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Book Review | Whose Child Am I? Unaccompanied, Undocumented Children in U.S. Immigration Custody

Published onNov 01, 2016
Book Review | Whose Child Am I? Unaccompanied, Undocumented Children in U.S. Immigration Custody

Susan J. Terrio. Whose Child Am I? Unaccompanied, Undocumented Children in U.S. Immigration Custody. University of California Press, 2015; 261 pp.;  ISBN: 9780520281493.


Whose Child Am I? is by Susan Terrio, Professor of Anthropology at Georgetown and author of two other books about issues of juvenile delinquency. Focusing on the wretched and dangerous experiences of Latino youth desperately traveling to and reaching El Norte, and then experiencing detention and incarceration, Terrio interrogates the American dream and American ideals of inclusion, as both are seriously abused in this international transborder tragedy. Terrio conducts her inquiry into how undocumented children are sent north, how they survive, and what happens to them by relating the process chronologically. She describes the children finding their way “home” in dangerous travels, being detained and placed in federal custody, living in custody, being released, and then finally being tried in immigration court. This process is framed by two chapters titled “The American Dream” and “The New American Story.” In between are accounts of these youthful travelers, interwoven with an assessment of the failures and successes of the federal agencies swamped with the youthful immigrants. Terrio argues that these children are victims of violence in their homelands and then victims of the courts and federal agencies in the United States, which are understaffed and conflicting in priorities. Her ultimate point is that immigration procedures need reforming so that they no longer contribute to the already overwhelming humanitarian tragedy. Her beliefs, ideas, and tone are the clear result of her research methodology: five years of on-site ethnographic research along with in-depth archival research on the identification, treatment, and representation of Unaccompanied Alien Children in the United States.

Terrio’s poignant title sets the tone of the work: the realities of immigrants fleeing danger and violence, a nation whose sympathies are strained as thousands of undocumented immigrants without parents arrive, the conundrum that these fleeing youth are in new danger if not in some kind   of custody. Her discussion of the legal process is laced with the real-life accounts of five young immigrants—Angel, Carlos, Carlino, Ernesto and Mariel—“whose home countries, like 90% of the unaccompanied child migrants to the United States, are Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras” (p. 48). These children’s experiences in chaotic homelands and their lack of opportunities send them elsewhere. Terrio makes the point that these children are fleeing in order to find work, escape violence, and seek out something their lives and nations offer little of: opportunity. Their transit to the United States—on “The Beast,” on foot through the desert, with the threat of coyotes—is harsh and terrible. Their apprehension and detention once across the border, their return to their home country, and then their return to the United States are at times nearly as harsh.

In the chapter “Which Way Home,” disturbing accounts of unaccompanied youthful immigrants are narrated, interwoven with a look at the acts and laws passed by the United States to improve the situation as well as a discussion of how these acts do not work and instead create new problems. When an unaccompanied youth crosses the border, he or she is usually swiftly apprehended, screened and, if designated “Unaccompanied,” referred to ORR. The confusing welter of acronyms (ORR, CBP, UAC, ICE and NGO) may be deliberately bewildering as children are processed and left confused and bitter. Terrio’s real concern is how these children are treated; rough treatment creates fear and shame, which is exacerbated by these children being perceived as “security risks.”

In the next five chapters, the reader is provided with a chronologically arranged account of how best practices of taking care of children are challenged by the brute realities of governmental programs to care for the unaccompanied: “The Least Restrictive Setting,” “Placement in Federal Custody,” “In Custody,” “Release,” and “Immigration Court.” Through these chapters Terrio narrates the depressing, alarming and unsettling experiences of these detained children. She provides a history of legal challenges to the detention program administered by the INS, which define an issue: what is the government’s interest in detaining this population? The children’s interests are viewed both in terms of their status as aliens and as children. Moreover, the INS has two conflicting tasks: detaining the children while protecting them. Detention and protection are mutually exclusive; detention inevitably leads to harm as confinement is extended and the child’s future remains in doubt. Fortunately, the situation has improved in the early 21st century as child welfare has become a persistent concern.

These chapters are rich in facts, questions, and accounts of children being herded through these over-burdened, over-taxed agencies and confusing processes. Analysis of the system is interpreted with interviews and accounts, such as “Corina’s story,” in the chapter “Release.” Corina spent nine years in the United States, in detention, living with foster families. Her case nearly fell “through the cracks,” but it was salvaged by law students. Corina graduated after excelling at school, worked as a nurse’s assistant and had two children who are US citizens...and then her work permit expired and had not been renewed as of 2011. Fortunately for the reader, each chapter ends with the author’s “Conclusions,” which creates focus. The reader can be so appalled by the trouble these detained youth face in the hands of a bureaucracy, by the INS’s conflicting concerns, and the bureaucratic fight over resources that the author’s conclusions help the reader to get the larger point: the system is fractured, for many reasons. For example, within “In Custody’s” conclusion, the author points out that the custodial beliefs that shape agencies’ caring for unaccompanied youth are formed from middle-class western values regarding childhood development, which collide with the reality of these kids’ desperate situation at the home they left, and in their home in detention.

In the final chapter, “The New American Story,” the reader is left with some hope for the successes of some of these immigrants. For example, we learn that the above-mentioned Corina had her permanent residency legally established. We are also left with admiration for immigrants’ courage to do something that is very hard: change, adapt, and keep fighting. The reader is also left with a question from Terrio: does it make sense to prosecute and detain unsustainable numbers of unaccompanied minors? “Who does it benefit,” she asks, “if we spend hundreds of millions of dollars to inform them of their rights, improve their mental and physical health, and to teach them English only to put them in removal proceedings?” (p. 204). In other words, why should we not welcome these children, rather than building insurmountable barriers? “Why shouldn’t we protect all young people who escape violence and work hard to realize the American dream?” (p. 204).

The one disappointment in this conclusion is that, as emotionally satisfying as her call is, and however strong our liking and beliefs are in her examples of unaccompanied youth, the word “protect” is a problem. In many ways, the custody process the children are in does protect them from a host of problems awaiting them if they are not detained. How do we protect these children if not by taking them into custody? However, as Terrio contends, the system is broken, and if the system were fixed, then protection of these children would be less onerous, far more positive, and everybody, including the United States, would benefit from their abilities, education, and belief in themselves and their opportunities.

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