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Immigrant Children: Resilience and Coping with HeART


“We didn’t know anything about my cousin until we saw on the news that his body was found on the border,” shared 12-year-old Elisa, with tears in her eyes, as she explained the term “immigrant” during our theater class. Elisa herself had made the journey alone from El Salvador to reunite with her aunt in Los Angeles two years prior. When asked about children like Elisa’s classmates, who were born in the U.S., President Trump responded, “I’ll just use the term Anchor Babies.” Already, the national impasse to resolve the undocumented status of 11 million people has placed 4.5 million children of immigrants at risk for family separation (Su�rez-Orozco, 2000). We know that the combined stressors of migratory status and poverty can have long-term detrimental consequences for youth (Yoshikawa, 2011). We also know that rates of post-traumatic stress disorder are twice as high in children from urban areas than soldiers returning from war (Tucker, 2007). Yet, there is still so much we do not know about children of immigrants, the fastest-growing population in the United States.

This dissertation addresses the following questions: (a) How do current anti-immigration policies impact children in immigrant families?; (b) How can the art-making process mediate children’s experiences with the law?; and (c) How can artistic methods serve researchers and educators who work with children? This dissertation highlights the understudied preadolescent children of immigrants—both U.S.-born citizens and undocumented immigrant children—through a multidisciplinary theater class at a local elementary school in Los Angeles, California. Data collected included family, child, and teacher interviews, class/school observations, artwork and performance videos, and pre-/post-surveys from recently arrived Mexican and Central American children ages 11 to 13.

This work contributes to the fields of immigration policy, education, and Latinx/Chicanx studies, among others. Ultimately, I argue that an anti-immigrant climate creates harmful consequences for children of immigrants, most of whom are U.S. citizens. This work illuminates the ways immigration policy and anti-immigrant sentiments impact immigrant children. Findings from this study reveal that: (a) children receive messages from society that reflect dehumanization, violence, and harm and through art, children respond with strategies to navigate that racism; and (b) in children’s response to racism and legal violence, art fosters personal agency and gives them tools to develop coping mechanisms and resilience. Creativity allows children to make sense of and articulate their views on the political realities/state violence they are experiencing.

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