Contextualizing the Discourse of Unaccompanied Minors

Over the last couple of weeks, multiple US media venues have reported on the presence of thousands of children traveling on their own to the US Mexico Border with the intent to enter the United States extra-legally. The coverage – generated largely in response a series of pictures portraying troubling levels of overcrowding and poor housing conditions in US immigration detention facilities – suggests the presence of minors is on the verge of becoming yet another unprecedented crisis afflicting the nation’s Southern frontier. Such coverage, however, has until now provided scant context– if at all– of the dynamics involving the irregular migration of children and teenagers, particularly as it relates to the US/Mexico border .

Monument to US-Mexico border deaths. Photo courtesy Tomas Castelazo and wikicommons
Monument to US-Mexico border deaths. Photo courtesy Tomas Castelazo and wikicommons

There are multiple aspects that could be discussed as part of the images’ release, diffusion, and interpretation. I will only highlight two here: One, that the presence of unaccompanied minors along the US Mexico Border is not new, and that the overall narratives being mobilized to this date suggest a troubling progression to the further criminalization of children and youth in immigration detention.

Until now, most representations of the so called undocumented immigration crisis in the United States have been embodied by two main archetypes:  the adult male migrant (described as the inherently alien and criminal invader), and the pregnant female migrant (the conniving mother-to-be, scheduling her due date to coincide with her illicit arrival into US territory with the sole purpose of acquiring US citizenship for her newborn child).   While also present in the mainstream media characterizations and coverage of undocumented immigration, infant and young children were often shown peripherally, referred mostly as victims of their parents’ actions, but never as constituting a group in themselves –even less as independent, decision-making travelers.

The narratives dominating the current discussion on the presence of unaccompanied minors focus almost entirely on the perspective of the US as a destination country, where the presence of migrants – particularly those of Latino origin– has historically been deemed intrinsically illicit and criminal. These racialized narratives have throughout history facilitated migrants’ criminalization, and help justified measures aimed at penalizing their mobility.  The recent coverage on unaccompanied minors has already started to show a troubling trend:  the emergence of constructs pertaining to migrant teenagers and children as a threat to the nation’s stability. And the fact that this specific characterization has already been incorporated into the demands for – and actual implementation of –increased enforcement actions is even more problematic.  A press release from the White House recognizing the increase in the number of number of unaccompanied minors  being detained by US immigration authorities over the first half of 2014 –and expressing concern for the minors’ safety  — served as a mere introduction to the announcement that  accelerated immigration court hearings, and expedited deportation processes seeking to “return unlawful migrants from Central America to their home countries more quickly” were on the way. The announcement only suggests minors arriving to the US/Mexico border will continue to face detention and removal proceedings, rather than processes aimed at securing their personal safety.

Amid the confusion and concern generated by the increase in the presence of minors traveling unaccompanied most commentators have forgotten to mention children and teenagers have historically comprised a percentage of those traveling to the US Mexico border with the intention to cross the political divide without documentation. While many do in fact travel with family members, or have family reunification goals in mind, many others embark in their journeys with the no less crucial hope of drastically alter the course of a life marked by the structural violence that has dominated Central America’s history for decades – a history shaped by years of US-involvement in the region.

Contrary to widespread perceptions of sudden, abrupt catastrophes –or of discourses that single-handedly seek to attribute the massive displacement of Central American youths to gang related violence –worldwide, independent, extra-legal journeys have constituted a viable if precarious solution for children and teenagers seeking to leave structural inequality behind.  The conditions unaccompanied minors experience in detention have also been a constant in migration research for years. In the US, Lilian Chavez and Cecilia Menjivar were already in the mid-2000s calling for the recognition of children as actors of the glocal polity, stating childhood migration, rather than constituting “a growing phenomenon”, was an established demographic trend in immigrant receiving countries worldwide.  Marjorie Zatz and Nancy Rodriguez have documented the conditions faced by children in detention, and the surge in their numbers since the late 2000s. Zatz and Rodriguez have also noted that while conditions for children in detention improved following the creation of a division within the US immigration agency focusing on unaccompanied minors, overcrowding continues to be a challenge;  medical attention is scarce; children also lack adequate, age-specific information regarding their legal status, and guardians ad-litem are not uniformly appointed. Furthermore, the fear of detention prevents many undocumented parents from pursuing the release of their children from immigration custody.

Alongside academics, multiple organizations have been engaged in efforts to highlight the changing trends in US-bound migration, with unaccompanied minors being front and center.   In 2011 Appleseed released their report on the state of children at the border, expressing concern on how despite changes to policy, immigration authorities were often forced to turn around Mexican unaccompanied minors with little or no evaluation of the risks they faced upon their return. In 2012 the Women’s Refugee Commission warned on the impact of violence and unrest in Central America on the upsurge of unaccompanied minors migrations. Last year, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops presented the findings emerging from their visit to Southern Mexico and Central America, identifying alongside local socio-economic and political contexts, US-immigration control policy as factor increasing unaccompanied minors’ vulnerability and insecurity.

The presence of children at the Border is not an unexpected, unforeseen matter. It does not constitute a sudden invasion, and it is far from an unexplained surge. It is in fact the result of decades of structural inequality, of failed immigration control policy and enforcement. And while the level of risk and vulnerability unaccompanied minors face should not be underestimated, let me conclude by also recognizing the role children play in their own journeys. Alongside calls for protection let us engage in a discussion that incorporates and recognizes the efforts of children as social actors in their own right. Let us recognize their efforts to create and protect their links across borders, as participants of the multiple communities to which they belong, and of their will to survive.

Gabriella Sanchez is a research fellow at the Border Crossing Observatory at Monash University and author of Border Crossings and Human Smuggling (Routledge, 2014).

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