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!

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.

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.

The Untold History of Unaccompanied Minors

“Public opinion remains deeply divided over whether the U.S. government has a moral obligation to offer asylum to Central Americans children escaping political persecution or violence in their home countries. According to a survey published last month by the Associated Press, 53 percent of the U.S. public think their country has no obligation to take in the latest wave of “tired and huddled masses” fleeing troubles in their home countries.

We talked to 11 scholars and activists who think the United States, a self-professed nation of immigrants, does have a moral obligation to provide asylum to Central American minors, many of whom — experts argue — are fleeing violence that resulted from U.S. foreign policy.

Fusion presents the untold history behind the unaccompanied minors, a collection of 60-second videos.

Life for child migrants is even harder beyond the US border

The following comes from an article I wrote for The Conversation:

Between 2003 and 2011, 8,000 to 40,000 unaccompanied migrant children from Central America were stopped every year on the southern border of the US. When this number boomed to more than 57,000 during the first nine months of 2014, president Barack Obama announced an “urgent humanitarian situation requiring a unified and coordinated Federal response” at the border.

In early July, Obama asked Congress for $3.7bn in emergency spending to increase man power and surveillance at the border, and expand facilities and legal services for detained children. Later in July, Obama met with the presidents of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, from which many of these children come.

There have been many debates about the causes of this surge of child migrants, as well as the best strategies for addressing the trend along the border and abroad. But there has been little if any discussion about what happens to child migrants who successfully enter undetected. We can only speculate on the consequences of the US’s failure to address the crisis.

Since the summer of 2012, I have conducted observations and interviews with Guatemalan Maya young adults between the ages of 18 and 35 who arrived as unaccompanied minors between four and 19 years ago. My research shows that violence and poverty are not things of the past for unaccompanied Central American children who come of age in the shadows.