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Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

• August 28, 2014 • 11:38 AM

(Photo: Public Domain)

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

In the United States, we enjoy congratulating ourselves on the fact that we have a developed country. But according to a new study, there are plenty of young people within our borders that labor “for up to 11 hours per day, six days per week, and report a median of $350 in wages per week.”

“My research is motivated by the painful experiences of poverty, violence, discrimination, and isolation that unaccompanied Central American young adults face,” says Stephanie Lynnette Canizales, a sociologist at the University of Southern California.

Recently, she conducted nearly 200 hours of group interviews in Los Angeles, plus 15 in-depth conversations with “unauthorized youth who came to the U.S. as unaccompanied minors in order to support their families abroad.” The people she spoke to mostly do garment work, service and domestic jobs, construction, and maintenance; range in age from 18 to 35; and are all from indigenous Mayan villages in Guatemala. They had lived in the U.S. between four and 19 years, and most didn’t have more than a fourth-grade education.

There are five million undocumented youth in the U.S. (a fifth of them live in California), and the majority of them—62 percent—are overlooked by both the educational and military-service systems.

Canizales framed the questions in a way that would help her better understand the experiences of migrant youth working in the U.S., with the hope that she could influence future policy decisions that might affect them. After analyzing the interview data, she concluded that at-risk migrant youth are all but ignored when it comes to U.S. policymaking.

There are five million undocumented youth in the U.S. (a fifth of them live in California), and the majority of them—62 percent—are overlooked by both the educational and military-service systems, according to Canizales’ study. “What hit me hardest,” she says, “and poses the greatest challenge in doing this work, is that these young people have no one to turn to for support, guidance, or to shoulder the burden.”

That burden, Canizales learned, includes depression, stress, and anxiety due to poor working conditions and the pressure to provide for their families back home. Interview subjects also said they were unable to pursue professional training or education, let alone leisure or community opportunities—a reflection, Canizales says, of “what is lost when unauthorized youth learn to be illegal.”

When suggesting solutions to the suppressed lives of our undocumented youth, Canizales mentions ideas like “financial literacy courses, workers’ rights education, health clinics, and support groups,” things that “might serve to bolster these youths’ health, well-being, and sense of inclusion.”

The current policies that exist to serve them, such as the DREAM Act’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, are based, she says, on a “narrow understanding of undocumented working youth.” What’s really needed, Canizales concludes in the study, is immigration reform that addresses earnings and hours, and “eliminates the fear of being fired or deported for reporting unfair treatment and work conditions.”

“These children leave their homes hoping to escape poverty and violence,” Canizales says, “but face conditions no different in the U.S. And any aspiration for the future is stifled by the immediate need to make ends meet. It’s a vicious cycle.”


Rosie Spinks contributed reporting. 

Avital Andrews
Avital Andrews writes about thought leaders, environmental issues, food, and travel. She also reports for Sierra, the Los Angeles Times, and the Huffington Post. Follow her on Twitter at @avitalb.

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