The United States abandons Mexican migrant children to violence and despair

Children waiting in the Desarrollo Integral de la Familia in Reynosa, Mexico

Migration analysts talk about sending and receiving nations. Sending nations are those countries that send, or `export’, its citizens to other countries. Receiving nations are those nations that receive, or `import’ or `absorb’, them. The status of some nation States has changed in the last two or three decades. For example, Italy and Greece were once considered sending nations, and today they are thought of as receiving nations.

Certain countries, such as the United States, are thought of as receiving nations. But that is only the case if the transnational and global export-import business is thought to be one of labor brokerage of national citizens. What are we to call those countries that export non-citizens, those countries that have made a business, a big business at that, of exporting asylum seekers, migrants, children?

Every year, the United States exports tens of thousands of unaccompanied migrant children to Mexico. These children are sent to centers run by Mexico’s social services agency called the Desarrollo Integral de la Familia, or DIF. In 2008, a Mexican congressional committee reported that the United States had deported 90,000 children, of whom at least 13,500 were never claimed. “Never claimed”: that means the children were never reunited with their families.

Who are these children? They are Mexican children who are heading to the north, most often to be reunited with … their families, with their mothers and fathers: “With few exceptions they’ll cross again because their parents or loved ones are en el otro lado and on the other side of the Rio Grande there is hope. Hope to study, to work, or to just hug their mothers or fathers again.”

Susana is in many ways exceptional and in other ways typical of the 90,000 children. First, she’s a girl; 80% of the children are boys. Second, as she sits in a DIF shelter in Matamoros, she says she’s ready to give up, to go home: ““I don’t want to stay here. I’m tired of fighting.” Gender and the intent to return home make her exceptional.

On the other hand, Susana has tried to enter the United States five times, and on each of the five attempts has failed. Every time, she was returned, unaccompanied, to Mexico. Every time, she turned around and tried again. Her father works in Kansas. They haven’t seen each other in five years. He works, struggles, and pays to have his daughter brought over. Each time, the journey costs $2500. Again and again, he pays, again and again she tries. Just to hug her father again. This makes her typical.

The children are sent to centers in Reynosa and Matamoros, centers of the current drug cartel and War on Drugs violence. Reynosa is reported to be one of the most dangerous places in Mexico. Often the children are released to strangers or to distant relatives. Often, some say more often than not, they are returned to the mean streets, and in particular those of Reynosa. So, they then go North because they want to, to be reunited or to study or work, or they go North because they are forced to. Some girls, some boys, may be tired of fighting, but that doesn’t mean they are safe. That doesn’t mean the fighting has tired of them.

What do you call a nation that seizes children, sends them unaccompanied into a violence torn war zone, and then washes its hands of the whole affair, and closes its eyes and ears to the fate of the children? That is neither a sending nor a receiving nation. That is a state of abandonment.

Susana wants to go home, but it’s not that simple. The center wants one of her parents to come and get her. Her father is in Kansas, her mother has to take care of her younger brothers and sisters. And so Susana waits, and like the other 90,000 Mexican children the United States has abandoned to violence and despair, haunts more than the borderlands. Susana haunts citizenship.

 

(Photo Credit: Texas Observer / Eugenio del Bosque)

 

Nascent Collectivities 2

Everlyn Masha Koya

In my previous posting, I looked at testimony of Everlyn Masha Koya, a twenty two year old sex worker-turned-peer educator from Isiolo, Kenya. Ms Koya’s failure to persuade women who have children to leave the sex trade led me to reflect upon contradiction between women’s economic contributions to nation-state and the nation-state’s desire to control women’s behavior and women’s sexuality. Yet it is also a story about state efforts to provide women with different economic opportunities and about women’s efforts to negotiate better lives for themselves and for other women. What else could Ms Koya’s story tell us?

Ms Koya’s grant from the state suggests that it, or its agents, have an interest in expanding women’s economic opportunities. As Rajeswari Sunder Rajan points out, the state isn’t a monolithic structure. It is made up of different institutions and individuals who do different, sometimes competing, things. While one arm of the state might be securing its sovereignty by making it possible for sex workers to have access to military bases, another arm of the state might be securing grants to give women training so they have a wider range of economic opportunities. As Sunder Rajan argues, “any understanding of state-citizen relations requires…attention to the microlevel workings of state regimes” (6).

Ms Koya’s testimony suggests that the state might participate in the exploitation and oppression of women’s bodies and lives. But if we look at different branches of the state, and different individuals who work for it, the state also can be used to improve women’s lives. As Ms Koya reports, “Then in July [2009], officials from the [government’s] Arid Lands Office held a meeting for sex workers at the Isiolo stadium. We were asked to quit. They asked us to identify what kind of business we wanted to start, trained us in how to conduct business, budgeting, keep a record of our sales, savings and also asked us to go for HIV testing. I was lucky to test negative.”

What else can we learn from this story?  Within the situations that she has inherited, Ms Koya’s efforts to transform her own life and the lives of other women, to work for freedom from violence tells us about what women are doing within, and against, epistemic violence. In some locations, because of their economic contributions and their perceived social role of servicing male sexual need, sex workers have been able to emerge as a collective and make demands on the state. As Cynthia Enloe points out, there have been efforts by women in Kenya and in the Philippines to create networks of women in countries that host American military bases. This is a step towards addressing and dismantling the global gender structures on which military bases depend. There are other transnational and local efforts, including daily work of survival by growing gardens and recycling waste, organizing gender forum; occupying leftist organizations which don’t address gender and gendered labor; fighting back through state institutions and on the streets; union organizing; reporting which reframes issues as women’s issues; reporting which reframes issues as more than just women’s issues; story telling; women, and people around them, saying “enough,” and many other activities for dignity and well-being.

If we look closely, we see women actively participating in public life. Women are at the forefront of resistance movements in places like Honduras and South Africa. Women protest the failure of the state to investigate the systematic murder of women in Vancouver and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Women challenge the meaning of public space and public mourning in Argentina and Iran. Women organize feminist media in Costa Rica. And there is the more quiet, everyday work of women to improve the daily conditions and work to enable themselves and their families to survive in the face of everyday poverty or ‘natural’ disasters. This happens just about everywhere and has different contexts but let’s point to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, as one place where women struggle to survive.

Paying attention to gendered violence and power, all forms and mixes of it, that work through the family, the community, the state and its institutions, and through economic structures and arrangements is important work. But so is paying attention to women’s individual and collective efforts, in the context of gendered power, all forms and mixes of it, to “transform the conditions of their lives” (Kabeer, 54). Women are not just victims of material forces, state power and cultural patriarchy. Women actively seek to work for the health and well being of their families, their children, other women, and their communities. In the context of structural constraints, we see women like Ms Koya struggling, negotiating, working, and, even, organizing. It’s important to pay attention to what women are doing, their activities and obstacles to their activities, in relation to the gender-structured conditions that they’ve inherited.

 

(Photo Credit: Noor Ali / IRIN)

Critical: Does Social Injustice Alter Our Epigenome (for generations to come)?

A new subset of genetics—“epigenetics”—appeared on the horizon in the 1990s and has been getting a lot of attention lately because it suggests some fascinating and frightening things about how “lifestyles and environment can change the way our genes are expressed” over the course of our lifetime. It has even reintroduced the once discredited idea that “traits acquired during an organism’s lifetime could be passed on to future generations”, and several studies on plants and animals have already shown that such modified gene expression can be inherited. Unfortunately, other more problematic scientific theories—that activists and social scientists worked hard to debunk—are also being resurrected in the wake of epigenetic research, including genetic (or epigenetic) determinism”.

On one hand, research into epigenetics has the potential to strengthen social justice movements, especially environmental justice, by uncovering yet another way in which low-income communities of color are disadvantaged on a global scale. We already know that the so-called “Green Revolution” has wreaked havoc on women’s health, a fact which becomes even more ominous in light of epigenetic research showing that exposure to pesticides (in mice) has negative impacts on their offspring’s health for at least four more generations. This is not good news for migrant farm workers and their families in the United States or Yaqui girls in Mexico who are already unable to breastfeed due to pesticide exposure. Although epigenetic studies of human populations are just beginning, there is already some cutting edge research that supports these findings- for instance, Kaati, et al, analyzed a century of demographic information from Sweden, exposing that even temporary famine experienced by grandparents can affect the life expectancy of grandchildren.

On the other hand, in our neoliberal age that stresses “personal responsibility” it may be more likely that this research will be used to blame people rather than help them. In his appearance on the PBS show about epigenetics, Dr. Randy Jirtle, Director of the Epigenetics and Imprinting Laboratory at Duke University, says that people have a responsibility to consider their lifestyle choices in light of the impact it could have on their children. In a similar vein, Dr. Szyf, professor of pharmacology and therapeutics at the McGill University School of Medicine, explains the relevance of epigenetics for psychiatry as follows:

the environment early in life anticipates the kind of life the person is going to live, for example whether it is going to be a stressful life or a calm life…The mother can convey to the offspring the type of world they are going to live in; that changes DNA methylation in the brain, and now we know, also in peripheral cells… I think that social environment can be as toxic as the chemical environment, if not more so.”

This sounds frighteningly similar to twentieth-century psychiatric theories on the etiology of mental illness- for instance, the once popular belief that children developed schizophrenia because they had a “schizophrenogenic mother”. In fact, schizophrenia.com has already jumped at the opportunity to re-open the mother-blaming theory- the website uses epigenetics to assert that “Research findings suggest that a mother’s parenting style can affect the activity of a child’s genes”, leading to mental illness. As always, no mention of the father’s (or other guardian’s) parenting style here.

In their interview for PBS, Szyf and Meaney explain their research on rats: offspring put in cages with “attentive” females could deal with stress better later in life than those raised by more “neglecting” females. To prove this was an epigenetic response, Szyf and Meaney gave the rats a drug that undoes the effects of epigenetics, which miraculously made the neglected rats “normal” again. How is this a women’s issue? Well, to build on this research there is a “10-year study, now underway, that will look at children from both nurturing and neglected backgrounds”. Szyf predicts that as a result of this research scientists will be able to show how stressful childhoods lead to poor health in adulthood, including depression, anxiety, drug abuse, diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. In other words, being a “neglecting” mom can give your kid heart disease. Surprisingly (or not surprisingly) the show fails to explore the idea that other stresses in a child’s environment—such as aspects of social inequality—might have similar effects. Given that disadvantaged groups, such as low-income African American women, often have disproportionately high levels of these illnesses (depression, obesity, heart disease, diabetes), will epigenetics be used to investigate the links between stress and poverty, racism, and sexism, or to blame these women for their children’s poor health?

In the Psychological Bulletin, Lawrence Harper (Chair of the Human Development program at UC Davis) does argue that social injustice can alter epigenetic expression:

oppression, is another recurrent, if unpredictable, and often long-term event that also meets the criteria for a selective advantage for epigenetic transmission. In this case, the nature of an adaptive response is not so obvious, but some aspects of temperament would be likely candidates for consideration….To the extent that undue bravery in the face of a potential enemy could lead to anything from reduced access to resources to death, caution would be an adaptive trait” (p. 11).

In other words, disadvantaged individuals may pass on “advantageous” personality traits to their children, like timidity. That’s a troubling assertion. Moreover, Harper decides that women are most likely responsible for this: “because the egg provides the larger contribution to the developing zygote, any epigenetic modifications are most likely to be transmitted via the mother”.

Epigenetic research is still in its infancy and there are certainly many scientists—perhaps even the majority—who think that the above studies relating to humans are correlational at best. However, the potential implications of future epigenetic research are virtually endless. In all likelihood, the field will lead to significant advances in medicine, including therapies for cancer that “turn off” the expression of certain genes. Yet the seemingly endless human propensity for using science to support ideological agendas makes it imperative that academics outside of the “hard” sciences, and activists, are included in the discussions about epigenetic findings in the coming decades.