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  • Migrant Youth, Transnational Families and the State: Care and Contested Interests by Lauren Heidbrink
  • Jennifer Driscoll (bio)
Lauren Heidbrink, Migrant Youth, Transnational Families and the State: Care and Contested Interests (Pennsylvania Studies in Human Rights Series, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014) 196 pages, ISBN 978-0-8122-4604-9

The number of unaccompanied migrant youth detained in the United States has increased in recent years as a result of more immigration raids, increased cartel violence in Mexico, and rising poverty in Central America.1 This insightful, sensitive, and persuasively written ethnography makes a valuable contribution to the limited research base on a particularly “hard-to-reach” group of children and young people. The title reflects the competing interests and agendas of parties involved in the cases of unaccompanied asylum-seeking minors—between state and federal authorities, between the immigration and care systems, and within transnational families. The book examines the triangle of relationships between the state, the family, and the child, and discusses conflicting discourses that position unaccompanied minors as victims in need of state protection or as illegal aliens with an assumed propensity for delinquency.

The study upon which the book is based is an ambitious three year longitudinal study involving ethnographic fieldwork in three federal detention centers and four federal foster care programs; observations of youth in placements and at court; interviews with eighty-two detained and non-detained children and with 250 “stakeholders” (including attorneys, [End Page 801] facility staff, guardians ad litem, judges, members of Congress, Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, researchers, policy makers, foster families, and teachers); and analysis of institutional paperwork. Despite the volume of data which must have been generated by the research, the analysis is presented primarily through case studies of a small number of individual young people in order to achieve the expressed objective of the study, namely to “carve out a space within which children’s voices might enter the discussion in a way that accurately reflects their understandings of the law, institutional interventions, and their own best interests while taking precautions to guard against the manipulation of their experiences.”2 These compelling life histories are presented against the backdrop of a careful historical analysis of the principal legal developments in this arena coupled with an examination of the social and cultural constructions of children as passive and dependent that has influenced social policy in the United States.

The opening chapter explores the inherent tension between the goals of the immigration and care systems. While the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) is charged with the custody and care of unaccompanied minors, the function of ICE is to protect homeland security, including through the expulsion of unauthorized migrants. Lauren Heidbrink describes an “institutional bias in favor of law enforcement in which the security and safety concerns of the nation continue to outweigh the child welfare concerns of this population,”3 which she regards as threatening to undermine the status of the United States as an historic place of refuge for child migrants.

In Chapter 2, Heidbrink develops her critique of the dichotomous classification of migrant young people as either victims or potential delinquents. She explains the ways in which the application of these categories conspires to undermine the social agency of migrant youth, through a combination of Western hegemonic expectations of children as protected dependents within a nuclear family structure and the fear of criminality by illegal aliens. She examines the specific ways in which young migrants are denied agency by US law, contrasting this with the extraordinary courage, ingenuity, and self-determination demonstrated by the young participants in her study by entering the United States in the first place.

Chapter 3 addresses the relationship between the state, the family, and immigrant children through the development of legislation and case law. Heidbrink argues that immigration law, and particularly the introduction of the status of Special Immigrant Juvenile, has served to undermine or even sever kinship relationships without compensating young people through the award of full citizenship and legal rights by the state.

These issues are illustrated in Chapter 4 through a powerful case study of a Guatemalan youth as he actively attempts to negotiate the...


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pp. 801-805
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