Precarious Protections: Unaccompanied Minors Seeking Asylum in the US (University of California Press, forthcoming, February 2023) chronicles the experiences and perspectives of Central American unaccompanied minors and their immigration attorneys as they pursue applications for refugee status in the United States. 

Over a half million unaccompanied minors have been apprehended at the US-Mexico border in the past 10 years. They hail from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, countries were human rights violations, violence, and insecurity are widespread, and teenagers are especially at risk of being targeted and victimized by gangs. During the Obama and Trump administrations, I conducted ethnographic fieldwork in various legal clinics in Los Angeles, shadowing immigration attorneys as they prepared their young clients’ asylum applications (from 2015 to 2019), as well as120 semi-structured interviews with unaccompanied minors, their attorneys, and other key actors (2017-2021).


The book guides the reader along the journeys youths take from the moment of their escape from violence in their home countries, during their interactions with the US immigration agencies that detain them, throughout arduous legal struggles in the US asylum bureaucracy, and as they navigate everyday life and life-course transitions in the US while in legal limbo. To obtain refugee status, unaccompanied minors must satisfy narrowly defined legal criteria and child-specific U.S. interpretations of refugee law, which often do not correspond to their lived experiences of escape from violence or to youth's subjective understandings of why they fled. Youths must also comply with a series of infantilizing behavioral restrictions that reflect US hierarchies of deservingness and normative conceptions of citizenship. Those who cannot do so remain unprotected and at risk of deportation, despite their vulnerability.



This study examines the tension between the forces of protection and exclusion in the volatile US legal 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. I examine the shift from the Obama to the Trump administration, discussing how immigration attorneys changed their legal strategies to counter the Trump's administration's attacks on the rights of unaccompanied minors and asylum-seekers and to continue to seek protection for vulnerable youths in an increasingly indeterminate legal process. By exposing the gaps between protections for unaccompanied minors in the books and their implementation in practice, this research has important implications for immigration policy and for the lives of children and youth who migrate on their own.