Doctoral student’s research into child migration takes an unexpected twist

Before graduating, the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences created a research profile on me and my time at USC. The story reads:

As a Ph.D. student at USC Dornsife researching undocumented and unparented child migrants from Central America and Mexico, Stephanie Canizales has already established herself as a leading scholar in her field. Along the way, an unexpected theatrical twist worthy of a modern-day novela brought her research closer to home than she could have ever imagined.

Canizales, who will receive her Ph.D. in sociology on May 11, was inspired to explore the lives of these child migrants, many of whom experience what she describes as “extreme forms of exploitation,” after meeting a group of young indigenous Guatemalan Maya garment workers in downtown Los Angeles.

These undocumented minors had migrated to the U.S. without a parent to support their families, who remained abroad. Finding low-paid piecework in the garment industry, earning mere cents for putting in a zipper or sewing a sleeve, they toil in sweat shop conditions, often locked in during working hours without access to proper ventilation or lighting. Subject to wage theft and fearful of losing their jobs, they can refuse to drink water and will wear diapers during working hours to avoid taking bathroom breaks.

Through her research, Canizales spent four years in the field, building trust with hundreds of undocumented young migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico who arrived in the U.S. without a parent as unaccompanied minors, some as young as 11 years old. In addition to toiling in the garment industry, they find work as janitors, meat packers, dishwashers, restaurant workers, car washers, and domestic workers.

Although it’s illegal, employers hire these undocumented minors, sometimes out of sympathy, Canizales says, but often to exploit someone willing to work for wages as low as $69 to $80 for a 55- to 70-hour week.

Of all the heart-rending stories that Canizales heard during her research, the one that touched her the most was that of the first child migrant she ever met: her mother.

When Canizales began her research, she had no idea her once undocumented Salvadoran parents had themselves been unparented child migrants. It was only after talking to them about her research that they finally opened up, recounting to her for the first time their own migration stories as they fled the civil war in El Salvador to come to the U.S.

Neither of her parents had told their U.S.-born children their migration stories because they feared reliving traumatizing, heartbreaking memories — something Canizales finds common among parents in their situation.

“I had to wrap my head around the fact that the story I was uncovering about unaccompanied youth in L.A. today is the same story that my parents lived,” Canizales said. “This uncovering of my family history brought my research full circle, making me feel like my whole path has been intentional.”

For the complete story, continue here!

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