My book manuscript, Unaccompanied Minors: Precarious Protections and Limited Compassion in the US Asylum Process (under contract with University of California Press), 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.
In the past 10 years, nearly a half million minors have been apprehended at the US-Mexico border without their parents. The majority hail from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, countries were human rights violations, violence, and insecurity are widespread. 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).
My 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, and as they navigate legal struggles in the US asylum bureaucracy to apply for refugee status with the help 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 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.
My research examines 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. 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.