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Stephanie Canizales on the Experiences of Undocumented and Unaccompanied Youth Workers

  • Stephanie Canizales
  • June 2020
  • PC86-2020

Stephanie L. Canizales
Stephanie L. Canizales

In this episode, Stephanie Canizales of the University of California, Merced discusses her work talking to undocumented and unaccompanied youth workers in Los Angeles about their experiences and struggles with work and social integration in the United States.

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Chancellor: Hello and thanks for joining us for the Poverty Research and Policy Podcast from the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. I’m Dave Chancellor. For this episode, we hear from Stephanie Canizales about her work talking to undocumented and unaccompanied youth workers in Los Angeles about their experiences and struggles with work and social integration in the United States. At the time of our interview, Canizales—who is a sociologist—was a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California-Merced and she’ll begin her appointment as an assistant professor of sociology there in the fall of 2020. When we first started talking, I asked her what it means for a young person to be unaccompanied and undocumented and how we should understand the context of this research.

Canizales: We know about unaccompanied minors from the 2014 humanitarian crisis on the border. And we have sort of talked about their trajectories in the U.S., their arrival and what their futures might look like based on what we know about undocumented youth already living in the U.S. So, these high achieving dreamers, the DACA kids, students moving from high school to college and the various challenges they face either in college or in the labor market. And so, we have this image of what an undocumented kid looks like and I use data from a study I conducted between 2012 and 2016 on what I call long-settled unaccompanied youth. So they are youth who arrived in the U.S. between 2003 and 2013, as young as 9 years old, as old as 17 and who have grown up in the U.S. as unaccompanied youth, meaning entirely without a caregiver, a parent, or a designated guardian or sponsor. They were not detected at the border, come to the U.S. to support families abroad. So their integration or incorporation experience is really shaped by their work, the fact that they are financially responsible for themselves and families abroad and that they are navigating U.S. social structures and the emotion and everyday life of being alone, undocumented, a Latino immigrant in a very hostile anti-immigrant social context, by themselves, without the significant others that the sociological literature really points to—the parents, the extended family, the community advocates, and teachers and peers in schools—that really support the development, the sense of belonging and the inclusion of undocumented youth. I am really just interested in how work shapes the way that youth interact with nonwork spaces and nonwork agents in everyday life.

Chancellor: I asked Canizales how she began this research and how she went about meeting the people she talked to.

Canizales: Yeah, so this study started in 2011. I was told by my dissertation advisor to go get a sense of the landscape in Los Angeles and I had no idea what that meant, but it did lead me to several support groups for undocumented youth. And the first two that I visited were the students, right, the undocumented youth that we know about from news and policy. And I came across this group of undocumented youth, central American youth who were also unaccompanied. And in 2011 I didn’t know what that really meant and it kind of just blew my mind that that segment of the population existed, but they were youth who worked in the garment industry in downtown LA. They met once a week in a support group setting that they just initiated themselves. And no one was trained in psychology, no one was trained in how to deal with the matters that were brought up in the group, but it was about 30 kids who would get together once a week for two hours at a coffee shop and over all the noise and the bustling and the movement, they would essentially just answer one question. How was your week? And they would take turns, go around and talk about their weeks. And it brought up family stuff, migration trauma, challenges at work, challenges in the apartments or various neighborhoods they were living in, relationship things, anything that came up in just their weekly lives, right? And I followed that group for about a year and a half before I first wrote about. And it is a part of my four-year study. Right, I stayed with that group for a very long period of time. But I used my networks from that organization to then move into churches because youth talked about how they experienced Velatrazo or setback by participating in religious organizations that didn’t give tangible benefits towards overcoming poverty or illegality, but it was more like “God will provide and God will find a way for you” and they said that that led to years of setback. And then from there, I just started snowball sampling my way through LA. I ended up with 95 interviews. Again the four years of observation in various organizations, so in legal service centers, in work service centers, in community cultural events, in other churches down the line, support groups, book clubs, running clubs, hiking clubs, anything that youth kind of participated in that they led me to, I would follow them to that. And the interviews were a total spectrum of experience, I have now three categories of unaccompanied kids, the first one being kids who have a long settled relative in the U.S. that might offer some form of support. Another category of kids who have no relative support and make their way through these community groups. And another set of participants who are entirely without support. All they do is work. And they don’t have friend groups or outlets for a lot of the challenges that they’re facing. And you can imagine that the people with relatives were a lot more emotionally stable and had better incorporation experiences and the kids that were on their own, it was a lot of tears, a lot of unresolved trauma, a lot of challenges that they still faced, even maybe 15 years into their settlement in the U.S.

Chancellor: When we think of undocumented labor, a lot of us probably think of it as an adult activity. So, for this group of kids who don’t have support, who have to work on their own, one of the questions that Canizales had was how they got connected to jobs.

Canizales: And now we have this body of, this segment of the immigrant population that is falling in line with everything that we know about undocumented labor migration to the U.S. and the conditions of undocumented labor in the U.S. So it’s all the same things but it’s interesting because I live in downtown LA and I didn’t live in downtown at the time of data collection so when youth would tell me how they found jobs, I thought, it can’t be that easy for an 11 year old to find a factory job or to find a car washer job or a dishwasher job. I just couldn’t fathom that someone would hire a 10, 11, 12-year-old. But now that I live in downtown LA, I actually see signs on buildings that look abandoned. That say, “Sewer needed, second floor.” In Spanish of course. And then I’ve gone up to the second floor and it looks like and abandoned floor and I imagine people just knock there and that’s how the interaction begins. But there are just little signs posted all around downtown. “Dishwasher needed. Ask for this person.” And that’s what entry looks like, right? The conditions are then pretty much the same. Kids talk about on the factories, their eyes hurting from dim lighting, right? And these factories, they’re trying to be as discreet as possible. They don’t want to be inspected, they don’t want to draw attention, so very dim lighting, no fresh air, no windows open. Some of the bathrooms being locked. Being afraid to take a meal break or restroom break because they’re paid piece rate so for whatever number of sleeves they’re able to sew that day, that’s what they’re paid for which may be six or seven dollars even though they’re working nine hours, 13 hours of the day. Kids talking about working 66 hours in a week and only making $70. It’s just unbelievable to me. And then in car washes, some of the younger kids, especially if they’re indigenous, are ridiculed by the older men and we know about this from the literature. Wage theft is rampant across all of the occupations. I had a case where a kid had worked eight months and the employer asked him—at a restaurant—and the employer asked him, how much is your rent? We’re struggling a little bit this month and then the next month the same, and the next month the same, but asking how much is your rent, I’ll at least cover that and then I’ll pay you back. Eight months went by when they were getting paid the bare minimum and then the restaurant shut down and the employer disappeared and he calculated that he lost about $18,000 worth of wages in that time. Things like that come up all the time but I think what sticks with me the most is I talk about in my research the financial costs of low wage labor, things that come with getting your hours denied, wage theft all of those things, but also the physical and mental health effects of that labor. The migraines, the ulcers from the stress, the eye tensions and eye aches, right? Also, I’ll talk about it later, but I had a respondent who said that they had migraines Monday through Thursday while they were at work. And the entire time, they’re thinking about the migraine they’ll have tomorrow. Right, so just the anticipatory stress of being in pain the next day and how that slows productivity and when you’re getting paid piece rate, it all just kind of cyclically affects the general sense of stability in an already unstable labor market. So it’s just these experiences that you wouldn’t imagine minors are dealing with, but it’s happening in cities like LA, New York, Chicago, San Francisco and a lot of people think that the industries are in other countries, and we shame those countries for the way they treat children, but it’s happening in our own major cities here in the U.S.

Chancellor: I asked Canizales how she thought about the stories of these young people given the narratives we have about work and advancement and mobility in the United States—and how that played out for them.

Canizales: Yeah, I think one of the interesting things, the irony of this research is that the more youth work, the worse things get. Which is what you wouldn’t expect in a story of mobility or incorporation, right, but if we continue to see people through extreme exploitation and low wage work, things only get worse. Especially if we think about the physical and emotional and mental health tolls on the body of this sort of labor. Their incorporation I think really depends on the institutional context that they’re in. So, the school versus the work track, and also the social networks that they’re able to draw on. So, one of the things I argue in this particular study is that by having work as the primary organizing institution, so I refer to it as “work primacy”, we’re limiting the ability of youth to participate in other organizations that might see them out of those workspaces, but also alleviate a lot of the other challenges they’re facing.

Chancellor: And Canizales emphasizes that mobility is more complex than just money or education and that the ability to participate in things outside of work is a way for young people to grow and advance.

Canizales: There are kids who start the book clubs and the support groups and are able to see the emotional and mental health mobility even though their financial situation remains precarious. Or, say someone started in low wage labor, didn’t have any social ties, and then they met someone who really shifted their access to organizations or jobs. I still keep in touch with some of my respondents and one of the young people just got a forklift certification in LA and he started as a garment worker, went to restaurant work, got picked up for some floral arrangement job and now is a forklift driver. And that may not be extreme mobility or be counted as achievement to a lot of people, but just that trajectory knowing what garment work is like and knowing what restaurant work is like, to be able to even have something that certifies a professional skill is extreme mobility for these young people. So, despite the disadvantages of work primacy or the stagnation that comes through participation in some organizations over others, there are ways that youth move through. Once you have someone like this forklift driver who can say, ok, garment worker, newcomer, this is how you get to be where I am. They become mentors and advocates on their own behalf, right. And they’re seeing ways that they can give back to their local community and I saw that especially post 2014 when the unaccompanied long settled migrants would talk about the newcomers and it’s interesting that even when you’re among the most disadvantaged populations, you still see some of the resources and benefit that you have to people that are stepping into your current situation.

Chancellor: As Canizales has mentioned, many of these young people were working to try to support their families abroad, so I asked her what those family connections looked like.

Canizales: A lot of the youth I interviewed were the first in their families to migrate—in their immediate families. So, parents hadn’t migrated before. Maybe an older sibling migrated, but one of the things I talk about in my research is that the conditions of the labor market paired with the cost of living in the U.S. make it so that the youth can’t remit the amount that they promised the families back home. So what happens over time is that young people might start to detach themselves either out of shame or embarrassment for not being able to meet family need or just because they can’t bear hearing about the need and not being able do anything about it, right? Family ties might be lost so to transnational families, one of the ways that I track mobility within this very disadvantaged population is the ways that they reengage family ties after a certain amount of years, right? Feeling like, ok I have enough sense of the financial situation here, how to manage my money, and I have emotional stability enough where I can sacrifice myself to send money back, that is mobility. Re-engaging family ties that may be lost.

Chancellor: With many of these young people being the first in their families to migrate, one of the things that Canizales has looked at is how they’ve developed social networks on this side of the border and if there are others, including relatives who have been settled in the U.S. for some time, who might step in to offer support.

Canizales: So those long-settled relatives, they are usually aunts and uncles, the cousins, older siblings, sometimes I had once case of a grandparent which tells me that grandparents are out there. But a lot of what gets in the way of being able to offer support to young people is the undocumented status of the long-settled individual which has them in legal and financial precarity. Not wanting to take on another financial burden, which pairs well with the idea that in their home countries kids have been working for years already, as young as 2–3 years old, shining shoes or helping parents sell things at local markets so the long settle relative usually says, well you can take care of yourself, right, you can work. Because you did it before. So the logic within the community makes sense there. And then we have lawyers and advocates who are saying that that’s not the way that it’s supposed to go, right? But the long-settled adult relative doesn’t see that as violent or particularly harmfully intended.

Chancellor: Canizales says that when it comes to whether long-settled relatives may be able to receive or support a child, there are a lot of moving pieces and we get into questions of age and gender and sexuality and also the constraints of legal status that can really affect these situations.

Canizales: I have cases where kids are welcomed into a household but they are emotionally supported, but they’re not financially supported so the kid has to work, pay rent, contribute to bills and food, but in the interview, the young person said, well at least I have them. And then the opposite of that, when someone knows that a relative lives down the street and they weren’t able to take them in, the emotional consequence of that really impacts the ways that they experience incorporation and look for support in other spaces later down the line. But another thing is gender, young men are a lot less likely to be supported than the young women. The gender of the relative also, if it’s a man receiving a man, you can imagine the gender ideologies there. Well, you’re supposed to take care of yourself and then I have my own family to take care of. A man receiving a young girl, depends on whether or not he has a spouse and if the spouse is supportive of the idea of a young girl entering the house. Right, so young girls being sexualized. Gloria Gonzales Lopez talks about this. She’s at UT Austin, how sexuality is a really big part of the ways that family members relate to one another, right? Then you have the case of a young boy arriving with a relative who is a woman and what her relationship status is and what her partner feels welcoming of the child.

Chancellor: Canizales says that one of the things she tries to emphasize in this work is the importance of thinking about emotion or emotional wellbeing when it comes to incorporation and socioeconomic mobility.

Canizales: A lot of what we talk about in terms of mobility is and value in terms of what immigrants bring to U.S. society is their socioeconomic and educational achievements. And we saw with DACA being brought up to the Supreme Court that narrative, that immigrants need to have some kind of economic value in order to be included, brought into, welcomed by a society. And when we then apply that to whether or not we want certain groups to come into the U.S. or to build community in the US, we would say that unaccompanied kids—and we’re saying it now—are not valuable, they are not welcomed. That they are unassimilable, are a threat to the US economy and services, and the narrative that we’re seeing. But if we think about kids who come to the U.S. on their own, are workers, supporting families abroad, in deep depression, isolation, sick, physically sick from the migration journey and then you get to the point where they’re so emotionally and financially stable where even though they’re not in school, they’re not activists, they don’t have a college degree, they are mentoring their peers in their community and supporting families abroad—that is mobility and that’s value. And that’s even just adopting the economic frame. But the fact that people are working in these low wage occupations and enduring the conditions and enduring isolation for the sake of supporting other people, that’s crazy mobility to me, right? And that’s a story of wanting belonging and feeling a sense of belonging and commitment. I have a few construction worker respondents, a few youth who are construction workers in my sample and they say, “I walk around LA and I see the buildings, and I built this place, right?” I contributed to the infrastructure and this is my home. And my dissertation was called finding home because of narratives like that, right, because youth, even though they imagined coming to the U.S. for two or three years, they were 19 years in and that was way longer than they imagined but that also meant that they were redefining home, redefining where they felt that they belonged. And it isn’t always a college degree and the aspiration to be an immigration lawyer. It’s getting out of depression and wanting to help someone else also do the same. And that’s something that I hope to always drive home when I talk about this population. We can’t count them out as not contributing or a potential threat to U.S. society or our growth and development. They’re contributing in very unique, different ways. And as children who come of age in U.S. society and can see others, the recently arrived kids, through that same process.

Chancellor: When it comes to thinking about ways we can improve policy in this area, Canizales says we should pay attention to and value the wide variety of experiences and backgrounds within the undocumented Latino population and make policy that’s responsive to that.

Canizales: I think to that end, I will say that that policy should, based on my research, I hope policy will look for kids in these nontraditional spaces. And DACA has been glorified as the most inclusive immigration policy in the last several decades but it’s qualifications are hinged on educational achievement, date of arrival, the idea that someone was holding on to your papers—documentation, proof that you’ve been in the US for a certain number of years. And there’s this—undocumented youth that’s expected to exist that has the support of household and communities in school and that all of those things then contribute to their ability to then qualify for this inclusive policy. So in terms of policy, I would hope that we can think of kids outside of those traditional spaces, right, and outside of those traditional narratives, what does it mean to not have years and years of documentation proving that you’ve been in the U.S. even though you’ve spent 11 years here. Or what does it mean to not have spent a single day in school but you still don’t know where else you would go if you weren’t in Los Angeles or in the state of California for my respondents. So, I would hope that policy moves away from this idealized child or the idealized immigrant family and that very economically valuable immigrant and think of the heterogeneity within the youth population if our focus is on incorporating youth or the heterogeneity within the undocumented Latino population very broadly.

Chancellor: As Canizales mentioned before, a lot of the experiences of the young people she talked to didn’t neatly fit into some of the usual narratives that the literature about migration has for undocumented youth.

Canizales: What was so interesting and what continues to be challenging about writing about this population or analyzing the experience is that a lot of the literature situates youth in these supportive contexts or in these traditional—the taboo—assimilatory trajectories, right? But when you talk about kids who are outside of school, that don’t have parents, that are struggling to find their community, it’s drawing in all of these other bodies of literature that have really not talked about this population and then thinking about the ways that things like extreme poverty, right, eviction, which the migration literature doesn’t talk about, homelessness or the foster care system, taking bits of that work and really incorporating it into how we talk about the immigrant youth population.

Chancellor: Thanks so much to Stephanie Canizales for sharing this work. You can learn more about her research on her website at StephanieCanizales.com. This podcast was supported as part of a grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation but its contents don’t necessarily represent the opinions or policies of that Office, any other agency of the Federal government, or the Institute for Research on Poverty. To catch new episodes of the Poverty Research and Policy Podcast, you can subscribe on Apple, Stitcher, or Google Play Podcasts. You can also find all of our past episodes on the Institute for Research on Poverty website. Our theme music for this episode is “Staring Straight” by Maarten De Boer. Thanks for listening. 


Child Development & Well-Being, Children, Employment, Immigration, Inequality & Mobility, Labor Market, Low-Wage Work, Racial/Ethnic Inequality, Transition to Adulthood