Meridian Beat: Citizens and Strangers

Part 1: Susan Coutin -- on US Immigration Reform, Youth Migration, the 2014 "Border Crisis" and the Current Model of Immigration Law and Policymaking

Interviewed by:  Eo-Jean Kim (Meridian 180)     Posted on: September 17, 2014

Susan Coutin is professor in the Departments of Criminology, Law, and Society and Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine. She has written extensively on social, political, and legal activism surrounding immigration issues, particularly immigration from El Salvador to the United States. Her most recent book Nations of Emigrants is based on interviews with policymakers and activists in El Salvador and the United States as well as on Salvadoran emigrants’ accounts of their journeys to the US, their lives in the US, and in some cases, their removal to El Salvador. Currently, she is conducting a NSF-funded research on archival practices in immigrant and indigenous advocacy.

Professor Coutin, Thank you for giving us an opportunity to interview you. In this interview, we would like to ask for your opinion on the aspects of the US immigration reform relating to youth migration. We would also like to solicit your general position on the current model of immigration law/policy making.

1. In the United States, one of the most significant migration-related issues currently is youth migration. Particularly, since earlier this summer, when there was a surge of undocumented children from Central America—many of them travelling alone—apprehended at the southern US border, the issue of unaccompanied and undocumented migrant youth has been drawing much attention. What are your assessments of this summer’s situation and of the issue of unaccompanied migrant youth more generally?

Thank you for the opportunity to discuss this important issue. The number of Central American child migrants has increased, as you note, though the most recent reports indicate that this number is declining again, possibly due to unprecedented enforcement efforts in Mexico; campaigns by migrants’ home governments warning them of the dangers of migrating without authorization; and announcements by US officials that these children will be turned back. Despite this decline, this issue is likely to be with us for some time.

But, before focusing overly much on increases or decreases, it is important to put this number in perspective. In 2013, the total number of lawful permanent residents admitted to the United States was almost 1 million. Of these, 46% were new arrivals and 54% were individuals who were already in the United States and who adjusted their status. In fiscal year 2013, the number of unaccompanied minors apprehended along the U.S.-Mexico border was 35,209 and in fiscal year 2014, this number was 66,127, an increase of 88%. While I in no way wish to minimize the suffering that these children experience, or the strain associated with attempting to meet their needs, or the alarming nature of this increase, 66,127 is less than 7% of the total number of lawful permanent residents admitted in the same year – and of course, the United States admits many more individuals in other capacities, such as for tourism, study, or business purposes. As the size of the unaccompanied minor influx is relatively small when compared to legal admissions , it would not be unfeasible to simply offer these children temporary or permanent legal protection in the United States.

The primary reason that these children are crossing the border is gang violence and insecurity in their countries of origin. Many have been targeted for gang recruitment, threatened with death or sexual violence if they do not cooperate, or known similarly situated friends and relatives who have been killed. Often, moving to other households or neighborhoods does not eliminate these risks, as gang members follow them there. Additional reasons that they are migrating include poverty and the desire to reunite with parents in the United States. It is important to bear in mind that if immigration reform legislation had been approved in a timely fashion, then more of the parents of these children would have been able to petition for visas for their children to enter the country legally, rather than traveling without authorization. Moreover, U.S. policies, including support for repressive governments, economic and military intervention, and increases in deportations, have helped to destabilize the Central American countries from which these children are migrating, so it could be argued that the United States has an obligation to these children.

2. Recently, President Obama announced a plan to delay executive action on immigration until after the midterm elections, citing this summer’s youth migration crisis as the main reason for the delay.

- What is your assessment of this delay? Perhaps it reveals something about the politics of immigration reform in the US.

- What does this delay mean for the future of immigration reform and the migrant populations affected by the reform?

The delay was very disappointing to immigrant rights advocates and to those hoping to benefit from executive action. As well, the fact that expectations for reform or administrative relief have been repeatedly raised only to be dashed will likely make many wonder whether such a program will even be created at all.

I am not privy to discussion in Washington, but it is my sense that several factors were responsible for the delay: crises in Iraq and the Ukraine, which may have focused the nation’s attention elsewhere; public concerns about the unaccompanied minors’ and electoral politics. This delay reveals that there is a pattern of immigration reform proposals being derailed by crises. In 2001, there was a strong push for immigration reform that, after 9/11 was dramatically curtailed. Pent-up demand for action erupted in unprecedented mass mobilizations in 2006, when the Sensenbrenner bill would have made it a felony to enter the country illegally, but battles over competing bills resulted in a stalemate. The 2008 recession then made immigration reform unlikely, and now, even though the economy is improving, foreign policy issues and electoral politics continue to pose obstacles. Some undocumented immigrants have argued that while such crises come and go, they face crises every day due to challenges associated with their immigration status. Delays will leave their crises unresolved.

3. Let us now turn to youth migrants who are already in the United States and who are affected by the U.S. immigration law and policy. You have conducted a wealth of research on these migrants and have interviewed policymakers and activists as well as migrants themselves.

- What are the key concerns facing these youth migrants?

- Have current immigration law and policy effectively addressed these concerns? Do you see any fundamental constraints to their effectiveness?

Key concerns affecting youth migrants who are already in the United States include their own and their family members’ legal statuses; access to educational and career opportunities; the ability to develop a voice within the United States; the need to travel internationally for study purposes and to make a difference in their countries of origin; the criminalization, racialization, and stereotyping of their communities; and the desire to improve their own neighborhoods so that youth who come after them will not face some of the challenges that they have faced. It is important to bear in mind that youth migrants are a diverse group, especially in terms of legal status. Some are U.S. citizens, either by birth or naturalization, others are lawful permanent residents, others have temporary status, and still others are undocumented. My own research has predominantly been within Salvadoran immigrant communities and organizations, who have also noted the challenge of educating themselves and others about Salvadoran history, culture, and ways of speaking Spanish. Such education is important to avoid being confused with immigrants from other Latin American nations, particularly Mexico.

Not all of these concerns can be addressed by immigration law or policy. However, several immigration reforms would help: (1) creating a path to legalization for longtime residents; (2) enabling DACA recipients and other students to become lawful permanent residents; and (3) in the case of immigrants who have been convicted of crimes, restoring immigration judges’ abilities to weigh respondents’ equities in the United States against the harms associated with their crime before determining whether or not to order respondents to be removed. One constraint that I have identified in my research is that increasingly, individuals are being granted temporary status rather than lawful permanent residency. While immigrants usually consider temporary protections (such as DACA or TPS) to be improvements over being undocumented, such statuses also create classes of long-term residents who have limited rights and uncertain futures. For example, such temporarily authorized residents cannot petition for family members, cannot vote, and cannot reenter the country legally if they leave without advanced parole. Temporary statuses thus prolong separations from family members in recipients’ countries of origin, and delay full integration into the United States. In devising reforms, it is important to avoid creating “second tier” statuses, in which individuals are precluded for lengthy periods from enjoying the rights associated with democratic societies.

Lastly, the category “migrant youth” includes young people who have lived the bulks of their lives in the United States but have been deported to their countries of origin – what law professor Daniel Kanstroom has referred to as “the New American Disaspora.” In developing new policies, it is worth considering these former residents, who may have close family members in the United States and who frequently attended U.S. schools and acculturated to U.S. society. Policies might specify the circumstances in which such individuals could earn the right to return to the United States legally, either for temporary visits with their relatives, or with the ability to remain in the country. Such circumstances might include evidence of close family ties in the United States, law-abidingness in their country of origin for a specified period of time following deportation, and educational or job-related accomplishments.

4. Has your fielwork research revealed any weaknesses in the way that immigration law-/policy-making is done?

A key weakness is a disconnect between the realities of immigrants’ lives and the ways that their lives are envisioned legally. Long-time residents, particularly those who immigrated as children, are in many respects de facto citizens, in that they may speak fluent English, have graduated from U.S. schools, have U.S. citizen relatives, and live and work in U.S. communities. Yet, such individuals can still be treated as unlawful residents subject to removal if apprehended. This disconnect could be overcome by making it possible to give greater legal weight to the substantive ties that individuals develop in the United States. Furthermore, a second weakness is what I think of as the “receding deadline”: opportunities for immigrants’ to regularize their statuses have deadlines which, as time passes, fewer and fewer people are able to meet. It would be more sustainable to devise additional grounds for entry or adjustment that, though restrictive in terms of eligibility, would be ongoing. Finally and most importantly, immigration policies should be evaluated in light of other U.S. policies in order to better address the conditions that lead individuals to immigrate in the first place. Ideally, individuals would be able to achieve their life goals without having to uproot themselves and travel to other countries. For this reason, immigrant rights activists outside the United States have sometimes campaigned for the “right not to emigrate,” that is, for conditions that foster education, job opportunities, and security in individuals’ home communities. By adopting a more holistic approach that evaluates immigration in relation to other policy areas, the United States can help to promote such conditions.


i. 990,553 to be exact.