My dissertation, Refugee Children or Immigrant Teenagers? The Precarious Rights and Belonging of Central American Unaccompanied Minors in the United States, sheds light on a new facet of migration world-wide that prior research, focused almost exclusively on adults, has largely neglected: the rise of unaccompanied child migration. In the past 10 years alone, over 400,000 children migrated to the US without their parents, with 2019 seeing Central American unaccompanied minors arriving in record numbers. Between 2015 and 2019, I conducted 4 years of ethnographic fieldwork in legal clinics in Los Angeles, shadowing immigration attorneys as they prepared Central American unaccompanied minors’ asylum applications. I also undertook 95 semi-structured interviews with unaccompanied minors and their attorneys. My research builds on existing scholarship in the fields of international migration and the sociology of law by examining how protections based on age in US immigration law shape immigrants’ access to legal status and incorporation.
Unaccompanied minors inhabit dual legal and social positions in the US. On the one hand, as minors –and children who enter the US alone, without their parents—, they are seen as deserving and protected by policies that grant them more favorable access to the asylum process than adults. However, as non-citizens –and immigrants from the Global South—, like adults, the state perceives them as suspicious asylum-claimants and even criminalizes them as potential gang members, seeking to exclude them.
My research shows how these two forces —protection and exclusion —are in tension with one another in the volatile US context, as advocates’ demands that the state respect human rights norms and protect vulnerable children compete with state prerogatives to limit overall levels of immigration. Protection continuously ebbs and flows, crucially affecting the life outcomes of immigrant youths and their odds of obtaining asylum at any given moment in time. These odds have become increasingly slim as the Trump administration intervenes to systematically dismantle the rights of unaccompanied minors and asylum-seekers.
To obtain refugee status and other humanitarian forms of relief, unaccompanied minors must satisfy narrowly defined legal criteria and comply with a series of behavioral restrictions. Youths who cannot do so remain unprotected, undocumented, and at risk of deportation, despite their vulnerability. My research traces unaccompanied minors' experiences from the moment of their escape from violence in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, during their interactions with the US immigration agencies that process and detain then, as they navigate legal struggles with the support of immigration attorneys to apply for refugee status, and as they experience the impact of these legal struggles on their subjectivities and on multiple facets of their lives as young immigrants in the US. By exposing the gaps between protections for unaccompanied children on the books and their implementation in practice, my research has important implications for immigration policy and for the lives of children who migrate on their own.