, the high rates of maternal mortality—not as a phenomena specific to “child brides”, but rather as the deeply problematic lived reality for most rural Guatemalans. Without necessary contextualization, what meaning do the consumers of Sinclair’s piece leave with?  To me, this raises very real concerns over the power of representation and issues of moral authority. 

Lisette:  Briana, I definitely want to echo your concerns. As a PhD student in critical occupational science, I focus on human doing or “occupations” and how this “doing” influences people’s identity, health status and well-being. My interests lie in how political, cultural and socioeconomic factors affect people’s choices and possibilities to engage and participate in occupations that they want, need, or are expected to do within societies/communities. Born in Chile and currently working in Guatemala, I resent that young women are still portrayed as non-agentic and “poor” humans without a critical analysis of their context and acts of resilience, resistance or complex negotiations. In other words, Sinclair’s photos need context. Without knowing how girls take up, negotiate, or resist social issues such as a lack of opportunities or structural violence in rural areas of Guatemala, who are we to impose a Western-based ideal of childhood and motherhood as a natural and ethical conceptualizations for all collectives? What are the consequences for individuals and collectives who do not have the resources to live out these conceptualizations? (For more discussion about the “poor citizen,” the human right regime and global inequality, see e.g. Lister, 2009; Salomon, 2011). 

Overall, the representation of childhood in these photos makes me wonder: Why do we (outsiders) keep reproducing and maintaining a discourse about young girls as if they have failed the system, the country, or our own assumptions about childhood and womanhood? As you described above, these individuals are portrayed as “travelling for hours to seek medical care,” as if this situation was in some way related to the fact that they are young mothers rather than such travel being a common reality for women and men in rural areas such as in Petén, Guatemala. In other words, the social inequality and a lack of health services and resources have no relation to “underage brides” but to structural issues within Guatemala. Yet when presented uncritically, as Sinclair and others do (see e.g. CFR Info Guide Presentation, Tuschman reflections), the socio-historical issues that have marked out and shape the occupational possibilities (Laliberte Rudman, 2010) of young girls and women in Guatemala are easily and completely overlooked. 

    Source : Stephanie Sinclair

Source: Stephanie Sinclair

The construct of occupational possibilities situates human action within a socio-historical context. This context facilitates and/or hinders our access to and possibilities for doing what we need, want, or are expected to do in society, as well as what we “should be” and “could be” doing. With her photos, Sinclair places the responsibility of action (being pregnant, married, etc.) within the individual (girls and their families), disregarding the larger social forces that promote, reinforce and maintain these ways of doing. In this way, Sinclair’s photos raise concerns regarding how young women are being portrayed in ways that individualize responsibility for “their doing”, obscuring the Western- neoliberal modes of governing that served to construct this image. Moreover, she used this governance to place responsibility not only on the individuals but also on us and our moral outrage asking us to take action- a problematization that enacts specific ways of power linked to specific modes of thinking (e.g. Western, Neoliberal, and individualistic notions of doing and responsibility, paternalism).

In a critical analysis, these photos portray young women as immature, unready, abandoned, vulnerable, and without any capacity of choice or self-determination. But a closer consideration recognizes that these individuals are walking several hours to bring their kids to the hospital; they are taking care of their children in very complex contexts (some supported by their families, their husbands, or their husband’s families, as portrayed in the images). In this sense, how can we morally argue they are not doing what they should? 

I am aware of the abuse and abandonment that many of these young women (as well as other women, boys and men) experience. While I am not arguing that these situations do not deserve serious attention, my point in this piece is that these situations are not just about “child brides.” Portraying these individuals as “poor, immature girls” without a critical analysis of the social issues that are affecting the whole population of Guatemala reproduces and reifies a socially constructed image of girls as non-agentic social beings. It likewise ignores their acts of resilience and resistance. 

Along with these thoughts, I wonder: The young people are shown as alone and in rural areas in these pictures, some wearing Maya traje (traditional dress). What specific “type” of individuals are these pictures portraying? Who is missing in the photos? And what intersections between forms or systems of oppression are absent? 

Briana:  Lisette, I so appreciate the questions your response raises, both with regards to issues of “western” conceptualizations of childhood and the intersectionality of the girls portrayed in the images.  I think these two sets of questions are fundamentally related.  This journalistic effort on “child brides” in Guatemala does not consider the diversity of the country; histories of colonialism; structural racism and discrimination against indigenous populations; and the Mayan worldviews that inform indigenous practices. It thus acts not as an exposé but as an erasure (see Grandin 2000).  Many of the girls portrayed in the photos are wearing some form of indigenous clothing, but their indigeneity is never mentioned in Sinclair’s piece.  This matters.  Not only does it matter because of the above mentioned structural inequities—often including a fundamental lack of access to healthcare, education, and basic services—but it also matters because family structures in Mayan populations do not necessarily abide by “Western” conceptions of the adult/child divide. 

The global north has established a relatively arbitrary year in which adulthood starts—usually 18 years old. We have demarcated vulnerability as it fits with our cultural norms and practices, and then apply that to the rest of the world as though this conceptualization is a given.  In speaking with a Kaqchikel Mayan woman recently (the Kaqchikel are one of the indigenous Maya people of the Midwestern highlands in Guatemala), she explained her understanding of adulthood and childhood in ways that were fundamentally different with those of the western world. She noted that adulthood was not about chronology, but about responsibility—responsibility to the family and community—and that youth were educated in the ways of their parents starting at an early age so that they could gradually take on more household responsibility, culminating in marriage, which would then become the indicator of their adulthood. This is not to say that there are no bounds, and in anthropology, we struggle to figure out what happens when local culture and human rights- (or child rights-) based discourses collide. The problem with the Sinclair piece is not that the marriage of young girls is never problematic, it is that we cannot assume that it is always so, as Sinclair implies.  We must attend to the situated intersectionality of the girls, they are not just “child brides,” they are Guatemalan, rural, often indigenous, women. They are family members and community members who both frame and are framed by larger social structures and histories. 

You mention in your response that these young women are depicted as predominately alone. I am curious to hear your thoughts on this from an occupational perspective. What work do you think the journalist is doing by representing these young people as abandoned? In what ways are the occupational possibilities of the girls obscured through this photojournalism? 

Lisette:  Mayan understandings of childhood/adulthood are based on the goal of “raising a child/person who will be able to sustain himself or herself economically and function as a competent member of the society” (Bazyk, Stalnaker, Llerena, Ekelman, & Bazyk, 2003: 274). In this way, children in Mayan communities socialize and develop within the context of their community; learning the work and duties of their parents and other family activities by observing, accompanying and participating in the work of others. In this way, according to diverse Mayan traditions, it is expected that in adolescence/early adulthood, girls and boys share in the responsibility of contributing to the household.  Sinclair’s pictures do not portray the lived complexities of indigenous children and young adults. That the young women are frequently portrayed as solitary figures, abandoned, and sad draws my attention to the absented occupations. Their occupational potential is not described or exposed, completely obscuring the intersections that hinder their occupational possibilities.

Girls rendered as “alone” are also indicative of the missing socio-cultural and occupational context (e.g. the activities that the girls are performing to care for their children, families and communities). In particular, a historical and cultural issue strongly related to marriage is missing: the conflict of land ownership (Viscidi, 2004; Lopez Mejia, 2006). As you mentioned earlier, in Guatemala, land ownership is an issue connected to great insecurity and instability for women and indigenous populations.  Not only does Guatemala have one of the greatest land ownership disparities in the hemisphere, it also does not enforce basic protections for indigenous rights to land—and in particular the rights of indigenous women.  Traditional inheritance practices have led to the further division of already small milpas, making subsistence farming increasingly difficult.  Therefore, many families and young girls have chosen “marriage” as their only alternative to secure their family land and their daughters’ futures. This is not an issue of cultural “pathology,” but rather one of embodied structural violence.

Conversations about “child brides” need to go beyond the stereotype of “poor and immature” girls/women if we really want to enable young women to access the resources and occupational possibilities that they need and want. Representations such as Sinclair’s are problematic not just for what they supposedly expose, but for what they naturalize and hide.  


Bazyk, S., Stalnaker, D., Llerena, M., Ekelman, B., & Bazyk, J. (2003) Play in Mayan children. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 57, 273–283. 

Bluebond‐Langner, Myra., & Korbin, J. E. (2007). Challenges and Opportunities in the Anthropology of Childhoods: an introduction to “Children, Childhoods, and Childhood Studies”. American Anthropologist109(2), 241-246. 

Carter, M. (2002). Husbands and maternal health matters in rural Guatemala: wives’ reports on their spouses’ involvement in pregnancy and birth. Social Science & Medicine55(3), 437-450.

Fassin, D. (2013). Children as Victims. When People Come First: Critical Studies in Global Health, 109.

Fischer, E. F., & Benson, P. B. (2006). Broccoli and desire: global connections and Maya struggles in postwar Guatemala. Stanford University Press.

Grandin, G. (2000). The blood of Guatemala: a history of race and nation. Duke University Press.

Laliberte Rudman, D. (2010). Occupational possibilities. Journal of Occupational Science17(1), 55-59. 

Lister, R. (2009). Poor citizenship: social rights, poverty and democracy in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. In A. Kessler-Harries & M. Vaudagna (Eds.), Democracy and social rights in the “Two Wests” (pp. 43-66). Torino: Otto Editore 

Lopez Mejia, M.L., (2006) indigenous women and governance in Guatemala. The Canadian Foundation for the Americas (FOCAL).

Poretti, M., Hanson, K., Darbellay, F., & Berchtold, A. (2014). The rise and fall of icons of ‘stolen childhood’since the adoption of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Childhood21(1), 22-38. 

Rosen, D. M. (2007). Child soldiers, international humanitarian law, and the globalization of childhood. American anthropologist109(2), 296-306. 

Salomon, M. E. (2011). Why should it matter that others have more? Poverty, inequality, and the potential of international human rights law. Review of International Studies, 37, 2137–2155. 

Viscidi, L. (2004). A history of Land in Guatemala: Conflict and Hope for Reform. Americas Program, Interhemispheric Resource Center. 

Briana Nichols is a 3rd year PhD student at the University of Pennsylvania pursuing a joint degree in Anthropology and Education.  After receiving her BA and MA from the University of Chicago, she spent 5 years teaching in the Chicago Public Schools working with predominately Latino communities on the south and west sides of the city.  Her experiences as a teacher inform her current research interest in the mobility, subjective positioning and state management of “undocumented unaccompanied youth” as they circulate between Guatemala and the United States.

Lisette Farias Vera is a 2nd year PhD student and a Trillium graduate scholar in the Health and Rehabilitation Sciences Graduate Program in the field of Occupational Science at Western University. Lisette completed a 5 years BSc in Human Occupation and a professional degree in Occupational Therapy at the University of Chile. During her undergraduate education, she received the Linnaeus Palme Award to participate in a student exchange program between Sweden and Chile. She also completed a European MSc in Occupational Therapy at Amsterdam University of Applied Science. Currently, her research interests lie primarily in the area of occupational justice, critical occupational science and community development. More specifically, her doctoral work explores critical and participatory approaches to examine political, cultural and socioeconomic factors that enact and constrain people’s choices and possibilities to engage and participate in society.

After the Border: Undocumented or Child? The Policy Implications of Conflicting Constructions of Unaccompanied Migrant Youth

By Breanne Grace and Benjamin Roth

In the summer of 2014, the American media fixated on the US-Mexico border and the children and youth who were detained while trying to enter the US without the accompaniment of a parent or guardian. [Here we refer to these young people as unaccompanied migrant youth.] The media narratives were dehumanizing. Questioning the immigrants’ status as children and their legitimacy as human beings, these narratives drew upon intersecting and contradictory social constructions of children and childhood (James & Prout, 2015; Cunningham, 2006) and immigration status (Johnson, 1996)

Constructed as inagentive beings, migrant youth are often portrayed as lacking the capacity to migrate across international borders on their own accord and as unquestionably innocent and deserving. Yet at the same time, immigrants without legal status are often constructed as fully agentive and viewed as intentionally undermining the rule of law through their very presence. Their personhood becomes categorized as “illegal.” 

Migrant youth uniquely occupy the conceptual space between these competing social constructions. 

As a result, media portrayals of migrant youth at the border question youths’ status as children, the legitimacy of their independent migration, and their personhood. As Daniel Cook has noted, the childhood of these migrants becomes a “battleground” for what constitutes belonging:

Standing for what they are thought to bring—their Otherness—the futurity of [unaccompanied migrant youth] became cast as neither hopeful nor legitimate. […] It is a threat that they might…maybe…perhaps…become us
— (Cook 2015: 4-5).

While there has been academic blog coverage of the media’s response to the border, these competing constructions impact far more than news coverage. Indeed, the contradictions embedded within these constructions are also institutionalized. In what follows, we discuss the ways in which this process is manifest in the services the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) designs to support unaccompanied migrant youth after they are released to their families and await deportation proceedings. 

Federal law requires ORR to place unaccompanied migrant youth in the “least restrictive” environment while they undergo deportation proceedings. Some are placed in licensed residential facilities or long-term foster care, but the majority is placed with relatives or family friends living in the U.S. Among the latter, a small percentage—less than 15 percent—receives post-release services (PRS). PRS are case management services provided to migrant youth who are identified in detention as vulnerable and in need of additional support while they await deportation proceedings. The goal of PRS is social integration: these services include referrals to health care providers, assistance enrolling in school, help identifying legal representation, and referrals to mental health services. While sub-contracted case managers are able to refer children to these services, they are not guaranteed any sort of insurance coverage or financial assistance to facilitate access to services. What’s more, not accessing these services may be counted against migrant youth as they navigate court proceedings. Thus, although the goal of PRS is social integration, the process is essentially facilitated by the reality of removal: it occurs alongside the young person’s legal proceedings, and case managers are charged with observing children and ensuring court compliance. The contradictions within PRS—the push for integration while awaiting deportation; identifying psychological, medical, and social needs, but not providing resources to actually address these needs—reflect the “battleground” of these dueling constructions.  

The goal of this blog post is not to provide a comprehensive overview of this social issue. Rather, drawing on a study we recently conducted of PRS, we hope to highlight two important themes where the tension between the constructions of child and undocumented immigrant arise. 


 Media Portrayal of “Child”  from the Associated Press/ Santa Fe New Mexican 

Media Portrayal of “Child”  from the Associated Press/ Santa Fe New Mexican 

In qualifying for PRS, migrant youth are explicitly identified as “vulnerable” and in need of support, yet no material support is provided. Case managers are only charged with telling youth and their families where they might and should find such support. Our research findings suggest that this is problematic throughout all service areas, but can be especially so for children’s access to legal representation. Many of the youth we interviewed were categorized as vulnerable based on criteria that could potentially be used as evidence of humanitarian legal claims. That is, someone within detention identified that these youth had experienced trafficking or persecution and that these experiences left lasting psychological, social, or medical needs. Yet despite this identified need, applications for humanitarian relief were not initiated and case managers and migrant youth still had to search out qualified legal representation upon release, often at significant expense to their sponsors. For some migrant youth, no such legal representation existed. The lack of legal services was particularly evident in “new immigrant destination” areas (Massey, 2008)—places such as suburbs and the American southeast that have not been home to new immigrants for generations.  Despite their need for highly specialized legal services, these young people were often without legal options or were required to drive hours (sometimes into neighboring states) in search of services. 

Despite their identified need and the additional support provided through PRS, not all migrant youth in our study were able to access services, risking refoulement.  Thus, while their categorization of vulnerability and identification for services was based on a recognition that deportation would endanger the child, the process for deportation moved forward, putting the financial, social, and emotional burden for finding legal representation on the child and his or her family. This was in spite of their age, lack of resources, and identified trauma. This raises questions concerning the experience of migrant youth who do not receive PRS. Are they able to more easily access legal service providers and other local resources without the assistance of a case manager? And what is the role of the family—or sponsor—in helping migrant youth adapt to their new (if potentially temporary) home? Unfortunately, without data to answer these questions, the longer-term well-being of migrant youth is largely left to speculation.

 Media Portrayal of “Undocumented” from Fox News Screen Shot via Media Matters

Media Portrayal of “Undocumented” from Fox News Screen Shot via Media Matters

While the UNHCR approaches such situations from a protection perspective, the young people processed for PRS were primarily dealt with in terms of their undocumented status. A 2015 report by the United States Government Accountability Office details how Customs and Border Protection (CBP) failed to identify legitimate humanitarian claims for young people: CBP officers were inadequately trained on the importance and criteria of humanitarian claims and these processes; current processing policies were incorrectly or inadequately implemented; agents were not trained regarding the rights and independent decision capacity of children; and agents were inconsistent in recognizing “legitimate fear” components and trafficking protections (12-35). This is notably different from UNHCR protocols that are established to ensure legal access without lengthy deportation processes.  “Unaccompanied children” are further complicated in the U.S. because they are part of a larger mixed-migration process. Mixed migration movements, where refugees often move with non-refugees, are common, and the UNHCR has established protocols for processing in these circumstances. Yet despite the U.S. government’s ability to identify children’s humanitarian claims as a grounds for PRS, there are systematic obstacles inhibiting legitimate claims-making, the most severe of which is the U.S. government’s unwillingness to recognize its own categorizations of vulnerability, the lack of training for officers who make initial determinations, and an unwillingness to re-categorize this as a mixed-migration process. 


In our research, case managers were often hyper-aware of their charge to help migrant youth socially integrate, even though these children could ultimately be deported. Case managers helped them enroll in school, join extracurricular activities, and develop meaningful connections in the U.S. Yet despite case managers’ best efforts, the migrant youth we interviewed still recognized that the lives that they were establishing in the U.S. could be short term. At best, migrant youth are able to develop meaningful—if temporary—connections to family and community and to successfully plead their case in Immigration Court. At worst, their integration is limited by the government’s contradictory effort to connect them to local supports and simultaneously extract them from the communities where these supports are located. Unless they are able to find affordable legal representation, the latter outcome is more common.

The version of childhood that migrant youth are expected to engage in is universalizing; it fails to recognize variation within life stage, economic conditions, and psychological pressures related to immigration status. Nonetheless, signaling one’s status as a “worthy child” remains important for the legal process. As children, migrant youth are expected to engage in the activities of childhood—attending school, establishing friendships, and engaging in extracurricular activities—but because of documentation status, these activities are understood as potentially fleeting, often undermining a child’s desire to engage in social life. Engaging in this prescribed childhood becomes both the definition of social integration for migrant youth and a coerced objective to meet in order to build a stronger legal case. Of course, establishing friendships and engaging in school is often even harder for young immigrants, as hard because they these individuals have the added burden of constant fear. We find that youth fear that their status might be discovered by their friends, or fear to dream about the future because the present is so uncertain.  

For the migrant youth we interviewed who had previously worked or maintained households prior to migration, this new definition of the life course is met with mixed emotions. These young people often feel limited by the culturally-bounded expectations that they attend school and return to a childhood with minimal responsibility. However, they also recognize the burden their legal fees and medical bills contribute to household expenses. They often want—and need—to work to help their families and to have a chance at legal relief. 

The politicization of immigration (especially undocumented migration) has led to contradictory services and implementation of services for migrant youth. Until policy makers address the social and political assumptions that are embedded in discourse about migrant youth, policy implementation will continue to undermine policy objectives.  If the goal is social integration, migrant youth should be provided with reprieve from deportation in order to engage in their new communities. If the government has identified young people for additional services based on humanitarian need, then why are the same children being put at risk for refoulement? If children are identified as having pressing medical, social, or psychological needs that need to met, then why aren’t resources provided so that children and their sponsors can adequately address these critical needs? 

Breanne Grace, PhD, is an Assistant Professor in the College of Social Work at the University of South Carolina. Trained as a sociologist, Grace’s work focuses on African refugee populations resettled in the United States and Tanzania, as well as transnational family and community relations between resettlement sites, country of origin, and refugee camps. Her work focuses on social citizenship rights access after refugee resettlement and the political economy of humanitarian aid. 

Benjamin Roth, PhD, is an Assistant Professor at the College of Social Work at the University of South Carolina. His research interests include the social, cultural, economic, and political processes of immigrant integration; the effects of legal status on youth development; and the geography of poverty and access to the social services safety net. His current projects explore how factors such as place and space, legal status, discrimination, social boundaries, and organizations (including schools, churches, and social service agencies) influence the adaptation of low-income immigrant youth and families.

Read more about Bre and Ben’s collaborative work at 

i. Children and youth who maintain no lawful immigration status the U.S. without authorization and who are apprehended without a parent or guardian are legally categorized as “unaccompanied alien children.”  However, throughout this blog post we will refer to them as migrant youth. Their average age is 14.5 years old. 

 ii. It is important to note that this problem is not unique to the US. Currently the European Union and Australia are dealing with similar questions around asylum and refugee status. The situation of unaccompanied children differs in that young people are fleeing their countries of origin to the US, which is the first safe country of arrival. 

Works Cited 

Cook, D. T. (2015). A politics of becoming: When ‘child’ is not enough. Childhood, 22(1), 3-5.

Cunningham, H. (2012). The invention of childhood. Random House.

James, A., & Prout, A. (Eds.). (2015). Constructing and reconstructing childhood: Contemporary issues in the sociological study of childhood. Routledge.

Johnson, K. R. (1996). " Aliens" and the US Immigration Laws: The Social and Legal Construction of Nonpersons. The University of Miami Inter-American Law Review, 263-292.

Massey, D. S. (Ed.). (2008). New faces in new places: The changing geography of American immigration. Russell Sage Foundation.


Black Bodies Seen: Meditations on Mobility, Betrayal, and American and Dominican Haitian Youth

                            By Dr. Cynthia Lubin Langtiw*

In the past two years I have been jarred by disturbing images of assaults on young Black bodies in the American media. 

Tamir Rice, a twelve year old boy, shot and killed by a police officer on a Cleveland, Ohio playground. 

An unarmed bikini clad girl with a police officer kneeling on her back in order to subdue her in McKinney, Texas. 

Michael Brown’s lifeless body on the street in a pool of blood for hours after being shot and killed by a police officer on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. 

In each tragedy, I am saddened and troubled that the representatives of the very system intended to protect Black youth instead violated these individuals’ corporal integrity. Our law enforcement system did not view them as children to be protected, but as the enemy from which society necessitated protecting. 

As a clinical psychologist, I cannot help to think of the impact of these widely publicized events on the psyche of Black youth in America. How can they develop a sense of belonging and well-being as they move through the world knowing the dangers of living in their skin?

This week I was jarred by another image: Dominican born youth of Haitian ancestry protesting their impending “statelessness.” As a Haitian American woman, my heart resonated with the plight of my magnificent diasporic sisters and brothers. These Dominican Haitian youth are not hiding in the shadows. They are demanding to be seen.

Until 2004, the Dominican government, like many other countries, offered what is known as jus soli, birthright citizenship to anyone born in the Dominican Republic, except those whose parents were “in transit.” In 2008, Juliana Deguis Pierre, a Dominican born to Haitian immigrant parents, sought to register for a national identification card in order to work legally and to vote in the Dominican Republic. Not only was Pierre denied the identification card, but also her legally tendered birth certificate was confiscated presumably because of her Haitian surname. Pierre sued the Dominican government and the appeals reached the Constitutional Tribunal, the highest Dominican court. In September 2013, the court delivered a ruling now known as La Sentencia, or the Sentence. La Sentencia ultimately revoked the Dominican citizenship of those born after 1929 to parents not of Dominican ancestry. 

La Sentencia retroactively revoked Pierres’ citizenship, claiming that her Haitian parents were “in transit” when she was born in the Dominican Republic and therefore her Dominican citizenship was not valid. 

Her citizenship was not valid. The country of her birth. 

The country of her children’s birth. 

The only country that she has ever known rejected her. 

She was not a valid member of Dominican society. 

And when Pierre came with her Dominican birth certificate in hand, the officers knew that she did not belong. They knew because of her Haitian last name, her broad nose, her “pelo malo” or “bad hair” and her dark skin (See also, Candelario 2000, Duany 2006). Her blackness did not belong.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Juliana Deguis Pierre’s very long and publicized fight eventually resulted in her receiving a Dominican identification card in August 2014. That written, she still does not have a Dominican identification card for her four children born in the Dominican Republic. However, Pierre’s well publicized story is an anomaly; she is one of few Dominicans of Haitian descent to have been granted the Dominican identification card after the 2013 ruling. La Sentencia and Juliana Deguis Pierre’s experience reflect a long standing anti-Haitian sentiment in the Dominican Republic. It is the very same antihatianismo which allowed dictator Rafael Trujillo to wage the “Parsley Massacre” or “El Corte” killing thousands of Haitian people living in the Dominican Republic in 1937. Haitian author Edwidge Danticat hauntingly captures the painful absurdity of the “Parsley Massacre” in her fictional chronicalization, The Farming of Bones. 



On June 16, 2015, the Dominican government began deporting Dominicans of Haitian descent to Haiti, a country many of them have never known. It is estimated that 200,000 to 250,000 people will be impacted. How will officials know who is a Dominican of Haitian descent? In 1937 it was whether or not one could roll the “r” in perejil, Spanish for parsley. In 2015 officials will find the Black bodies that “don’t belong.” What does this mean for the psyches of Dominican Haitian youth? What has it meant for them to move through their world, the only world they have ever known, being told they don’t belong? They are being ousted from their home country. For many, the only country they have ever known.

Psychologist Jennifer Freyd (2008) has identified betrayal trauma as a type of trauma that occurs when the people or institutions on which a person depends for existence significantly violate that person’s trust and well-being. Betrayal trauma is particularly harmful because one’s sense of trust, connectedness and psychological well-being is compromised.

Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, the young woman in McKinney Texas, and Juliana Deguis Pierre all trusted that their system, their country, their tribe, would care for them. Not only did these systems fail to care for them, but in each instance, “their” systems were the very entities perpetrating the betraying harm. By standing silent we are each complicit in the systemic betrayal of our youth.

So what do we do with this knowledge? One of the reasons I was struck by images of the young Dominican Haitian protestors is that they are not hiding in the shadows. They are demanding recognition. They are demanding that their broad noses, wooly hair and dark skin be seen. They are defining themselves as Dominican and defying the authorities rejecting their identity, their humanity. They are rejecting rejection! 

Similarly, Black youth are protesting in cities all across America demanding to be seen as fully human — to be seen as children to be cared for and not as threats to society. Dominican Haitian youth are demanding that we recognize their Blackness, their Dominican-ness, their social agency and their corporal integrity as they move through this world. We owe it Black youth worldwide to stand in solidarity as they demand their human rights and we ought shout alongside them: 


  “We see you. We feel you. You belong. I belong. We all belong.”



Candelario, G. (2000). Hair Race-ing: Dominican beauty culture and identity production. Meridians, 128-156. 

Duany 1, J. (2006). Racializing ethnicity in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean: A comparison of Haitians in the Dominican Republic and Dominicans in Puerto Rico. Latin American and Caribbean Ethnic Studies, 1(2), 231-248. 

Freyd, J.J. (2008). Betrayal trauma.  In G. Reyes, J.D. Elhai, & J.D.Ford (Eds) Encyclopedia of Psychological Trauma.  (p. 76). New York: John Wiley & Sons. 

* Dr. Cynthia Lubin Langtiw is a Haitian American licensed clinical psychologist and Associate Professor of clinical psychology at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. She maintains a small private practice in downtown Chicago. Dr. Langtiw is also a volunteer psychologist and clinical supervisor with The Marjorie Kovler Center for Survivors of Torture. Her clinical work reflects a strong systemic/community sensibility that integrates a relational cultural perspective. Much of her clinical work has been helping youth, adults, families and communities utilize their own resources to heal from trauma. Dr. Langtiw has a strong passion for teaching and clinical training and enjoys supporting students in finding their voice in psychology. 

Interrogating the Wave: Media Representations of African Migrant Youth

Stephanie Maher[1]

“Images are not just a particular kind of sign, but something like an actor on the historical stage, a presence or character endowed with legendary status, a history that parallels and participates in the stories we tell ourselves about our own evolution”  - (W. J. T. Mitchell 1984, 504)


    Media representations are powerful. Not only do they embody the appealing veneer of journalistic impartiality, which seems to objectively reflect world in unadulterated ways, but also they help to generate public opinion and thus create consensus when crafting and mobilizing particular policy responses.

    Such an image-policy nexus is exemplified in the hyper-mediatized phenomenon of clandestine migration out of West Africa during 2006 and 2007. While the Western route was effectively crippled by the implementation of border controls and surveillance technologies, the images we see today of boat migrants leaving North African shores bear a striking similarity to those circulated nearly a decade ago.

    In order to highlight the productive relationship between image and policy, this photo essay explores some of the visual and rhetorical representations of West African boat migrants that circulated widely in the European and American press during what was called a “wave” of clandestine arrivals in the Canary Islands. I briefly explore the history of clandestine boat migration from Senegal to the Canary Islands before unpacking some of the strategies that image producers used to inform broader publics about the “threat of invasion” of poor African youth on European soil.[2] I conclude by examining some of the policies mobilized in response to the “wave” of clandestine arrivals and the contemporary phenomenon of boat migration to Europe.


    Part I: History 

    “In the late 1990s, a fishing pirogue lost its way and got swept out to sea. When they landed a week later on Tenerife [Canary Islands], everyone was shocked. Up to that point, no one even imagined you could reach Europe by fishing boat. That’s when it all started.”

    -          Abdoulaye, artisanal fisherman, boat captain and repatriated migrant from Senegal

    While clandestine migration from West Africa to Europe predates the twenty-first century, the number of arrivals in the Canary Islands increased dramatically after 2000 (Carling 2007). Although the reasons are many, this introduction focuses on the rather serendipitous realization that traditional West African pirogues—wooden boats intended for coastal fishing—might be a viable mode of transport to the Canary Islands. The story of a single pirogue accidentally reaching Tenerife in the late 1990s, as Abdoulaye recounted to me, is connected to a longer political economic history, which may offer a window into why so many youth attempted clandestine passage in the mid-2000s.

    Under the provisions of the third Lomé Accord of 1984, a number of West African states were obliged to liberalize their maritime territories to industrial fishing trawlers from Europe. In exchange, states like Senegal were given hard currency in the form of license fees, which then helped to pay for servicing costs associated with foreign debt and structural adjustment loans from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. In the beginning, it seemed like a mutually beneficial arrangement: the waters off West Africa were full of fish that European Union consumers were willing to buy, and European fishermen, who’d been put out of work because of overexploiting local fish stocks in the North Atlantic and Mediterranean, were eager for jobs. Additionally, the argument was that compensating developing countries for access to their fisheries would help them to establish research expertise and protocols to better monitor, evaluate and manage those fisheries in sustainable ways (see Title II, Articles 50-54 in Lomé III: 19).

    From the signing of Lomé III, however, the monitoring and evaluation protocols have rarely, if ever, been instituted. For one, West African nations lack the infrastructure, such as boats, helicopters, and satellite systems, to supervise European vessels offshore. Moreover, there is little incentive to regulate the catch quotas of those vessels because, according to François Bellec, the fisheries Accords in Lomé III “are commercial, rather than development agreements” (1991: 3). In other words, the Accords are chiefly designed to benefit the European fishing industry and the governments of West Africa, but not the people in between. As a result, rampant overexploitation of fish stocks by purse seiners and high-tech trawlers, which can catch and process in one day what 50 local artisanal fishermen catch in a year, has depleted West Africa’s maritime resources to the point of collapse. Over the years, foreign industrial overfishing has prompted local artisanal fishermen in Senegal to go farther and farther afield to find viable fishing grounds. This is why, Abdoulaye explains, the first pirogue got lost. “They were looking for fish and they got swept up in a storm.” From there, word spread and the exodus began.


    Part II: Representing Migrant Youth

    The story of “the first pirogue” was one I heard over and over during fieldwork in Senegal. When I returned to the US, a colleague asked me if there was really a first pirogue that got lost at sea and ended up on the Canary Islands. I don’t know, but what seems more important is that young repatriated migrants continually link the beginning of the phenomenon with international agreements that adversely affect local livelihoods, and, in the case of Lomé III, cripple local economies. Yet, without understanding this background, without grappling with the complexities of life for youth in Senegal, images of West African migrants look almost unbelievable. The overcrowded boats, the chaotic assemblage of faces, the poignant hungry stares all perpetuate the erroneous idea of clandestine migrants as embracing a kind of “recklessness” that defies rational logic (Streiff-Fénart 2011). Confronted with these images, a viewer without the benefit of context might ask, “Who would embark on such a risky journey?” The answer to that question is not so much a matter of who, but of how many.

    In 2006 alone, 41,000 clandestine boat migrants from West Africa landed on the Canary Islands (Fall 2010: 31).[3] An untold number never made it, either perishing at sea or becoming marooned off the coast of North African states. That year, media coverage of clandestine migration to Europe exploded in the press with images of boat migrants filling the pages of the high-volume outlets such as the BBC, The New York Times, and The Guardian.

    While the visual images these sources display seem to incontestably and neutrally document real life, the images themselves are not mirrors. Through a variety of visual techniques, such as framing, focus, and point of view, they are subjectively, though perhaps uncritically, hyper-constructed representations.

    By filling the frame with faces too numerous to count, images like the ones shown here reify the notion that Europe is being “invaded” by African migrants during this period. Moreover, the sheer number of these images circulating also indicates the extent to which the media scape is saturated with representations of young black Africans depicted as scared, exposed and, above all, illegal. Such images thus conveniently reinforce an historically entrenched racial calculus that equates skin color with the proclivity to criminal behavior.

    Words likewise carry an enormous power of suggestion. The metaphor of a “wave” or “flood” of clandestine migrants arriving on European shores effectively summons an atmosphere of panic, and a consequent call to immediate action on the part of European nations (Erjavec 2003; Horsti 2012). One 2006 headline from Le Figaro, a popular French daily newspaper, reads: “A record wave of clandestine migrants submerges the Canary Islands.” In the article, the author reports, “Since Thursday, successive waves have not stopped rushing the archipelago.” Another headline from The New York Times reads simply: “Migrants flood Spain.” Other media outlets from the BBC to Fox News, to NPR and The Washington Post participated in the circulation of the rhetoric of the “flood.” Some media sources chose to double up on the metaphor. In a 2007 USA Today piece, a pirogue arrival at Las Galletas beach was called “the latest wave in a constant flood of desperate migrants.” While 41,000 is no small number of arrivals, other more measured voices, such as Hein de Haas, argue that the discourse of invasion is an outright myth, and that in fact intra-continental migration within Africa is far more pronounced (2007).

    These rhetorical descriptions and visual representations combine to dehumanize young West African migrants by equating them with a non-human substance, or “a wave.” More pointedly, they play into racist discourses that have historically situated Africans in the category of inanimate objects. Lacking the ability for rational thinking, migrants, like water, can do no more than evade, disperse, and runoff. As one piece in The Economist elaborates: “Like a liquid flowing downhill, illegal immigrants naturally take the path of least resistance.” This comment both likens migrants to a substance of dubious orientation and then naturalizes the distinction by presenting it as something intrinsic to migrants’ character.

    Calling on tropes of racial pollution, the images and rhetoric surrounding clandestine migration unequivocally present the African “other” as potentially dangerous.[4] But this “othering” is not purely the result of repugnance, but of a complicated relationship between aversion and desire (hooks 1992). Images like this are reminiscent of colonial photography, or African portraiture exhibited at the World’s Fairs of the nineteenth century. With the young black body on full display, such representations are both an attractor and an offense to latent Victorian sensibilities. The embedded sexualized narrative of Orientalist imaginaries operates as an extension of racial anxiety and the desire for imperial power. In this way, the African savage deserves, even requires, domination. He is both the fetishized object of slave fantasies and the subject of imperial control. Such histories continue to exert interpretive power on the contemporary production and circulation of images of young black Africans and, on the policy responses mobilized to manage migration as an issue of national security.

    If the persistent objectification of the black body is part of the moralizing discourse of colonialism that prohibits racial impurity, it is also a continuation of the long-standing tradition of missionist crusading on behalf of the ignorant and victimized male African who, despite his actions, cannot seem to progress past the lower echelons of social, moral, and cognitive development. “They know no better,” these images suggest. Confusion, instability and poverty are both what the migrant youth expresses and what he brings with him.

    During this same period of media reporting, there also circulated a catalogue of images depicting recent arrivals on a sunny beachside scene in the Canary Islands. In these representations, we see the European holiday gone awry as the suffering of Africa is brought home to an unsuspecting gaggle of sunbathers.

      2006, Arturo Rodríguez / The Associated Press

    2006, Arturo Rodríguez / The Associated Press

    In this scene, Europe fulfills its role as caretaker and civilizer of the young African victim. Most strikingly, the woman, and not the African migrant, is the center of our gaze. Not only does she occupy fully half the frame and faces the lens straight on, but also the sun on her pale bikinied body highlights her as the primary subject of the image. The bottle of water she holds, the gloves on her hands, the look of worry and confusion on her face all contradict the paradise surrounding her. She is upset in more ways that one. First, her holiday has been transformed into a hospital. And second, the look of fear we see on the faces in the boat has suddenly been transmitted to her as if by an invisible vector.

    These images are iconic of African desperation invading European shores. Their disruptive power perfectly embodies the threat of African youth arriving in “waves.” Here the daydream of the vacationer’s paradise is contaminated by the presence of African misery, though these sunbathers in the distance appear immune.

    As anthropologists have shown, marginal figures like the clandestine migrant are dangerous precisely because they “have physical but not ‘social’ reality” (Turner 1967: 98). Mary Douglas argues in her seminal ethnography, Purity and Danger, “[P]ersons in a marginal state… are placeless. They may be doing nothing morally wrong, but their status is indefinable” (1966: 94). As such, they upset the normal order of things. Here, the Atlantic panorama boasting a luxury yacht is smudged by the presence of a pirogue.

    The couple in this image seems befuddled, stopped in front of the beached pirogue. Of significance, these images are less about West African boat migration and more about European reactions to it: worry, indifference and confusion. Taken together, these images suggest a kind of apocalyptic aftermath or post-epidemic Europe. Here the vestiges remain, reminding viewers of the unstoppable “wave-like” power, which brought chaos, suffering, and desperation to paradise.

    Despite what photographers might aim to convey, an image does not hold meaning a priori outside its relation to the viewer. These representations do not merely mirror acute realities but frame it in particular ways. Importantly, then, the reflection is dialectical. Feminist theorists have long argued that the viewer is as much consumer as she is producer of knowledge when it comes to visual representations. Viewing, or consuming, images involves pleasure, the kind that comes from seeing but not being seen (Mulvey 2009). We enter into a relation with the image, a relation which produces interpretation. Images involve us on a fundamental level precisely because we participate in the co-production of their meaning. In the instance of West African migrants, this co-production then informs how people other the migrant subject. As Erving Goffman argues, images both reflect and shape social norms (1979).


    Part III: Policies

    Given the above discussion, it is little wonder why European states would demand migration reform. However, it is too simple to suggest that media representations cause particular policy responses. Rather, the point here is to grasp how the discursive field, which includes media images and rhetoric, as well as ministerial-level dialogues and strategy papers, produce truths about the phenomenon of clandestine migration from West Africa during this period. The many dangers associated with boat migration intersects with discussions of legality, state sovereignty, humanitarianism, and security. Yet the policy response largely concentrates on security, not protection (Cross 2013). Importantly, as Ruben Andersson recently points out, the transnational industrial complex surrounding border control has a vested interest in projecting an image of persistent border crisis. “In times of globalization,” he says, “bordering has itself become a globalized business” (2015).                 

    Since the mid-2000s, several strategies have been adopted by the European Union and individual Member States to halt the “flood.” The first strategy focuses on border management. In an effort to stem the flow out of West Africa, the EU heightened the presence of maritime patrols and surveillance systems in the Mediterranean and off the Senegalese coast. This was operationalized largely by FRONTEX, the external border management arm of the European Union.[5] Created in 2004, FRONTEX has played a major role in crippling clandestine naval routes to Europe by both stopping journeys before they begin in Senegal and by policing the North African coast and the Mediterranean Sea before arrival at their destination.[6] Like FRONTEX, Spain’s Sistema Integrado de Vigilancia Exterior (SIVE) is another effective border control mechanism. By positioning highly sophisticated surveillance technologies off the Spanish coast, boats are detected and intercepted earlier and thus fewer pirogues are able to make it to European shores.[7]

    A second strategy focuses on developmental diplomacy. Bi- and multi-lateral partnership agreements with African states like Senegal, Mauritania and Morocco require that African nations police European borders from the other side of the Mediterranean.[8] In exchange, African states receive significant foreign aid. The 2007 Country Strategy Paper (CSP) and National Indicative Programme (NIP) signed by the EU and Senegal is a case in point. Citing the “unprecedented wave of clandestine emigration coming from Senegal [which] descended on the Canary Islands” in 2006 (Senegal-European Commission, Part I: 19), the NIP provides significant “financial instruments” for, among other things, the militarized control of clandestine migration (Senegal-European Commission, Part II: 2).[9]

    A third, interrelated strategy entails bilateral repatriation, or “readmission” agreements. In 2006, Senegal and Spain reached one such agreement, which stipulated the return of 6,000 irregular migrants of various nationalities to Senegalese territory in exchange for 19.8 million Euros in development aid. In 2008, a similar agreement was reached between France and Senegal, which effectively tied the allocation of development aid to the forced repatriation of Senegalese nationals (Lefrançois 2009: 6).

    The mobilization of FRONTEX and SIVE both contributed to a significant drop in irregular migration from West Africa. Whereas 41,000 arrived in 2006, a little over 2,000 arrived in 2009. While significant, these numbers obscure how clandestine migration hasn’t disappeared, but has shifted in response to the militarization of border control in the Atlantic. Clandestine journeys now often necessitate transiting the Sahara desert and embarking from points along the North African coast.

     2014, Massimo Sestini / The Guardian

    2014, Massimo Sestini / The Guardian

    Paradoxically, the fixing and institutionalization of borders makes them generators of circulation (Bensaâd 2005: 19). Due to increasing controls both on the African and European continents, trans-Saharan migration is becoming longer, more fragmented, and more dangerous (Collyer 2007). Intended to reduce clandestine migration, increasingly militarized controls often only make such travel riskier and more protracted. Past routes that took weeks now sometimes extend to months or years, with migrants spending significant periods in one of the several “transit nodes” trying to earn money for the next leg of the journey (Gnisci and Trémolières 2006: 9).

    As a response to the escalating risk associated with these clandestine itineraries, the cost of smuggling services or other migrant assistance has increased. West African migrants in Morocco report spending anywhere between 2,000 to 7,000 Euros for the journey across the Sahara (Collyer 2006: 136). These small fortunes are often earned incrementally en route or allocated by family members back home. With greater kin investments, family debt escalates and  migrants become less likely to turn back (Carling 2007; Collyer 2007). The result is a cycle in which border controls, meant to inhibit migration, actually provoke it (Castles 2004).

    While the policy responses of European nations dramatically hampered clandestine migration out of West Africa in the mid-2000s, boats continue to arrive on southern European shores in even greater numbers. The Arab Spring prompted a significant rise in clandestine arrivals on the islands of Lampedusa and Malta (Koser 2012). And according to the UNHCR, 165,000 boat migrants arrived on Italian territory in 2014, more than double the number in 2013. Departing largely from North Africa, boats today are populated overwhelmingly by people fleeing conflict in Libya, Eritrea, Sudan, Somalia and Syria.

    In response to a 2013 Lampedusa shipwreck, which claimed more than 360 lives, the Italian government instituted Mare Nostrum, a humanitarian program that provided search and rescue operations for boats stranded at sea. While lauded by some organizations as a “life-saving” solution to a growing problem, this intervention has come under heavy criticism from other European countries as encouraging clandestine crossings. Britain’s Foreign Officer spelled out the “unintended pull factor” of Mare Nostrum to the House of Lords in 2014 before announcing that Britain would pull its diplomatic and financial support for any future rescue missions in the Mediterranean, preferring instead operations aimed at “border management” and surveillance. Today, Mare Nostrum has been abandoned in favor of Triton, a program operated by FRONTEX, whose mandate is largely one of border control, and not humanitarian intervention.


    Part IV: Conclusion

    Images of clandestine migrations between 2006 and 2007 serves as evidence and provides logic for the militarization of land and maritime borders between Europe and Africa. Photos of overcrowded boats consolidate the idea of migrants as a “wave” flooding the European continent. Drawing on latent racist sentiments and the desire for sensationalist news, these representations further contribute to the criminalization of irregular youth portrayed as disregarding international law and state sovereignty. Such a representational field evokes the traditional image of African youth as “breakers” of democratic ideals (Honwana and de Boeck 2005).

    These representations also, and somewhat paradoxically, legitimize a growing humanitarian discourse with respect to unlawful/illicit migration and human smuggling. This discourse assumes that young West African migrants are not consenting actors who calculate their decisions to migrate against the backdrop of high unemployment, desires to support family, and aspirations of freedom. Rather, media portrayals and policy documents also characterize young men as “victims” of unscrupulous criminal networks who take their money and overload them in rickety vessels that look as if they might break up under the weight of their cargo. The logical conclusion, ironically, is not to establish safer channels for legal mobility, but to curtail migration because of lives placed at risk.

    Although migration patterns have changed, media representations today often employ the same visual and rhetorical strategies. This image feels strangely reminiscent of the photo above, except now the European couple sits far from the evidence of their deviated holiday. In this case, the headline for this Daily Mail article reads: “Run, they may have ebola! Nudist beach panic over migrant boat from Africa.” Such images and rhetoric continue to reinforce the security-oriented response to clandestine boat migration, which, as we have seen, does not curtail boat migration to southern Europe, but prolongs and intensifies already dangerous journeys.

    The twin histories of photography and anthropology are inescapably intertwined. Early ethnographers often used visual technologies as a way to document and measure “cultures under study,” while early photographers produced images that chronicled historical events in the tradition of Mathew Brady (1822-1896), who documented the American Civil War by bringing his wet plate darkroom to the battlefields. And yet, whereas in the academy, social scientists have been charged—most vociferously by feminist, subaltern, and indigenous scholars—to reflect on their visual productions, photojournalists seem to have escaped the same critical scrutiny.[10] As Christopher Pinney argues, because of anthropology’s preoccupation with “cross-cultural questions of causation, evidence, personhood and monumentality,” the discipline is in a particularly good position “to consider the relationship between images and culture, and images and power” (2011: 11). Recently, visual artifacts have been interrogated as context specific, politically charged and frequently ethically problematic entities. I use the word “entities” precisely because it conjures a kind of physicality and a relationality that photographic images necessarily embody and engage. Though seemingly one-dimensional, photographs are not without substance or personality. And, as this essay argues, they are not without political consequence. As the epigraph from W.J.T. Mitchell suggests, images are not neutral; they are “actors.” They act on and within social relations, and take part in the dialectic process of knowledge production. Importantly, an image’s agency or desire does not exist outside that of its viewer/consumer. “Like people,” Mitchell says, “pictures don’t know what they want; they have to be helped to recollect it through a dialogue with others” (1996: 81).


    Andersson, Ruben. “Fear by Numbers: On the Rise of Europe’s ‘Illegality Industry’ #Borders.” Allegra: A Virtual Lab of Legal Anthropology 20 May 2014. Accessed 24 January 2015.

    Bellec, François. “Editorial: A Vital Issue for the Future of North-South Relations.” In Fisheries Agreements Under the Lome Convention: Dossier No. 4, edited by François Bellec, 3-4. Brussels: Samudra Publications, 1991.

    Bensaâd, Ali. “Les migrations transsahariennes: Une mondialisation par la marge.” Maghreb-Machrek 185 (2005): 13-36.

    Carling, Jørgen. “Unauthorized Migration from Africa to Spain.” International Migration 45.4 (2007): 3-37.

    Castles, Stephen. “Why migration policies fail.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 27.2 (2004): 205-227.

    Collyer, Michael. “Undocumented Sub-Saharan African Migrants in Morocco.” In Mediterranean Transit Migration, edited by Ninna Nyberg Sørensen, 129-145. Copenhagen: Danish Institute for International Studies, 2006.

    -----. “In-Between Places: Trans-Saharan Transit Migrants in Morocco and the Fragmented Journey to Europe.” Antipode (2007): 668-690.

    Coombes, Annie E. Reinventing Africa: Museums, Material Culture and Popular Imagination. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997.

    Cross, Hannah. Migrants, Borders and Global Capitalism: West African labour mobility and EU borders. New York: Routledge, 2013.

    De Haas, Hein. “The myth of invasion: Irregular migration from West Africa to the Maghreb and the European Union.” Research Report prepared for the International Migration Institute, University of Oxford, 2007.

    Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. New York: Routledge, 1966.

    Erjavec, Karmen. “Media construction of identity through moral panics: Discourses of immigration in Slovenia.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 29.1 (2003): 83-101.

    Fall, Papa Demba. “Sénégal: Migration, marché du travail et développement.” Working Paper prepared for the International Labor Organization, 2010.

    Gnisci, Donata and Marie Trémolières. “Atlas on Regional Integration in West Africa: Population Series, Migration.” ECOWAS/SWAC-OECD, 2006.

    Goffman, Erving. Gender Advertisements. New York: Harper and Row, 1979.

    Honwana, Alcinda. The Time of Youth: Work, Social Change, and Politics in Africa. Sterling: Kumarian Press, 2012.

    Honwana, Alcinda and Filip de Boeck, eds. Makers and Breakers: Children and Youth in Postcolonial Africa. Trenton: Africa World Press, 2005.

    hooks, bell. Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston: South End Press, 1992.

    Horsti, Karina. “Humanitarian Discourse Legitimating Migration Control: FRONTEX Public Communication.” In Migrations: Interdisciplinary Perspectives, edited by Michi Messer, Renée Schroeder and Ruth Wodak, 297-308. New York: Springer, 2012.

    Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara. Destination Culture: Tourism, Museums, and Heritage. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

    Lavenex, Sandra. “Shifting up and out: The foreign policy of European immigration control.” West European Politics 29.2 (2006): 329-350.

    Lefrançois, Roselyne. “Report on the visit to Senegal by a delegation from the LIBE Committee.” Brussels: European Parliament, 2009.

    Mitchell, W.J.T. “What Is an Image?” New Literary History 15.3 (1984): 503-537.

    -----. “What Do Pictures ‘Really’ Want?” October 77 (1996): 71-82.

    Mulvey, Laura. Visual and Other Pleasures, 2nd ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

    Pinney, Christopher. Photography and Anthropology. New York: Reaktion Books, 2011.

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    Streiff-Fénart, Jocelyne. “Transit Migration in Africa.” Paper presented at the Institut Méditerranéen de Recherches Avancées (IMéRA). Marseille, France, 10 June, 2011.

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    Wainaina, Binyavanga. “How to Write about Africa.” Granta 92 (2005): 92-95.


    [1] Stephanie Maher is a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Washington. She is currently completing her dissertation “Barça ou Barzakh: The Social ‘Elsewhere’ of Failed Clandestine Migration Out of Senegal,” which explores the social and spiritual afterlives of young, predominantly male Senegalese migrants who attempted to reach Europe via wooden fishing pirogues between 2005 and 2010 but were forcibly returned. Drawing on 18 months of fieldwork, this research theorizes failure not as a zone of negation where an intended outcome is missing, but as a space that is productive of novel subjectivities, social relations, and active modes of spiritual striving.  This work has been supported by the Social Science Research Council, The Wenner-Gren Foundation, and the American Council of Learned Societies.

    [2] A note on the term “youth”: On the whole, the people making these clandestine journeys are considered youth in West Africa. The young men I interviewed were between the ages of 18 and 30 at the time of migration. Though in the West, we may assume that the period of youth legally ends at 18 years, many African youth cannot achieve adulthood because they are unable to perform and sustain a host of social obligations associated with that status, such as entering marriage, sustaining employment, and providing financial support for parents and kin (see Bucholtz 2002, Durham 2000, Honwana 2012).

    [3] From Senegal, the journey represents roughly 1400 kilometers, which takes anywhere seven to ten days if all goes well.

    [4] The paranoia of pollution goes back to the eugenics movement in colonial Britain when the moral welfare of unsuspecting women needed to be protected against the colonized savage (Coombes 1997).

    [5] With budgetary autonomy and legal personality, FRONTEX does not operate independent policing units, but rather manages border control initiatives conducted with Member States.

    [6] Though it has been highly effective, FRONTEX’s methods came under scrutiny by NGOs, such as CARITAS Europe, which accused the agency of not complying with the standards of non-refoulement (Gaydazhieva 2012). While most West Africans were considered “economic migrants,” and thus not protected by the 1951 Convention on Refugees, CARITAS and others (e.g. Human Rights Watch) argued that refugees and asylum seekers were among those who were forcibly turned back.

    [7] SIVE became operational in 1999 across the Strait of Gibraltar. Since then, highly advanced surveillance stations have spread along the entire Andalucian coast, and are now equipped with infrared sensors that can detect vessels 25 kilometers from shore.

    [8] Such a policy transfer dynamic has been described as “border externalization” by some scholars (Lavenex 2006).

    [9] In the amount of 288 million Euros between 2008 and 2013.

    [10] I am not suggesting that marginalized figures like boat migrants are not also actively framing themselves when they are being captured on film. Photography is not always a matter of one-way victimization. The point here has been to trace, however crudely, the connection between media representations and policy responses to clandestine migration in the West African-EU context. 

    Widening the Frame: Unaccompanied Youth

    by Lauren Heidbrink and Michele Statz

    In the past few weeks, New Mexico’s Artesia Family Residential Center has become the most recent flashpoint in the media coverage of child migration. As one of two family detention centers holding more than 1000 women and children, the news is troubling: Limited food, unsanitary conditions, verbal abuse from guards, and temperatures so cold that the facility has earned the nickname hielera (icebox) are some of the complaints from the women and children held there. Attorneys describe limited access to their clients, an absence of confidentiality, and no due process—subjects of a recent ACLU lawsuit against the federal government. As attorneys scramble to screen, prepare and represent women and children for newly-implemented rocket dockets...Read more on the Anthropology of Children and Youth Interest Group blog.

       Children deplane a   Justice Prisoner and Alien Transportation System (JPATS) flight at the Guatemalan Air Force Base. From January to June of 2014, an estimated 1500 unaccompanied children have been deported from the United States to Central America.    Photo credit: Foreign Ministry of Guatemala. 

    Children deplane a Justice Prisoner and Alien Transportation System (JPATS) flight at the Guatemalan Air Force Base. From January to June of 2014, an estimated 1500 unaccompanied children have been deported from the United States to Central America. Photo credit: Foreign Ministry of Guatemala. 

    From Alienation to Protection: Central American Child Migration

    by  Heide Castañeda, Lauren Heidbrink, and Kristin Yarris

    During the summer of 2014, the eyes of the United States – indeed, the world – turned their gaze on the thousands of Central Americans crossing borders to seek refuge and opportunity. This resulted in a range of responses – from solidarity and support to racism and exclusion – and a stalled search for solutions. As three U.S.-based scholars conducting research along these migration routes over the past several years, this summer we were pulled...Read more on Access Denied blog

      Nine-year old Carla from San Pedro Sula, Honduras used strips from Mylar foil blankets provided at the Border Patrol detention facilities to tie back her tangled hair after 6 days with no shower. McAllen, Texas. Photo credit: Heide Castañeda.

    Nine-year old Carla from San Pedro Sula, Honduras used strips from Mylar foil blankets provided at the Border Patrol detention facilities to tie back her tangled hair after 6 days with no shower. McAllen, Texas. Photo credit: Heide Castañeda.