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Violence Drives Children to Migrate to U.S., Dr. Heidbrink Tells Audience She was invited to deliver the annual John M. Wozniak lecture

Lauren Heidbrink, Ph.D.

NLU’s Lauren Heidbrink, Ph.D., explains the conditions facing young people in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.

Violence, gangs, poverty and a history of civil war impel  children under age 18 to flee Central American nations and take their chances migrating to the U.S., NLU Assistant Professor Lauren Heidbrink, Ph.D., told a large audience on Wednesday.

Heidbrink, chair of NLU’s M.A. in Public Policy and Administration program, delivered her remarks at Loyola University of Chicago, where she had been invited to give the annual John M. Wozniak lecture.

Heidbrink has spent years researching unaccompanied child migration. She has interviewed child migrants and their families, conducted original research in migrants’  towns of origin in Guatemala and El Salvador, and briefed the U.S. Department of State to inform them of the causes and consequences of child migration. She touched on several key points in her talk.

Dispelling Myths about Migration

The number of young migrants under 18, primarily from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, jumped from about 8,000 in 2010 to more than 68,000 in 2014. That steep increase made news headlines, but Heidbrink explained migration is not a new phenomenon. She cited times throughout history and across the globe when young people have voluntarily or forcibly migrated across international borders.

Lauren Heidbrink discusses unaccompanied migrant children with students.

Heidbrink discusses unaccompanied migrant children with students.

And in Central America, conditions are so desperate many find life there intolerable. What Heidbrink characterized as “structural violence”–violence that results from the way social inequality is embedded in policy and institutions — manifests in many ways, including civil war, corrupt governments and violence from drug cartels and gangs. This mayhem has left many teens feeling they must flee or die.

To cite an eye-popping example, the United Nations has declared San Pedro Sula, Honduras, the “murder capital of the world,” with young men having an incredibly high 1 in 300 chance of being murdered. In addition, 75 percent of Guatemalans live in poverty, with 29 percent living in extreme poverty.

When families consider their possible courses of action, parents don’t uniformly “send” their children away, Heidbrink emphasized. The migrant children, who have an average age of 14.5, contribute to their migration decision.

“In Central American countries, the ideas of what a 14-year-old is responsible for are very different from how we think about it in the United States,” Heidbrink explained.

A crowd attended Heidbrink's lecture.

A large crowd attended Heidbrink’s lecture at Loyola University of Chicago.

She maintains that some parents support their children’s decision to migrate as an investment in their children’s future and hope for a better life.

“Migration is a cultural elaboration of care within a context of violence and extreme poverty,” she said. “Conceptualizing migration as care allows us to realize that physical absence and separation doesn’t necessarily signify a lack of emotional connection or belonging between youth and their families. To the contrary, how a family decides who migrates may be an expression of trust, love and investment rather than abuse, abandonment or neglect, as often depicted.”

She also argues that the U.S. needs to critically examine foreign policies towards Central American countries and examine the roots of the poverty and violence that motivate so many young people and adults to flee–roots which originate from colonialism and U.S. involvement in Central American civil wars.

Two views of detained young migrants

When young people cross into the U.S., many are detained by U.S. authorities, who place them in facilities for unaccompanied minors which the U.S. calls “shelters.” However Heidbrink’s research has revealed many young people experience them as “detention centers,” which is the name she uses for them.

The varying names arise from different approaches to young migrants. On one hand, Heidbrink said, these young people are criminalized as aliens or delinquents requiring apprehension and removal. In an interview at a border patrol station in Texas, Heidbrink described listening to a border patrol agent describe his work apprehending young migrants crossing into the U.S. He told her, “They’re not nice little kids.”

On the other hand, young people are depicted by advocates as “vulnerable victims” especially deserving of humanitarian care. However, Heidbrink cautioned NGOs have become part of the system that detains young migrants. By receiving funding from the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement, to detain children, she feels they inadvertently compromise their ability to advocate on young people’s behalf.

Since completing her research in ORR facilities, researchers have since been blocked from interviewing facility staff and young people in their charge.

Heidbrink conveyed that young migrants describe detention as a loss of freedom, an anxious time of uncertainty and a trauma.

She quoted one, a 16-year-old named Isaias, as saying, “We have no rights here. We are stuck here and we can’t get out.”

Education for unaccompanied minors

NLU's Lauren Heidbrink, Ph.D., spoke at Loyola University of Chicago.

NLU’s Lauren Heidbrink was invited to give the John M. Wozniak lecture at Loyola University of Chicago.

The U.S. government does allow some unaccompanied young migrants to be released to a relative or sponsor while awaiting deportation hearings, however. Many of them are released to sponsors in  New York, California, Florida or Illinois, but many also wind up in small rural towns scattered throughout the South.

They are allowed to attend public school, but few states or cities provide any other services to them. New York City affords them legal representation, Illinois and some other states provide a degree of health care, and schools in Oakland, Calif. have established a newcomer center which provides some mental health and social services.

These programs require effort and significant resources, she acknowledged, but said many social workers and teachers rise to the challenge of supporting traumatized migrant children as they adjust to life in the U.S., learning English and attending school.

“But we need to understand the demands on young people to pay down their migration debt, to remain connected to their families and for some, this may keep them from school. Rather than impose our own understandings and expectations, we must listen to the meanings young people and their families assign  to their migration and their experiences,” Heidbrink said.

“It is both our challenge and our opportunity to listen to and learn from migrant youth and their families.”