A Space to Belong: Newcomer migrant youth in Hartford

by Sophia Rodriguez

In this piece, migrant newcomers reflect a conflicting narrative of home and (un)home, and of belonging and (un)belonging in Hartford, Connecticut. This project involves an asset-based program at Hartford Public Library that is specifically tailored to increase newcomer migrant youth belonging utilizing the library as a safe space amid hostile political times and unwelcoming city and school environments. The library space has social significance. It is both an alternative to newcomers’ experiences of being othered in school and directly deepens their educational knowledge and belonging.

Caption: Welcome quilt the newcomers made in October of 2017, Hartford Public Library. Photo credits: Sophia Rodriguez

Caption: Welcome quilt the newcomers made in October of 2017, Hartford Public Library. Photo credits: Sophia Rodriguez

Hartford has long been a destination for immigrants. Recently, patterns of immigration have changed, bringing newcomers from increasingly varied home countries and an increased number of undocumented, unaccompanied, and refugee youths into the high schools. Newcomers may arrive in Hartford’s schools with limited education in their own countries or interrupted schooling because of their refugee or displaced statuses. Many have experienced trauma, such as adjusting to reunification with their families after long separations or leaving family members behind. Some have come from war-torn countries or from communities where they experienced severe deprivation, violence, or a constant threat of violence.

01HPL Demographics overview.jpg

Currently, Hartford newcomers represent 31 native languages, with the largest groups speaking Spanish, Karen, and Arabic languages, and have been in the country for less than 30 months. Additionally, the minoritized population in Hartford Public Schools has increased; in the wake of Hurricane Maria in 2017, a significant number of high school-age students (over 130) arrived to Hartford from Puerto Rico. Connecticut also has the largest gap in achievement in the country between its English learners and their English-speaking peers. More specifically, Hartford receives the majority of language learners in the state. In Hartford, schools struggle to support newcomers due, in large part, to decades of assimilationist and “English only” approaches to immigrant incorporation (Peguero, Bondy, & Hong, 2017). To address the newcomers’ needs, the Hartford public library has partnered with the school district to provide a unique program to increase newcomer belonging, data from which this post draws.


Home and belonging

Participating newcomers originate from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Peru, Syria, Rwanda, Guinea, Togo, Tanzania, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, and Cote d’ Ivoire. Many express conflicted feelings about where “home” is and what it means, especially because some escaped violence, civil strife, and extreme poverty. Newcomers’ responses to the question, “What does home mean to you?” include the following themes: united with family, a safe place, and places [they/I] can’t go back.

Art project: What is community? Photo credits: Sophia Rodriguez

Art project: What is community? Photo credits: Sophia Rodriguez

From these responses, many youths commented on how learning English and being a new arrival presents many challenges for them even in the Hartford community and in their schools. Interviews and focus groups reveal feelings of belonging and (un)belonging, and specifically how schools are contested spaces—and how the library with its asset-based programming has become a safe space. Youth commented on their shared struggles as newcomers in school, how the library space was “different,” and how they felt a sense of belonging because of their shared solidarity of being different. Many youths connected with each other out of necessity because they reported feeling ostracized at school by teachers and peers.

When asked how the library-based program was different than school, a Togolese youth explained: “It’s like school, but not really. We can express ourselves. In school, it’s testing, memorizing, English only, rules. We don’t speak English well. It’s embarrassing. Here, all students are new immigrants, and no one will laugh at you.”

Reasons for this comfort varied. A Dominican youth shared how she feels the library allows her to express herself and be more “social,” noting, “We are all English learners.” A Togolese youth explained, “We come here to escape the poverty and violence but are still struggling here. We get made fun of for our English.” A Burundian youth commented, “Teachers ignore us or think we can’t talk about anything. Sometimes, I don’t say anything in school.” In response to feeling as though school focuses on testing rather than the student, a youth reported, “It’s better here [library] because we can know each other. We are all new.”

In the library program, youth learn about civic engagement and leadership in their schools and communities. Newcomers explained how the curriculum increased their belonging. A youth articulated, “We designed a project for other newcomers like us to help them when they arrived so we can make the school better for kids. It was the best thing I ever did in my life. And, we translate it, too, into different languages since we have so many here. That’s how we become local leaders here.” This aim to become leaders is significant.

‘We become leaders’ is the phrase most often heard from migrant youth who participate in the library program.

To this point, youth recognized their uniqueness as newcomers and wanted to develop tools for other newcomers to facilitate belonging in school since the schools offered minimal support. Youth designed a digital library for newcomers that included tours of the school, how to navigate class schedules, descriptions of “what it’s like” to be at the high school. They also researched local community organizations that offer services for refugees and newcomer immigrants. They presented their projects in a “gallery walk” final presentation to library staff, teachers, parents of newcomers, and peers at the end of the program. Evidence suggests that newcomers benefitted from engaging in program curricular activities in ways that increased their belonging and relationships with others.

Newcomer from Togo explained, “People don't, like, get it. They don't get the pain. But, they also do, especially at school. I try to explain that I know English, and school says, ‘we gonna test today.’ and you have no choice. It’s like isolation.” (Photo from a story in the   Connecticut Mirror   about the program.)

Newcomer from Togo explained, “People don't, like, get it. They don't get the pain. But, they also do, especially at school. I try to explain that I know English, and school says, ‘we gonna test today.’ and you have no choice. It’s like isolation.” (Photo from a story in the Connecticut Mirror about the program.)

Newcomers develop a sense of solidarity and belonging from participating in the library program. One youth shared, “Even if you come here [to the library], but you don't know that country where everyone is from, it’s ok. We are all in the same boat, not knowing English. You can be from anywhere and still belong here [at the library].” While newcomers expressed feelings of isolation at school, the library-based program created a space to cultivate a positive sense of self, relationships, a sense of civic awareness, and a desire for action. Developing a curriculum rooted in the strengths and knowledge of newcomers, the library program meaningfully cultivated belonging and integration for youth.

The data from this ongoing project suggests that a generative, rather than assimilationist, framework of belonging maintains the potential to meaningfully integrate newcomers. This library-program is indeed a promising practice.

Sophia Rodriguez is an Assistant Professor of Cultural Foundations at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Her scholarship has appeared in the peer-reviewed journals Educational Policy, Education Policy Analysis Archives, Educational Studies, The Urban Review, and The Journal of Latinos and Education.


(B) C(o)nscious

Art and reflections by Bo Thai

from the third world to the first world

my third eye open up to this new world
new order of migrants and cheap labor
freedom or oppression, it’s all a blur


This series of art works derive from my (B) C(o)nscious series. The artworks contain the themes of immigration, capitalism, and self-introspection.  It collectively tells a story of a young boy who immigrated to the U.S. It displays a visual of the boy’s journey growing up, learning, and reflecting.  The series start with a version of the Statue of Liberty and ends with another version of the Statue of liberty.



I created “Statue of What” out of confusion and introspection. I was trying to understand how the U.S. could function as the land of opportunity that draws people toward their ‘American Dream’, but also act as an agent of oppression at the same time. The writing within the drawing says ‘What do you stand for’ which is a question I am asking this country but also asking myself at the same time. Being an immigrant in the U.S., sometimes I feel like I have left my family, culture, and friends behind to aspire higher. And it feels selfish and individualistic to rise above with these sacrifices. Statue of What grounds upon the question of what does this country stand for, what do I stand for, and what do you stand for.



This piece is about being above the norm and the conformed. As a Thai immigrant, I did not fit in the culture when I moved here. I felt the need to change myself and to be like others. This piece is about taking pride in who you are and the influences that made you. In this picture, the head is floating above the city--literally and metaphorically being above the norm and the conformity.


Image (10).jpg

Following the light is a piece about urbanization. The picture is supposed to be a lantern that attracts insects to fly toward it not knowing that it is a trap, but in this context, it is the city lights that lure people toward it. I’ll leave it as that.


Public Gods is a piece about the 2016 election but also about how we [as in society] view celebrities and politicians and how we give people credibility because of their fame rather than their character.

smaller size.jpg

This piece is a collaboration between me and Cesar Corral and our journey as undocumented immigrants in the U.S. Cesar Corral was the one who did the red and blue graphic and I was the one who did the drawing in this collaboration. This piece contains different ideologies and quotes that will make you think, but it most fundamentally shows how people from different backgrounds and stories share similar journeys, sorrows, thoughts.

Bo Thai

“Just a traveling man converting his negatives to positives and putting them on paper”

Bo Thai is an artist, activist, and a student. He migrated to the US at the age of 13 in 2009 and has lived in his newfound home since then. In addition to advocating for immigrant rights, Bo writes poetry and creates artwork through the power of the pen. Bo uses his art as a healing process by expressing his emotions, ideology, identity, and stories. He is inspired by surrealism, graffiti, Thai art, and cultural folk art.


Threatening Parents?: What DHS Policies Remind Us About Unaccompanied Youth

by Michele Statz and Lauren Heidbrink

Migrant youth in the U.S. encounter competing media and institutional discourses that cast them as delinquents, ideal victims, or economic actors (See Heidbrink 2014; Statz 2016). Youth Circulations is largely devoted to the politics of these impossible representations.

What is often less considered is how the parents of young people are implicated in such narrations. In many ways, this is a more subtle though surely consequential process, with family members pathologized as neglectful, violent, poor, or otherwise deficient for presumably “sending” or being complicit in youths’ migration journeys. As our work reveals, these discourses are prevalent in legal accounts, popular portrayals, and migration studies scholarship. By implicitly dismissing the ongoing transnational connectedness of “unaccompanied” youth, they contort and fracture valued intimate relationships over time.

While notably not new and perhaps not surprising, we now see the demonization of young migrants’ parents as overt policy and practice in the U.S.

This past February, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary John Kelly signed a memo promising to penalize anyone who paid smugglers to bring a child across the border. In it, “parents and family members” are explicitly identified as subject to prosecution if they have paid to have their children brought into the U.S.

Contrastingly characterized by immigration advocates as the “cruel and morally outrageous” rounding up of parents and by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials as a “humanitarian effort” to target human smugglers, arrests began in earnest this month. As The New York Times reported, parents or relatives who have taken in unauthorized children may face criminal smuggling-related charges and prison time; others will be placed in deportation along with children.

Significantly, these discourses and policies reflect broader and well-worn global trends. In response to an influx of unaccompanied children to the U.S. in 2014, for example, a series of public service announcements (PSAs) were broadcast throughout Central America. The PSA featured here warns parents: ‘The desert is merciless and deadly and doesn’t distinguish between children and adults. Don’t send your children to the United States. Search for the Guatemalan Dream. Letting them go is letting them die.’ Alongside UNICEF’s roll-out of parenting classes to ‘educate’ parents on the dangers of irregular migration, these PSAs depict children as passively acquiescing to parental decision-making. They likewise implicate parents as ‘bad actors’ or, worse, smugglers and traffickers. Central American legislatures seized these narratives, proposing to heavily fine parents whose children arrived unaccompanied in the U.S. These are policies that 45 seeks to replicate.

Amidst powerful and necessary resistance to these practices, our response is at once a reminder and a challenge. In its hasty and insidious attention to the parents and family members of unaccompanied youth, ICE has indirectly reaffirmed that these young migrants are indeed never really “unaccompanied.” Rather, they are members of extensive social and kinship networks, networks that support young migrants even as they are susceptible to unrelenting enforcement efforts that indiscriminately target children and youth. Just as these policies renew the pressure experienced by legal advocates--namely to petition for legal relief before the basis of children’s claims shift underfoot--they too demand that scholars take on a more urgent, critical, and applied understanding of global youth and their families.

For additional reading: Heidbrink, L., & Statz, M. (2017). Parents of global youth: contesting debt and belonging. Children's Geographies, 1-13.


Why the "bad hombre" Trump is the least of our worries: How state policies criminalize immigrant and undocumented youth

by Sophia Rodriguez and Timothy Monreal 

While Trump’s amplified attacks on immigrants—as “bad hombres”, rapists, and criminals—is disturbing, we must not let it overshadow restrictive state level policy contexts. In this blog, we share findings from our analysis of 10 years of South Carolina legislation to shed light on how state policies criminalize immigrants broadly and target undocumented immigrant youth specifically. We further connect these state-level policies to the larger hostile political climate in the United States.

Photo Credits:   AP

Photo Credits: AP

When Trump announced his presidential campaign in a speech on June 16, 2015, he framed Mexican immigrants as an unwelcome and harmful group of people. He stated, “The U.S. has become a dumping ground for everybody else's problems. When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best. They're not sending you. They're sending people that have lots of problems, and they're bringing those problems with us. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists.” Donald Trump characterized immigrants as takers, criminals, and threats one of the most prominent national stages—a presidential debate. The construction of the immigrant as problem motivated a nativist, conservative base and subsequently has fueled a series of anti-immigrant executive orders. Yet, a singular focus on Trump obscures how state level policy discourses have sought to create and perpetuate perspectives of immigrants as criminals or threats to society. In this piece, we connect the national debate with our current research on local policies in South Carolina.

Of course, Donald Trump is not the first policy-maker to advance racialized classifications of belonging and an immigrant-as-problem discourse. From the Chinese Exclusion Act, 1882 and the “one-drop rule” in the case of United States v. Thind, 1923 to segregationist practices against Mexican-American students such as the so-called  Lemon Grove Incident, 1931, the construction of immigrants as problems has a complex history in the U.S. These legal and social understandings of immigrants in the U.S. placed hurdles to integration at best, and criminalized immigrants in everyday social life at worst.

What are the intentions behind creating the immigrant as problem?

A problem calls for ‘rational’ solutions. In social science academic research, this is called policy problematization. This concept highlights how policy forms by framing marginalized groups as problems, and then justifies drastic ‘solutions.’ Take for example Trump’s Border Security (“the Wall”) executive announcement. Part of the announcement offers an expanded definition of who is a criminal: i.e., anyone who “committed acts that constitute a chargeable criminal offense.” As Jennifer Medina writes in the New York Times, this loose definition of criminal covers people authorities believe to have broken the law. This new definition further links immigrants specifically to criminal behavior. As such, policy solutions work to restrict the actions of targeted groups with determined precision. The everyday lives of immigrants become further constrained, meaning they fear driving to work or even leaving their homes to attend school, resulting in a deep social isolation.


A glimpse at South Carolina's policy context

We analyzed South Carolina’s proposed and enacted immigration legislation from 2005-2016 to understand how policy language shapes public opinion about immigrants and restricts their access and opportunity to social advancement. To do this we used Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA), which seeks to uncover the authority of texts and their influence on social practices. This blog  draws from a multi stage ethnographic study enlisting CDA conducted by the first author (2015-present) to illustrate the effects of the restrictive policies in South Carolina. Our analysis, spanning six legislative sessions, reveals how immigrants are criminalized in everyday social life and restricted from accessing public institutions and social services. The focus on enacted and proposed legislation follows Stephen Ball’s (1994: 10) argument that policy research should tend to the “process” of policy production and focus on the “action, words and deeds, what is enacted as well as what is intended.” Our work accordingly demonstrates that local policy makers in restrictive state contexts like South Carolina propose and enact legislation that both constructs immigrants as problems to be dealt with and limits immigrants’ opportunities for thriving and advancing economically, educationally, and socially.

Source:   Migration Policy Institute.   U.S. Immigration Population by State and Country: South Carolina

Source: Migration Policy Institute. U.S. Immigration Population by State and Country: South Carolina

The analysis of South Carolina policies impacting immigrant communities reveals an intentional construction of all immigrants as Othered individuals who are economic and security threats. This purposeful construction contributes to a belief that immigrants are in some way distinct or alien to ‘rightful’ citizens of the state. Proposed legislation such as S.706 and H. 3953 (11-12) characterizes “illegal aliens” as individuals who are criminals that need to be battled against. The policy documents read:

Whereas, the bill would also allow illegal aliens after arrest to be detained in a state or local prison or detention facility pending transfer to federal custody, thereby insuring that potentially dangerous criminals would remain in custody pending trial or adjudication…

It is important to note that this particular piece of legislation names “illegal aliens” as “potentially dangerous criminals,” rendering them as threatening and thus more susceptible to crime (even when this statement is factually inaccurate). Sadly, the above example is not an isolated instance. In our analysis, we located more than 25 proposed and enacted pieces of legislation that used similar language whereby immigrants are Othered, typically as economic and security threats. Senate Resolution S.1015 (13-14) typifies this threat:

"Over fifty percent of illegal aliens currently in the United States arrived here with visas and overstayed them upon expiration. These include radical Islamic Jihad students who come here under the pretext of study only to instigate acts of terror; and

Whereas, the burden placed upon our nation's governmental services, taxpayers, environment, and infrastructure is on a disastrously unsustainable path due to massive population growth directly attributable to immigration; and

Whereas, solutions to immigration policy include ending chain migration, verifying the visa entry and exit system, ending the visa lottery, ending birthright citizenship, and offering federal assistance for states to combat immigration problems."

This example identifies undocumented immigrants as “burdens,” “unsustainable,” and even “radical Islamic Jihad students,” both creating and reifying them as problems. By constructing the “immigrant problem,” policy-makers advance their solutions—solutions that politicize immigration enforcement and conflate the immigrant with the criminal and/or terrorist. These alarming and inaccurate depictions of immigrants coexist with the reality that South Carolina farmers largely recruit and depend upon immigrant labor. Amidst considerable recruitment of immigrant labor, immigrants paradoxically are accused of taking jobs and draining public resources. Taken as a whole, a picture emerges where immigrants are desired for their labor, but controlled as human beings. The construction of immigrants as problems allows for this dual reality. Immigrants continue to serve the South Carolina economy while policy solutions seek to constrain their material lives and force them to live in the shadows.

In practice, state legislative acts restrict the daily lives of migrants by limiting access to public services. For example, South Carolina is one of two states to ban entry into public higher education for undocumented students. Efforts have even been made to exclude non-citizens to all forms of public education in South Carolina H.3110 (07-08), including denying some undocumented youth in the state entry to public schools in clear violation of Plyler v Doe. Similarly, other legislative acts attempt to limit access to health care, worker’s compensation, and employment, thus formally demanding that immigrants first prove their status before receiving basic protections.

It is within this policy framing of immigrants as problems that the United States’ most egregious legislation towards immigrants has been enacted. Emulating Arizona’s infamous “Show Me Your Papers law, South Carolina rushed to pass S.20 in 2011. S.20 granted, “Law enforcement authorization to determine immigration status, reasonable suspicion, procedures, data collection on motor vehicle stops.” Although the courts dismissed the most draconian profiling portions of the South Carolina law, the solution of increased law enforcement still presents a daily threat to immigrant communities. Since this legislation passed, students have expressed to us how anxiety-provoking simple activities like driving, going to school, or answering the door remains.


Policy effects on undocumented youth

The effect of constructing immigrants as problems is felt strongly in schools. Educators have the imperative to create safe and welcoming spaces for all students regardless of immigration status, one where the cultural knowledge(s), strengths, and experiences of immigrant students are valued. Yet, all too often strengths that immigrant students bring to school (bilingualism, resilience, cultural ways of knowing) are also problematized in schools. As we argue, educators can be at the forefront of the resistance to the criminalization regime. For example, they can recognize, mitigate, and resist the impacts of repressive policies that enshrine “immigrants are problems” on their students by framing students skills as assets rather than deficits.

Photo credits:   AP/LM Otero

Photo credits: AP/LM Otero

Take for example how restrictive policy contexts impact the lives of undocumented youth. Even D.A.C.A. recipients now confront uncertain futures in the U.S. Current research efforts has focused on recently arrived undocumented and unaccompanied youth in southern states like South Carolina, where their families reshape the southern landscape. Undocumented youth are highly aware of the contradictory language of the state policies while state continues to benefit from the work of Hispanic workers. Several youth with whom we work identified ways the state restricts their livelihoods and opportunities for social mobility. For example, undocumented youth in two Title I high schools in the first author’s larger study said: 

“This state is racist.”

“The state wants Hispanics to do their work for them, but we can’t go to school without being afraid? That is ignorance.”

“They don’t want to have a solution for us being here, but they want us to do the work they don’t want to do.”

“I am, like, stuck. I have scholarships to four state schools and cannot attend any of them. Here, they are ignorant of Hispanics. I don’t have papers, but I am smart.”

These lived experiences of youth in the South Carolina speak back to the negative language and stereotyping perpetuated in proposed and enacted legislation. While derogatory perceptions of immigrants appear amplified under Trump, it is important to note how historical precedents and state policies enable structural and institutional racism and the criminalization of immigrants to persist. The current political charades under Trump should not distract us from the broader and more pressing structural discrimination being institutionalized in policies and practices in restrictive states such as South Carolina.


Sophia Rodriguez, PhD, is an assistant professor of education and sociology at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. She conducts research on (un)documented immigrant youth activism and discrimination as well as the impact of educational and social policy on minoritized youth experiences broadly. Her published and forthcoming work on immigrant youth activism and education policy can be found here.

Timothy Monreal is a doctoral student in social foundations of education at the University of South Carolina. He is also a middle school teacher in South Carolina. He is interested in Latinx education in the U.S. South broadly as well as the intersections between teacher practice and education theory. To that end you can find him on Twitter where he mixes academic musings along with everyday classroom observations.