University of Illinois at Chicago

The Humanitarian Borderlands: Unaccompanied Immigrant Youth and Systems of Aid in the United States

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posted on 2018-07-25, 00:00 authored by Emily Magee Ruehs
Every year, tens of thousands of immigrant youth arrive to the United States unaccompanied by parents or legal guardians. They enter into a borderland space that includes not just securitization forces, but also a humanitarian system that is designed to protect youth. In this dissertation, I analyze this humanitarian space to demonstrate that despite the intentions of individual workers, the humanitarian regime is often complicit in shaping and enforcing a neoliberal global order that relies on victim subjectivities, cultural hierarchies, the control of immigrant bodies, and the logics of personal responsibility. In order to explore these tensions, I rely on interviews with 53 professionals who work with youth, testimonios with fifteen youth, and an auto-ethnography of myself as a child advocate. I map the professional humanitarians into three primary fields that work to integrate youth into American institutions: the field of family reunification works to integrate youth into the family; the field of legal relief works to integrate youth into the state; and the field of immigrant student outreach works to integrate youth into the education system. Within these fields, I uncover how beliefs about youth dependency and their relationship to parents and other adults creates inadequate humanitarian interventions. I identify the paradoxes that are present as humanitarians help youth to create stories, or borderland legends, about their lives that will gain legal relief. I argue that the education system serves as a stage for youth to perform acceptable adolescence, although the gateway to schools is often blocked. Finally, I look to the ways that both humanitarians and youth attempt to utilize the system to their advantage, despite its failures, to seek the best interest of the youth. Throughout, I emphasize the importance of youth’s own actions and agency in this process. Ultimately, I argue that humanitarian interventions fail to escape from the larger logics of neoliberalism and border securitization.



Garcia, Lorena


Garcia, Lorena



Degree Grantor

University of Illinois at Chicago

Degree Level

  • Doctoral

Committee Member

Clarno, Andy Flores-Gonzalez, Nilda Naber, Nadine Macias-Rojas, Patrisia

Submitted date

May 2018

Issue date


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