Illegal Encounters

Illegal Encounters: The Effect of Detention and Deportation on Young People, edited by Deborah A. Boehm and Susan J. Terrio (New York: NYU Press, 2019)

Reviewed by Hilary Parsons Dick, Arcadia University

Deborah A. Boehm and Susan J. Terrio’s edited volume shines much needed light on the effects of US immigration policy on young migrants in the United States, focusing on the experiences of migrants from Latin America who reside in or seek entry into the United States. Their contributors most closely examine the contemporary detention and deportation regime from the early 1990s to the initiation of the Trump administration in January 2017. During this period (and since), Latin American migrants have been disproportionately targeted and affected by deportation and detention, as well as by other relevant policies examined in the volume. In foregrounding the experiences of children and teens, who have unique needs and rights distinct from those of adults, Illegal Encounters makes a critical contribution to our understanding of the tensions and effects of immigration policy.

Immigration policy—its creation, debate, and implementation—spotlights a core problematic for all liberal democracies: to realize the rights of nation-state sovereignty, which depend on distinctions between an “us” who is entitled to dwell in the state’s territory and a “them” who is not; and, simultaneously, to maintain commitments to universal human rights (e.g., “all men are created equal”), which push against us/them distinctions and aim to extend rights to all persons. There are few practices of nation-state institutions that reveal more overtly how this dynamic unfolds in practice than immigration policy, which at its core is about who gets to be a part of the nation-state and how. In US immigration policy, there has long been an effort to balance the rights of sovereignty with universal human rights. This balance is illustrated, for example, in the 1965 reform of the country’s immigration system, which established a visa-allocation system primarily made up of kin-based categories (Ngai 2004). This system was motivated by an effort to at once delineate and delimit who can enter the US legally (a defense of sovereignty) and to reunite families (a humanitarian concern). Such efforts, however, create unresolved frictions that must continually be negotiated.

In recent decades, such frictions have been increasingly negotiated through a movement toward favoring the defense of sovereignty over universal human rights. This trend is evinced in draconian crackdowns that tighten people’s access to legal entry and impose increasingly harsh penalties on unauthorized border-crossers. Such crackdowns have dominated immigration policy in most migrant-receiving countries since the latter part of the twentieth century. As Jason De León, Susan Bibler Coutin, and others show in their contributions to Illegal Encounters, crackdowns help produce a broader immigrant illegality that posits violations of immigration laws as putative signs of unauthorized migrants’ inherent criminality and immorality. The lived realities produced by immigration crackdowns and their associated forms of immigrant illegality are powerfully documented in Illegal Encounters, which shows how children’s experiences of these realities are shaped by complex and often dysfunctional interactions between US criminal justice, immigration, and child welfare systems.

The volume is organized into three parts, each of which illuminates a key dimension of the encounters that Latin American youth migrants have with US immigration policy. Part one lays the foundation for understanding the contemporary detention and deportation regime and examines children’s experiences with this regime. Part two explores the laws that impact children residing in the United States, which include this regime as well as other parts of the US legal immigration system. Part three documents the multifaceted ways migrant youth resist their positioning within US policy and politics as an “illegal people.” Each part of the volume opens with a helpful overview written by the editors, followed by several short scholarly pieces on related topics, and closed with two reflections by migrant youth and those who advocate for them. A multiperspectival picture emerges that exposes the profound injustices migrant youth face, as well as their inspiring courage in seeking to reform the systems that produce these injustices.

A standout contribution of the volume is its documentation of the fact that immigration crackdowns do not just affect people entering or residing in the US without authorization. They also have a powerful impact upon people with legal status in the US, including millions of US citizen children whose parents could be, or have already been, detained and deported. Therefore, immigration crackdowns should not be dismissed as straightforward, unproblematic efforts to defend the rule of law. Rather, they often lead to violations the rule of law, as they limit people’s access to rights to which they are entitled. Consider Nina Rabin and Cecilia Menjivar’s chapter on immigrant teens from Mexico who are in the US without their parents. The youth they work with either have US citizenship or are eligible for Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which grants temporary legal status to people brought into the US as minors. Yet, these teens are unable to successfully navigate the US immigration system because of a lack of access to legal representation and other resources that make such navigation possible. For instance, the cost to apply for DACA status is prohibitive for many youth (an intentional barrier placed to make the regularization of legal status difficult and to encourage departures from the US).

Such violations of people’s rights are concerning in any event. Illegal Encounters emphasizes that these violations are especially disturbing when they involve children: they not only undercut the rule of law, but also—as Jacqueline Bhabha explains in the insightful commentary that closes the volume—call into question the status of children, and childhood itself, in the 21st century. These points are underscored powerfully in the contributions that examine children’s encounters with the immigration courts (see chapters by Susan Terrio; Wendy Young & Megan McKenna; Dana Leigh Marks). As these chapters show, children are left unassisted or given only limited assistance in courtroom proceedings, which are fast tracked as part of the broader crackdown approach. Many asylum hearings are just minutes long and are conducted without child advocates or effective translation services, placing already traumatized children into situations of greater precarity. As Susan Terrio underscores, the treatment of undocumented youth in such proceedings troubles the constitutional right to due process and equal protection, regardless of legal status, as well as the state’s responsibility to protect the welfare of children.

Immigration crackdowns, this volume also shows, function not only to remove people from or restrain their access to a country; they are also a form of immigrant incorporation into that country. In the United States, immigration policy toward Latin American migration, and especially that targeted at migration from Mexico and Central America, has long worked to produce an “immigrant underclass” that is easily exploitable (here quoting Susan Bibler Coutin from her contribution to the volume, pg. 76). This fact is well documented in the existing literature on adult migrants. The troubling question this volume forces the reader to confront is: What happens when children grow up as part of such an underclass in increasingly perilous conditions, including lengthy detentions in poor facilities that do not meet children’s basic biological needs, let alone their needs for a decent education and familial nurturing? Crucially, though, this volume also shows that migrant youth are not just victims of the formidable challenges they face. They are also able to confront their marginalization and creatively seek ways to gain recognition in US society.

Along with its many valuable interventions, Illegal Encounters also has drawbacks. The scholarly chapters (and here I am intentionally setting aside the reflections) are uneven in their clarity and efficacy: some productively convey and support their key claims; others are disordered and vague in their aims. In addition, it would have been helpful throughout if the editors had more clearly signaled the main policies and issues that affect children as there are several covered. A clear enumeration of such policies would have been beneficial. One particularly problematic rhetorical strategy used throughout the scholarly chapters is the inclusion of long excerpts from the narratives of the author’s research participants. Too often these narratives are included without explication of the point the author aims to convey with the excerpt and without evidence that shows a given excerpt is representative of a broader pattern.

I assume the narratives are included in an effort to have migrants speak for themselves: an important aim to be sure (and one that is achieved more effectively in the reflections written by migrants themselves). But excerpts in isolation can be interpreted in multiple ways. The authors cannot assume that what they think an excerpt illustrates is the same as what the reader thinks it illustrates; they must clarify that point through explanation of the relevance of the excerpt. This is especially imperative given that one of the stated aims of the book is to meaningfully intervene into policy debate and formation. To do so, especially in a context in which Latin American migrants (including children) are lambasted and criminalized, requires being exceptionally clear in one’s argument.

For people who are migrants or who live with, work with, and know and love migrants, it can seem impossible that anyone could hear narratives like the ones in the volume and not reject immigration crackdowns. Disappointingly, however, humanizing-narrative approaches to migration debates tend not to be especially effective in moving the policy needle, in part because of the major political economic interests served by immigration crackdowns. This brings me to my final points of critique.

No one volume can cover every topic; and certainly this volume covers a lot of critical issues. There are, however, three areas overlooked that are essential to understanding the experiences of migrant youth. One area, already intimated above, is the powerful political economic interests created and served by immigration crackdowns. The current period of draconian immigration policy in the US makes possible and is made possible by massive expansions in for-profit detention centers and other processes of securitization. It would have been helpful to learn how these expansions uniquely impact migrant youth. Another major area overlooked is language practices. Migrant children are, for instance, often forced to serve as translators for their parents in high-stakes situations like interactions with immigration officials. Such experiences are alluded to provocatively in the reflection by Judge Dana Leigh Marks, but they are not taken up in any sustained way by the volume. This is strange given that an underlying theme of Illegal Encounters is that immigration crackdowns problematically force children to deal with situations they are ill-equipped to handle because of their age and accompanying stage of development. Language acquisition is fundamental to childhood development and also to the constitution of encounters with legal regimes, and yet not one contribution in this volume considers this facet of migrant children’s lives. Finally, I was surprised that the volume did not fully consider how the politics of race, gender, and class organize immigration crackdowns and the illegal encounters they create. These politics are alluded to throughout, and they are absolutely central to shaping how people are treated by and can interact with legal institutions and actors. However, there is neither a clear theory of race, gender, and class advanced by the volume nor any systematic working through how these processes shape children’s development and their encounters with immigration systems.

These critiques notwithstanding, Illegal Encounters establishes critical terrain for further scholarship and advocacy. Regrettably, its insights have only become more pressing since the onset of the Trump administration and the unprecedented attacks its Justice Department has made on the rights of migrants and their loved ones, including hundreds of thousands of migrant and US citizen children.