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!

“I’m So Ashamed of My Government’s Hypocrisy”– Diego Luna on Central American Refugee Crisis

The Mexican and US governments are complicit in the violence against Central Americans in more ways than one. Last year, Mexico deported more than 140,000 Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Hondurans – or twice as much as the US deported. Some of their ramped up deportation efforts has led to dangerous profiling against their own people. A few years ago, immigration agents questioned three indigenous siblings from Chiapas, believing they were Central American. Because they spoke the Mayan language Tzetzal, officials were able to coerce Alberto into claiming he was from Guatemala. The Institute for Women in Migration (IMUMI) and other activist groups pushed for the release of the siblings, who now refuse to leave Chiapas.

Amidst all of this, Luna says it’s impossible to ignore what’s happening in Mexico. “It’s easy to talk about the Syrian refugee crisis, but it costs us to recognize what’s happening here,” Luna said at an event announcing the Children on the Run campaign.  “Today Mexico … is no longer just a place of transit, it’s become the place that many people want to reach.”

Read more here:

How unaccompanied youth become exploited workers in the U.S.

The Trump administration has released a series of executive orders targeting immigration at the U.S. southern border. Central American families and children traveling alone represent nearly half of all unauthorized migrants apprehended by Customs and Border Protection. The criminalization of immigrants at the U.S. southern border disproportionately affects Central American children and youth.

Nearly 153,000 unaccompanied Mexican and Central American childrenhave been apprehended at the U.S. southern border since 2014. Of those detained by Customs and Border Protection and processed by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, 60 percent have been reunited with a sponsor, typically a parent. The other 40 percent are placed with a nonparent sponsor.

With the guidance of a parent or guardian, these youths might obtain financial, legal, health and social support. Others who enter without detection and remain unaccompanied when they arrive in the U.S. are financially independent and may never gain access to formal resettlement services. Recent orders by the Trump administration that prioritize unaccompanied child migrants for deportation heighten the vulnerability of immigrant children in the U.S.

Since 2012, I have conducted in-depth observations and interviews with undocumented immigrant youth who arrived in Los Angeles, California as unaccompanied minors and have remained without a parent throughout their settlement in the U.S. I use pseudonyms for confidentiality as research participants are migrant youth living and working in the U.S. without authorization.

Pundits and scholars tend to frame immigrant youth as students and adult migrants as workers. However, being unaccompanied at settlement requires youth to become financially independent and take up low-wage occupations to make ends meet.

My ongoing research shows that unaccompanied migrant youth face labor exploitation and suggests that Trump’s orders exacerbate the precarious work conditions of unaccompanied immigrant youth workers in the U.S.

Read the full story here.

TruthOut || A Radical Expansion of Sanctuary: Steps in Defiance of Trump’s Executive Order

The original post lays out some ‘first steps’ toward fighting for sanctuary for immigrants in the U.S., including:

1. Sanctuary is now about shared political fate.

2. Sanctuary is not single-issue.

3. Sanctuary can be created through policy and through community.

4. Sanctuary cannot be based in paternalism or a white savior mentality.

5. Sanctuary is no longer about four walls.

6. Sanctuary will require local organizing to converge nationally.

7. Sanctuary will require clarity, courage and spiritual fortitude.

“We must prepare ourselves for the times ahead. We will be persecuted for our actions and beliefs. We will be under attack. The more clarity we have about what we are doing and why, the more we can build our numbers and build our courage. Part of that involves resisting isolation and taking care of each other and ourselves in community. We seek the wisdom and skills of cultural workers and healers to provide us with tools and guidance.

As this new president seeks to take us apart piece by piece, we must resist. We must remember that even though threats to immigrants have already escalated just in the first few days of the Trump regime, our communities also faced similar problems just one month ago. Those of us who already have practice in creating sanctuary and protection for community can make available the very practical tools we’ve already created on how others may do so as well.”

Read the full post here:



Teaching Tolerance || Immigrant and Refugee Children: A Guide for Educators and School Support Staff

From original post:

“This guide was created for educators, school support staff and service providers who teach, mentor and help open the doors of opportunity for undocumented youth and unaccompanied and refugee children currently living in the United States. Educators, school support staff and service providers are often the first individuals a student and/or family comes out to as undocumented.

Moreover, they are often the first ones to witness the impact of increased enforcement measures on students and their families.

Schools should be safe havens that embrace all students and families, regardless of citizenship and national origin, and that includes unaccompanied and refugee children. The 1982 U.S. Supreme Court case Plyler v. Doe ruled that undocumented children have a constitutional right to receive a free public K–12 education, which provides the means to becoming a “self-reliant and self-sufficient participant in society,” the court wrote, and instills the “fundamental values necessary to the maintenance of a democratic political system.” However, today’s increased enforcement measures by the Department of Homeland Security and campaign promises made by the incoming administration threaten that right for thousands of undocumented youth and the 4.1 million U.S.-born children who live in mixed-status households with at least one parent or family member who is undocumented.”

Find the resource guide using the link below:

Support and Setback: Churches and Unaccompanied Youth in LA

In this essay I examine the role of religion and religious institutions in the adaptation of unaccompanied Central American youth in Los Angeles. Two questions guide this analysis: To what extent does the church provide social support and adaptation resources for unauthorized, unaccompanied youth in Los Angeles? And, in what ways might church membership hinder the adaptation of young migrants outside of the traditional protective institutions of family and school?

Find the full essay published by the Center for Migration Studies here.

Academia, Love Me Back


My name is Tiffany Martínez. As a McNair Fellow and student scholar, I’ve presented at national conferences in San Francisco, San Diego, and Miami. I have crafted a critical reflection piece that was published in a peer-reviewed journal managed by the Pell Institute for the Study of Higher Education and Council for Opportunity in Education. I have consistently juggled at least two jobs and maintained the status of a full-time student and Dean’s list recipient since my first year at Suffolk University. I have used this past summer to supervise a teen girls empower program and craft a thirty page intensive research project funded by the federal government. As a first generation college student, first generation U.S. citizen, and aspiring professor I have confronted a number of obstacles in order to earn every accomplishment and award I have accumulated. In the face of struggle, I have persevered and continuously produced…

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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.

Pacific Standard Magazine 30 Top Thinkers Under 30

The 30 Top Thinkers Under 30: Stephanie Canizales

The top young thinkers in economics, education, political science, and more.

“I can’t walk past a Forever 21 and not think of the dozens of youth who tell me they get paid three cents per sleeve or five cents per zipper,” sociologist Stephanie Canizales says. She adds that these are the same children who “can’t pay the clinic bills from the headaches and neck pains they get working their sewing machines.”

A Ph.D. candidate at the University of Southern California, Canizales is studying a subset of child migrants that has been largely overlooked in academia and the media: those who emigrated without a parent and did not reunite with a parent upon reaching the United States. After speaking with more than 200 unaccompanied child migrants in Los Angeles, Canizales has discovered that many face “extreme forms of exploitation.” Those who work in the garment industry are subject to “wage theft, denial of breaks, and being locked in during work hours without proper lighting and ventilation,” she says.

More from this story available on Pacific Standard Magazine.