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Remaking Families: Child Welfare at the U.S. - México Border


This dissertation examines the logics operating behind practices of child removal and child placement in the context of the foster care system at the United States-México border. In the early 2000s, as deportation rates have continued to rise, the separation of families has been positioned as a problem central to debates around amnesty, contestations over birthright citizenship, and a more humanized approach to immigration policy in the context of the contemporary United States. For example, in April 2009, a New York Times article described legal battles over children who had entered the United States foster care systems due to the deportation of their parents, many of whom had been caught up in immigration raids and charged with such crimes as using false identification documents. Regardless of public outcry, the courts upheld the adoption of these children by U.S. families, discounting the desires of their biological parents because their deportation had given them criminal status, making them unfit parents in the eyes of U.S. law. This dissertation explores decisions about the removal and placement of children in the context of the "child protection," asking how structures of race, citizenship, and nationality inform determinations about proper parents, ideal homes, and state responsibility for minor citizens.

In the context of ongoing anti-immigrant sentiment, state interventions into families constitute a mode of delineating normative family formations. Drawing on eighteen months of ethnographic research, this dissertation examines the interactions between immigration enforcement and the child welfare system at the U.S.-México border. Through engagement with social workers, legal actors, and families on both sides of the border I explore how individuals navigated this complex terrain. I ask how and when child welfare and immigration law come together in the lives of families, and I analyze the creative modes through which parents, social workers, lawmakers, and advocates navigate legal boundaries in an effort to maintain families across geographic and judicial borders. Ultimately, I argue that child welfare is a site that illuminates distinctions of race, class, and citizenship and where the vulnerability of particular populations of parents are produced. I suggest that understanding the everyday practices and processes through which determinations about child removal and child placement are made sheds light on the ways in which these complex institutions come together in the context of the border region.

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