Migration as Clickbait

by Michele Statz and Lauren Heidbrink

(This piece is copyrighted by the American Anthropological Association and was previously published by Anthropology New)

The demonization of young migrants and their families may be shocking, but these policies and practices are neither new nor surprising.

On October 24, 2017, United States Customs and Border Protection apprehended an unauthorized 10-year-old girl with cerebral palsy while an ambulance transported her to a Texas hospital for emergency surgery. After a well-publicized outcry from members of Congressphysicianslawyers and celebrities, she was released on November 23.

Also in October, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), denouncing the ORR director E. Scott Lloyd’s anti-abortion activism and ORR’s unconstitutional refusal to release an undocumented and unaccompanied youth in their custody to obtain an abortion. In response, ORR argued that the 17-year-old woman could request deportation and then seek an abortion. Nearly a month after “Jane Doe” received a state court order allowing her to have an abortion without parental consent, and likewise after a dramatic and polarized legal battle, a federal appeals court in Washington ordered that she be allowed to obtain an abortion “promptly and without delay.”

These two cases are shocking for many people; they elicit and implicate deeply-held views around women’s health, the treatment of people with disabilities, and governmental overreach. That they simultaneously involve youth, and unauthorized migrant youth more specifically, confronts the public with an unfolding and likely unsettling reality—namely, the ongoing contradictions of immigrant “management” in the US.

There is ample, and indeed growing, popular press on the contradictions of immigration detention, much of it depicting young migrants as delinquent and their parents as liable. As scholars of global youth, we are familiar with this material both as clickbait and as evidence of the racialized trends our work more deeply documents. What is less intelligible to us, and increasingly surprising, is that anthropological knowledge—expertise developed through sustained ethnographic engagement—remains peripheral to these accounts. Often, it is silent.

We can and must do better.

Pernicious and enduring

Activity with youth about migration in Sibinal, Guatemala.  Photo credits: Lauren Heidbrink

Activity with youth about migration in Sibinal, Guatemala. Photo credits: Lauren Heidbrink

From the immediate treatment of children and families, these contradictions extend to the administration’s callous repeal of Temporary Protected Status for nearly 200,000 Salvadorans, many of whom have lived in the US for over a decade. Meanwhile, Congress’s gutless behavior on matters of border security trades away Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) for increased border security and enforcement. These negotiations are more destructive than many realize, including the possibility of Democrats settling for pernicious interior enforcement measures and the ongoing neutralizing of sanctuary cities through incentives to local and state law enforcement. Meanwhile, families continue to be torn apart.

These expedited portrayals and partial reports only bolster narratives of surprise, novelty, and immediacy, as if such structures and effects are new rather than familiar and long-standing.

And anthropology was…?

Anthropologists’ absence from media and political discourse on immigrant detention has critical consequences for the public, for policymakers, and most importantly, for the individuals at the center of our research—youth who are often reduced to the all-too-familiar, xenophobic stereotypes of vulnerable victimsdelinquents or gang members, or carriers of disease.

Take, for example, ethnographic research with unaccompanied migrant youth in the US. As our own work documents, organizations and advocates largely rely upon racialized and often infantilizing tropes as they care for and advocate on behalf of young people (Heidbrink 2014Statz 2018). At the same time, unaccompanied children explicitly challenge conceptualizations of child passivity through their unauthorized and independent presence, and implicitly via their movement through multiple geographic and institutional sites in search of care, education, or employment.

The victimization narrative persists—ignoring young migrants as social actors, decontextualizing the conditions spurring their migration, and criminalizing parents—yet our ethnographic data actively thwart it. Research with Chinese and Guatemalan youth powerfully unsettles popular and policy assessments of caregivers as “unenlightened parents” and communities as “backward cultures.” It refutes legal claims in which migratory debt is framed as “parental abuse.” Here, belonging emerges as practiced and sustained over time and across distances; debt is understood in terms of relationality, binding youth to family and wider communities.

By concurrently and critically focusing on the social agency of young migrants, we challenge these portrayals, revealing a contextualized understanding of how and why young people are on the move. This in turn helps illuminate the unanticipated consequences of policies and advocacy efforts on youth and their families, even as they are deemed “successful.” Anthropologists are uniquely poised to challenge and expand the narrow parameters by which young migrants, their parents, and their cultural contexts are covered in the media (Heidbrink and Statz 2017). Our research is not unique, we work within broadinternational networks of scholars doing critical and timely research on migration, youth, policy and bureaucracy. As anthropologists, we are not surprised by the injustices and contradictions. That we are not surprised—but the public is—indicates a massive professional failure on our part.

Anthropology must matter

At the AAA Annual Meeting in November, incoming AAA President Alex Barker argued that “it is not enough for anthropologists to be social critics…the anthropologist’s responsibility to illuminate requires thinking in dark times.” Yet as evidenced by the many media articles and broadcasts that notably do not reference academic publications, we have failed to illuminate—even when our public audience is most unsettled and in need of information.

To elucidate the remarkably unsurprising nature of immigration policy and management in the US, we must reach broader and more diverse publics. Many of us are doing this in collaboration with our students and in support of undocumented students, and we recognize that these efforts, all of which are motivated by time-intensive, community-engaged fieldwork, are often derailed by expectations of free academic labor for peer review or by delayed publication in professional journals. With full appreciation for the important work of moving key theoretical debates forward in our specialized fields, we must also translate our teaching and research into accessible and timely formats. In other words, what we know and what we do must be presented as compelling, rigorous, and competitive across diverse digital platforms.

It is not just “who” but “how”

While democratizing access to academic knowledge via open access journals is an important step, researchers of im/migration must be even more expansive in how we communicate. Through multimedia formats—blogs, podcasts, photo journals, digital stories—we can reach broader and more diverse publics. Our collaborative work with Youth Circulations, a site dedicated to bringing youth-centered research to global public and academic audiences, reveals this. With over 8,000 unique visitors and growing, it is a powerful reminder of the demand for nuanced, informed, and accessible analysis.

In an era when the relevance of higher education generally and social sciences specifically are under assault, and when im/migrants are perpetually spotlighted—or surveilled—in media, policy, and law enforcement, anthropologists of migration are urgently tasked with demonstrating the relevance and power of our applied knowledge. In other words, what we already know about immigration injustice in the US matters. Through community events, public art exhibits, public lecturespodcasts, and op-eds, anthropology must bring our research to a broader public. We must likewise train students on the importance of and skills to ethically conduct engaged scholarship. In the meantime, as Christopher Mooney recently argued, institutions of higher education must also accord value to public, engaged scholarship by recognizing it in tenure processes and incentivizing it through institutional grants and service credit.

Anthropology has failed to effectively engage in public policy

Applying our knowledge to public policy brings with it complications, contradictions, and ethical dilemmas. For example, migration scholars are routinely asked to draft affidavits as country conditions experts in support of asylum petitions. So doing, we wrestle with how to effectively support individual claims to limited forms of legal relief while not essentializing cultures and countries, which immigration law is wont to do. This is profoundly challenging, but also a powerful opportunity. Just as we do in fieldwork, engaging with these dilemmas in practice often yields productive insights and clarity in our innovation. It likewise introduces, and occasionally demands, the value of collaboratively processing and evaluating our public efforts with colleagues facing similar choices.

There are, of course, more deliberate and sustained opportunities for engaged public work. It is not enough to critique the intended and unintended consequences of public policy; our response must be to harness our experiences and the expertise of the communities with which we work to address or even bypass these consequences. This includes participating in broad national networks and trainingin engaged public policy and even bringing our work and anthropological understandings into direct public service.

Dismantling shock

While the increased public attention to the intricacies of young people’s experiences of migration and detention is important, the shock value accorded to the discrimination of society’s “most vulnerable”—abused, pregnant, disabled, children—is overdue and sadly misplaced.

Public anthropology is increasingly tasked with demonstrating the mundaneness of realities such as this. The glaring conspicuousness by which state actors demonize young migrants and their families may be shocking, but these policies and practices are notably not new and not surprising. Rather than supply data as BuzzFeed fodder, anthropologists must make efforts to dismantle the surprise and novelty of these realities by offering the socio-political context and lived histories that evidence the discrimination that im/migrants in the US have experienced all along.

Michele Statz is an anthropologist of law and assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Biobehavioral Health at the University of Minnesota Medical School, Duluth. She is author of Lawyering an Uncertain Cause: Immigration Advocacy and Chinese Youth in the U.S. (2018). She is co-editor of Youth Circulations.

Lauren Heidbrink is an anthropologist and assistant professor in the Department of Human Development at California State University, Long Beach. She is author of Migrant Youth, Transnational Families and the State: Care and Contested Interests (2014). She is co-editor of Youth Circulations.

Cite as: Statz, Michele,  and Lauren Heidbrink. 2018. “Migration as Clickbait.” Anthropology News website, February 6, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.760

On Process and the Public: Creating the "Migration and Belonging" Series

(Spanish translation below)

Amidst so much disciplinary discussion about audience, open access, and applied anthropology, we want to follow Migration and Belonging: Narratives from a Highland Town with a more informal conversation with the series' creators. Below, Michele Statz talks with Giovanni Batz, Celeste Sanchez and Lauren Heidbrink about the challenges and possibilities of collaborative public ethnography. 

Almolonga. Photo credits: Giovanni Batz

Almolonga. Photo credits: Giovanni Batz

Michele: It strikes me that when viewed as a whole, the potential of these posts suddenly exceed their goal. Each is immediately informative about global youth, deportation, and social reintegration, but together they confront the reader with additional questions about audience, voice, and translation. Did you ever discuss the academic “costs” of this kind of collection? Some of the posts are more formal or “traditional” in their style, while others are quite vivid and at times very intimate and heartfelt. I found the combination incredibly appealing, but still wonder: Is this type of analysis forever relegated to the blogosphere? As editors and contributors, who should read this series?

Giovanni, Celeste and Lauren: We hope that this blog series offers a nuanced yet accessible exploration of the issues and challenges emerging from and within sending communities. The images, at once powerful and provocative, invite a broad public to explore the rippling and enduring impacts of migration and deportation on individuals, communities and families. This public importantly includes loved ones and community members that are invested in Almolonga’s future beyond the academic or theoretical questions raised in the series. 

The bilingual series also offers a unique modality for collaborative research, one which showcases the voices of Guatemalan scholars, many of whom remain excluded from the largely English-speaking academic presses. 

From the outset, we were committed to defying what has tragically become routine academic practice.

M: Will it be shared with the community members with whom you conducted research?

G, C and L: From the outset, we were committed to defying what has tragically become routine academic practice--that is, students and researchers conduct studies in Guatemala, publish exclusively for English-speaking audiences, and fail to return or share findings with participating communities. It is a long-standing practice which dates to colonial times. We recognized that Almolonguenses generously and sometimes painfully entrusted their experiences of migration and deportation in us, and that these experiences belong to them. “Migration and Belonging” is the first in a series of innovations, including workshops, radio spots, community forums, and bilingual reports to be shared with community members and local and regional authorities.  

M: A number of the "Migration and Belonging" posts are translated into as many as three languages--or more, if you include framing this for an anthropological audience. What is gained and lost in translation?

G, C and L: Language is important to understand different worldviews. Translating is always a difficult task when trying to find the appropriate words and phrases to express a concept. As translators of the blogs, collectively we tried to respect the intent of the authors and maintain intact their passion and critical analysis in their original format. We consulted with the authors and each other to minimize losing meaning in translation. One of the authors (Amparo Monzón) translated her own poem into three languages (K’iche’, Spanish, and English).

M: What is missing from this series?

Almolonga. Photo credit: Lauren Heidbrink

Almolonga. Photo credit: Lauren Heidbrink

G, C and L: One of the interesting aspects of this research was the uniqueness of each of our positionalities, especially since all of us have personal experiences with migration. Some of our team members have siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles or other relatives who migrated or had attempted to migrate to the US. In addition, two of us were born in the US to Central American parents, bringing into conversation varying experiences and understandings of migration, privilege, identity, and belonging. This research sparked a broad range of emotions in our professional work and our personal lives, sentiments that are not easily captured in virtual form.

After sharing our findings with the community this coming summer, we aim to supplement this series with digital narratives from community members--a vehicle to reflect on their experiences unfiltered by our experiences and perspectives.

M: When you consider the posts together, what do you find? And/or feel?

G, C and L: These posts were written by a diverse group of people from distinct academic disciplines such as political science, international relations, social work, anthropology, women’s studies, and development studies. Our own distinct experiences and lenses provided us with our own interpretations of migration as well as nurtured our own academic and professional passions, as you see in this multi-foci series. As a collective, the series provide a well-rounded, yet understandably incomplete, view of migration from Almolonga.  We hope that the reader may peek through our lenses to grasp the powerful and lived impacts of migration.


Giovanni Batz, MA, is a doctoral candidate in Latin American Studies at the University of Texas-Austin and a research assistant on a grant investigation the deportation and reintegration of youth in Guatemala.

Celeste N. Sánchez, MSW, is a Central American woman born and raised in southern California. She has several years of experience in direct work with children and adolescents in Guatemala and Honduras. She is currently working as the social worker for the Refugee Family Defense Program at Public Counsel in Los Angeles, CA and as a research assistant on this investigation the deportation and reintegration of youth in Guatemala.

Lauren Heidbrink is an anthropologist and Assistant Professor of Human Development at California State University, Long Beach. She is author of Migrant Youth, Transnational Families, and the State: Care and Contested Interests (University of Pennsylvania Press, May 2014). She currently the PI on a multi-year NSF Law and Social Sciences grant investigating the deportation and social reintegration of youth in Guatemala.

Sobre el proceso y el público: creación de la serie "Migración y pertenencia"

Entre tanta discusión disciplinaria sobre la audiencia, el acceso abierto, y la antropología aplicada, queremos seguir Migración y Pertenencia: Narrativas de un pueblo altiplano con una conversación más informal entre los creadores de la serie. A continuación, Michele Statz habla con Giovanni Batz, Celeste Sánchez y Lauren Heidbrink sobre los desafíos y posibilidades de la etnografía pública colaborativa.

Almolonga.  Créditos   fotográficos: Giovanni Batz.

Almolonga. Créditos fotográficos: Giovanni Batz.

Michele: Me parece que, en su conjunto, el potencial de estas entradas excede su objetivo inesperadamente. Cada post es inmediatamente informativo sobre la juventud global, la deportación y la reintegración social, pero juntos confrontan al lector con preguntas adicionales sobre audiencia, voz y traducción. ¿Alguna vez discutieron los "costos" académicos de este tipo de colección? Algunas de las entradas tienen un estilo más formal o "tradicional", mientras que otras son bastante vívidas y a veces muy íntimas y sinceras. Encontré la combinación increíblemente atractiva, pero aún me pregunto: ¿Es este tipo de análisis relegado para siempre a la blogosfera? Como editores y contribuyentes, ¿quién debería leer esta serie?

Giovanni, Celeste y Lauren: Esperamos que esta serie de blogs ofrezca una exploración matizada y accesible a los problemas y desafíos que surgen de y entre las comunidades que envían migrantes. Las imágenes, a la vez poderosas y provocativas, invitan a un amplio público a explorar los impactos extensos y duraderos de la migración y la deportación de individuos, comunidades y familias. Importantemente incluye a un público de seres queridos y miembros de la comunidad que se invierten en el futuro de Almolonga más allá de las cuestiones académicas o teóricas planteadas en la serie.

La serie bilingüe también ofrece una modalidad única para la investigación colaborativa, que muestra las voces de los académicos guatemaltecos, muchos de los cuales permanecen excluidos de las prensas académicas anglófonas.

Desde el principio, nos comprometimos a desafiar lo que trágicamente se ha convertido en una práctica académica rutinaria.

M: ¿Se compartirá la serie con los miembros de la comunidad con quienes se realizó la investigación?

G, C y L: Desde el principio, nos comprometimos a desafiar lo que trágicamente se ha convertido en una práctica académica rutinaria--es decir, estudiantes e investigadores realizan estudios en Guatemala, publican exclusivamente para audiencias anglófonas y no regresan o comparten los hallazgos con las comunidades participantes. Es una práctica antigua que permanece desde la época colonial. Reconocemos que Almolonguenses generosamente y a veces dolorosamente nos confiaron sus experiencias de migración y deportación, y que estas experiencias les pertenecen a ellos. "Migración y Pertenencia" es el primero de una serie de innovaciones, incluyendo talleres, spots de radio, foros comunitarios e informes bilingües que se compartirán con los miembros de la comunidad y las autoridades locales y regionales.

M: Algunos de los posts de "Migración y Pertenencia" se traducen en tres idiomas o más, si se incluye plantearlo para una audiencia antropológica. ¿Qué se gana y qué se pierde en la traducción?

G, C y L: El lenguaje es importante para entender cosmovisiones diferentes. El traducir es siempre una tarea difícil cuando se trata de encontrar las palabras y frases apropiadas para expresar un concepto. Como traductores de los blogs, colectivamente intentamos respetar la intención de los autores y mantener intacta su pasión y análisis crítico en su formato original. Hemos consultado con los autores y entre nosotr@s para minimizar la pérdida del significado en la traducción. Uno de los autores (Amparo Monzón) tradujo su propio poema en tres idiomas (K'iche ', español e inglés).

M: ¿Qué falta en esta serie?

Almolonga. Créditos  fotográficos: Lauren Heidbrink.

Almolonga. Créditos fotográficos: Lauren Heidbrink.

G, C y L: Uno de los aspectos interesantes de esta investigación fue la originalidad de cada una de nuestras posiciones, especialmente porque todos tenemos experiencias personales con la migración. Algunos miembros de nuestro equipo tienen herman@s, prim@s, tí@s, u otros parientes que emigraron o habían intentado migrar a los Estados Unidos. Además, dos de nosotr@s nacimos en Estados Unidos a padres centroamericanos, poniendo en conversación diversas experiencias y entendimientos de migración, privilegio, identidad y pertenencia. Esta investigación generó una amplia gama de emociones en nuestro trabajo profesional y nuestras vidas personales, sentimientos que no son captados fácilmente en forma virtual.

Después de compartir nuestros hallazgos con la comunidad el próximo verano, nuestro objetivo es complementar esta serie con narrativas digitales de miembros de la comunidad--una modalidad para reflexionar sobre sus experiencias sin tener que filtrar por nuestras experiencias y perspectivas.

M: ¿Cuándo ustedes consideran las entradas en conjunto, qué encuentran? ¿Y/o sienten?

G, C y L: Las entradas fueron escritas por un grupo diverso de personas de distintas disciplinas académicas como la ciencia política, relaciones internacionales, trabajo social, antropología, estudios de mujeres y estudios de gestión social para el desarrollo local. Nuestras experiencias y lentes nos proporcionaron nuestras propias interpretaciones de la migración, y fomentaron nuestras pasiones académicas y profesionales, como se ve en esta serie multifocal. Como colectivo, la serie ofrece una visión integral, pero comprensiblemente incompleta, de la migración desde Almolonga. Esperamos que el lector pueda mirar a través de nuestros lentes para captar los impactos poderosos y vividos de la migración.


Giovanni Batz, MA, es candidato doctoral en Estudios Latinoamericanos en la Universidad de Texas-Austin y asistente de investigación en esta investigación sobre la deportación y reintegración de jóvenes en Guatemala. 

Celeste N. Sánchez, MSW, es una mujer centroamericana nacida y criada en el sur de California. Tiene varios años de experiencia en el trabajo directo con niños y adolescentes en Guatemala y Honduras. Actualmente es trabajadora social para el Programa de Defensa de Familias Refugiadas en Public Counsel en Los Ángeles, CA y asistente de investigación en esta investigación sobre la deportación y reintegración de jóvenes en Guatemala.

Lauren Heidbrink es antropóloga y Profesora Asistente de Desarrollo Humano en California State University, Long Beach. Es autora de Migrant Youth, Transnational Families, and the State: Care and Contested Interests (University of Pennsylvania Press, May 2014). Actualmente es investigadora principal de una beca plurianual de NSF Law and Social Sciences que investiga la deportación y la reintegración social de los jóvenes en Guatemala.

For the previous blog in the series: Angélica Mejía: La Resiliencia: Generador de movilización y auto-crecimiento/ Resilience of Youth without Parental Care