Fast fashion, slow integration: Guatemalan youth navigate life and labor in Los Angeles

Americans often associate factory work—and the violence and exploitation of manufacturing industries—with distant nations like China, Vietnam, India, and Cambodia. While stories of workers transported like pigs,” trapped behind barred windows and locked doors, and protected from death by suicide nets trigger broad concern, they tend to ultimately be cast off as the problems of “foreign” societies.

The Emmy Award-winning documentary Made in L.A. brought the narrative of garment worker exploitation back to U.S. soil, but the film focuses on the experiences of adult women. My research thus addresses a critical and unexamined space of inquiry: It moves beyond media attention and scholarship on garment workers abroad or adult laborers in the U.S. to center on the experiences of garment working immigrant youth. This project uncovers the conditions these young people encounter and the ways labor exploitation affects the long-term integration of unaccompanied immigrant youth.

My ethnographic research focuses on the integration experiences of Guatemalan young people who arrive unaccompanied in the United States and live and work in Los Angeles. I have spent over 500 hours participating in support groups, church youth groups, cultural events and community garden gatherings, as well as conducting formal and informal interviews.

Telling stories of poverty, hunger, and suffering, youths’ experiences evidence the impact of the expansion of free trade policies on migration. These policies have decreased local agricultural production and manufacturing, increased food insecurity, and undermined the public sector workforce. And while Central American leaders of the 1970s and 1980s attempted to reduce poverty through land redistribution or taxation of foreign companies, the U.S. thwarted these efforts by sending the CIA to remove these leaders, thereby introducing more violence to the region and further spurring migration.

Contemporary Central American migrants, including children and youth, leave their homes in search for families already in the U.S., but also as a strategy to provide for their families who remain abroad. Unfortunately, many youth who migrate in search of educational opportunities and work to alleviate their family’s poverty do not find refuge in the U.S. and continue struggling to make ends meet.

Read the full story on Youth Circulations here.

Where unaccompanied minors go when they immigrate to LA

“More than 40,000 unaccompanied children have fled to the U.S. since January to escape violence plaguing their home Central American countries.

However, minors have been coming to the U.S. for years without their families — sometimes to escape violence and other times to make money they can send back home.

Stephanie Canizales, a USC doctoral student, has been researching how these minors grew up alone in a foreign land. She has been documenting a support group in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Pico-Union for former child migrants — now in their 20s in and 30s — many of whom came for economic opportunities.”

Full story and audio here.

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.