The International Smuggling of Children: Coyotes, Snakeheads, and the Politics of Compassion

By Uehling, Greta Lynn | Anthropological Quarterly, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

The International Smuggling of Children: Coyotes, Snakeheads, and the Politics of Compassion


Uehling, Greta Lynn, Anthropological Quarterly


Abstract

Each year, over 100,000 children are apprehended entering the United States unaccompanied by parents or legal guardians, and without valid immigration documents. As many as 8,000 of these children are placed in an elaborate system of border patrol detention centers, shelter facilities, and courts. While the Department of Health and Human Services (through the Office of Refugee Resettlement) funds programs that care for the undocumented immigrants, the Department of Justice, (through the Department of Homeland Security) sweeps up and deports the very same children (or their parents). Apprehended children therefore bring to light the competing agendas of security and humanitarianism. Based on interviews with policy makers and program officers, visits to the shelters, and interviews with the children, this article explores the politics of compassion surrounding these migrants. In order to provide more humane and egalitarian response to the migration, the tensions and contradictions inherent in current practices need to be made more conscious. Considering migration from Mexico, Central America, China, and India, the paper challenges the racially and ethnically-coded system that protects some children more than others. Rather than dismantling the politics of compassion, what is needed is a clearer understanding of the children's paths to the United States, and a system without the racial and ethic hierarchies that are currently in place. Otherwise, children will be confined to the space between the war on terror that treats immigrants, even below the age of 18, as security threats, and politics of compassion that emerged from early 21st century immigration reform. [Keywords: migration, immigration, state, children, childhood, politics of compassion, humanitarianism]

Each year, over 100,000 children are apprehended entering the United States unaccompanied by parents or legal guardians, and without valid immigration documents.1 Many more children escape detection and become part of the nation's population of 10 million undocumented immigrants. 2 Their migration would not be possible without human smugglers: "coyotes" or "polleros" bring hundreds of thousands of migrants across the United States' southern border, and "snakeheads" transport children through complex routes from Asia. Most of the smuggling operations are better compared to small businesses than to what was considered, in the nineteenth century to be a "slave trade," but the networks and operations vary.3 In the best-case scenarios, the children are reunited with family or other caregivers at the end of their journey. However, the debts incurred, ranging from several thousand dollars to come from Mexico or Central America, to an average of 50,000 to 70,000 dollars to come from India or China, make the children particularly vulnerable to human trafficking and other forms of exploitation.4 Children are expected to help pay off the debt, and in addition to laboring in restaurants, construction sites, garment factories, and chicken farms, are sometimes drawn into prostitution and forms debt bondage.

While the majority of children5 disperse into the landscape of undocumented immigrants, an increasing number are apprehended by immigration authorities and enter an elaborate system of border patrol detention centers, shelter facilities, and courts.6 With increased forces placed on the southern border, there are narrowed options for crossing. Once apprehended by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), children are held in detention centers. Although many (particularly Mexicans) are deported or transferred to adult detention, children deemed to be unaccompanied are slated for reunification with family members. In 2007, roughly 8,000 children were transferred from ICE to the Division of Unaccompanied Alien Children's Services (DUCS) managed by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), part of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).7 This article delves into the tensions and contradictions surrounding these children. …

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