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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


Committee Member

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

Submitted date

May 2018

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