Where Research and Real Life Collide

This morning I woke up at home after a quick trip to England. I was attending a conference on migration hosted by a journal for which I occasionally I review. The event was free and there were some people I was interested in hearing on the program.http://www.sussex.ac.uk/migration/seminars/conferences/3rdconference. To keep my thinking fresh, it helps to get out of my routine and listen to smart people talk about issues I care about. Inevitably I return to my work with new eyes. Yet when I opened the newspaper this morning, it was not “my work” that I was thinking about in the context of the conference; it was Wildin Acosta, an 18 year old senior at Riverside High School in Durham, NC who could be deported to his native Honduras at any moment following a judge’s decision to deny his request for an asylum hearing.

He’s been in detention in Georgia for about six weeks and has requested that his teachers, who have been in contact by phone, send him homework so that he may have a chance of graduating in June. His high school has rallied to his defense with teachers and students holding vigils and writing letters to courts and elected representatives. Indeed, the representative for the area in which he lives has requested review of the latest decision from the highest levels of the federal government and the city council passed a resolution on his behalf. But the options are running out for him as today’s article in the Raleigh News and Observer details http://www.newsobserver.com/news/local/counties/durham-county/article66942212.html .

Wildin’s story brings to life the language I was hearing at the conference. Alex Betts of Oxford uses the term survival migrants: individuals who are not choosing to leave their homeland for better economic chances; they are coming because they must if they and their families are to have a chance to survive. The threats they experience might include the violence of grinding poverty or physical violence. This language gives voice to so much of my work with new immigrants in North Carolina. Their choice to move is not about income per se. It is about survival. It is the Acosta family’s story too. Beginning with Wildin’s father, family members began leaving Honduras 10 years ago due to escalating violence and poverty. His mother followed a few years later. When both had gotten stable work here in the US, they sent for their children. At 16 years old, Wildin made the treacherous journey only to be stopped at the Texas border. He explained to border patrol that he was leaving Honduras due to gang threats in Honduras. Read this NYT article from 2014, the year Wildin came to the U.S., to learn more about the realities of life there. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/10/world/americas/fleeing-gangs-children-head-to-us-border.html?_r=0. He went to his first hearing and was advised not to return for his second by an attorney because he had turned 18 and was at greater risk of being deported. It is at that moment that his situation became particularly precarious. Here’s the second new term I learned.

Precarity: a term applied by Elaine Chase of University College, London to capture more accurately the ways in which immigrant and refugee young people are vulnerable. She argues convincingly that the vulnerabilities associated with these young people are not really vulnerabilities at all – they are precarities: vulnerabilities that come from their status as refugees or undocumented immigrants or unaccompanied minors. A quick google search told me that the social class in this situation is now referred to as the “precariat.” This too is Wildin’s story. This young man is solid student, growing up in a working, two-parent household. He had plans to attend Durham Tech after graduation. He has friends, played sports, and has won the respect of his teachers. He is not involved drugs or other illegal activity. He exemplifies current data out of the UT Austin School of Social Work that immigrants are 50 % less likely to binge drink, be involved in any way with illegal drugs, and 33% less likely to commit violent crimes as compared to their native born counter parts. https://socialwork.utexas.edu/directory/salas-wright_christopher/ . In other words, he is not vulnerable, at-risk, high-risk, a risk. Yet, he is also not “resilient.” He can’t be because the social structures in which he finds himself make his existence precarious. And in a democracy those structures are determined by you and me.

Many have and are speaking out on Wildin’s behalf. They are using the democratic process and their freedom of speech to protest an injustice in progress. If there is any silver lining to this story that’s not yet over, it allows, at least for a moment immigrants and refugees to move from being “them” to being “him,” a real kid, with real hopes, real promise, in real trouble. Like many, I will keep hoping for Wildin and others like him. I hope that an individual who hears his story and has the power to change it will use that power. And for the rest of us, my hope that we can move from seeing immigrants and refugees as burdens toward Alex Bett’s view in which people with very real needs can also be recognized as active agents that re-energize our communities and in so doing gain skills and resources to rebuild their own home countries when conflicts have resolved. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tiWwrdMqvvM

Image Credit: Stuart McAlpine

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