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.