In the past 10 years alone, over 400,000 minors migrated to the US without their parents, the majority of whom hail from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Between 2015 and 2019, I spent 4 years studying the experiences of these youths as they navigate the US asylum process: I conducted ethnographic fieldwork in legal clinics in Los Angeles, shadowing immigration attorneys as they prepared their young clients’ asylum applications, as well as 95 semi-structured interviews with unaccompanied minors, their attorneys, and other key actors.
My book project examines the experiences of Central American unaccompanied minors from the moment of their escape from violence in their home countries, during their interactions with the US immigration agencies that detain then, and as they navigate legal struggles in the US asylum bureaucracy to apply for refugee status, with the support of immigration attorneys. These legal struggles influence multiple facets of their lives as young immigrants in the US. To obtain refugee status and other humanitarian forms of relief, unaccompanied minors must satisfy narrowly defined legal criteria and child-specific US interpretations of humanitarian and refugee law, which often do not correspond to their lived experiences of escape from violence. Youths must also comply with a series of behavioral restrictions that reflect US hierarchies of deservingness and normative conceptions of citizenship. Those who cannot do so remain unprotected, undocumented, and at risk of deportation, despite their vulnerability.
My research exposes the tension between the forces of protection and exclusion 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. By exposing the gaps between protections for unaccompanied children and refugees on the books and their implementation in practice, this research has important implications for immigration policy and for the lives of children who migrate on their own.