Gaspar Marcos and unaccompanied migrant youth workers

On July 10th, the LA Times story of Gaspar Marcos took the interweb by storm. His experiences with juggling 19-hour school and work days provided a glimpse into the questions we’ve had since the “humanitarian crisis” of summer of 2014: “Where do unaccompanied youth go upon arrival in the U.S.? How are they settling in cities like Los Angeles (and beyond)?” These questions are especially pressing when talking about unaccompanied minors who remain unaccompanied at settlement and have to find ways to make ends meet.

When I read the LA Times piece and watched the video, I was heartbroken all over again. I say ‘all over again’ because I’ve been hearing these stories since 2011 when I began my doctoral research with unaccompanied Central American youth in Los Angeles County for my masters thesis (happy to email you a copy if you’re interested). Until now, most of my published work has centered on the experiences of garment working youth. Gaspar’s experiences that many have now come to know resonate strongly.

When I first began my research I’d never heard stories like the ones young people shared with me. How could these sorts of things happen in Los Angeles, a city known for its affluence? How could these sorts of things happen to children? And all the while we condemned these same practices and outcomes in other nations. I’d leave my field site with headaches. After interviews, I’d have to pull over to the side of the road to vomit (TMI? probably). It would take me days, sometimes weeks to complete a set of field notes because I just didn’t know what to do with this reality.

I also couldn’t believe I was driving away with ‘data’ that strengthened my research, while leaving someone in the same position they were in when I met them. Young people often thank me for letting them “desahogar (vent),” but that could never be enough. I didn’t know what to do about the violence, the suffering, the emotional turmoil, the poverty, the sexual abuse, the drugs and alcohol, the loneliness. I also know too much about the hope, the strength, the courage, the resilience, and what I saw so many people refer to as “grit” when they saw Gaspar’s story over the past few days to stay quiet.

Here’s why: Gaspar represents one of thousands of kids who have lived and continue to live this reality. The handfuls of interview I’ve collected are still only a drop in the bucket. Too many (uncounted) immigrant youth are coming to the U.S. knowing parents and/or guardians do not await them in the U.S. but that finding employment, however precarious, could make their family’s lives better. And, better can mean anything from increasing access to food and medicine to buying a house and starting a business.

At what cost? The clothes that you bought at Forever 21 or H&M were likely sewn by an unaccompanied child migrant. The dishes you eat your food off of at LA Live might be washed by an unaccompanied child migrant. The car you’re getting detailed for twenty dollars in East Los Angeles could be hand-dried by an unaccompanied child migrant. The flowers you buy at LA Flower Mart were probably trimmed and arranged by an unaccompanied child migrant. Exploitation, violence, and poverty are rampant in the low-wage, dead end jobs these youth take. The conditions are not out of our control. Our daily lives are far more intertwined than we think.

Sadly, we tend to brush it off thinking that someone else will step in, that someone else will help unaccompanied youth (just as we tend to think someone else will start a movement, preserve water, rescue animals, stop pollution, etc.). Yet my research with church organizations in Los Angeles shows that even the most well-intended and presumably supportive organizations sometimes falter in their ability to support vulnerable populations, like unaccompanied youth, because of their lack of resources. This article is forthcoming and will be posted to my website when published.

We have to get active. We have to do more than share stories on Facebook or Twitter. A GoFundMe was set up for Gaspar, and I encourage you to support him. I also encourage you to consider ways to support other unaccompanied minor migrant workers. Here are some ideas:

  • Get involved in immigrant serving organizations via your time, your resources, your skills, your networks and contacts. Los Angeles and plenty of other counties are struggling to carry their case loads of unaccompanied child migrants who qualify for visas, Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, etc. Too many kids are facing judges, awaiting to hear the final verdict on their deportation order, alone. People are working to provide food and shelter to young people. You can make a lasting impact by getting involved in legalization and care taking efforts. Feel free to email me if you would like suggestions on unaccompanied child migrant serving orgs in your area.
  • Donate books, supplies, clothing and shoes (including athletic gear), hygienic products to schools and community organizations.  Many kids might stop going to school because they don’t have access to a backpack, notebooks, shoes. Plenty of youth have told me that they have made their best friends on soccer fields and they feel most comfortable practicing their english with teammates whom they develop trusting relationships with. Belmont High School was profiled in Gaspar’s case. Find a high school, middle school, and elementary school near you and contact their principals. I can also suggest organizations.
  • Encourage your family, friends, and colleagues to read the same stories that have changed the way you think about immigration, immigration reform, unaccompanied minor migrants, and the countries they are coming from. You are their greatest advocate.
  • VOTE! These stories matter from the local to the federal level. Now more than ever we need to make our voices heard. Demand the representation of your views and your community. Demand the implementation of policies that reflect your heart for humanity. Be a voice for the voiceless.
  • Finally, be kind. Leave people better than you found them. It baffles me that taking an interest in the unaccompanied youth I’ve met, following up with them beyond the interview, can impact them. So simple. We can never know what the person sitting next to us on the bus, stumbling for change at the grocery story, or asking for help on the side of the road is going through. We can never know the burdens people bear. It is our responsibility to hold others lightly, to treat them with compassion and love and respect even before we are prompted by a heartbreaking story. To free others of their suffering is to free ourselves.

Please  reach out with questions regarding my research, with suggestions on some next steps, including organizations you work with that I can add to my referral list, and with any ideas this sparks. Amor por la gente, pasion por la vida.

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