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The Ambivalent U.S. Context of Reception and the Dichotomous Legal Consciousness of Unaccompanied Minors


This paper examines the effects of immigration laws on unaccompanied minors from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala who migrate to the United States and encounter a context of reception that is ambivalent towards them: they are considered deserving of protection as unaccompanied minors, yet also subjected to exclusion and state legal violence as undocumented immigrants. Apprehended at the US-Mexico border, they are categorized as “Unaccompanied Alien Children” (UACs), and they interact intensively with multiple immigration agencies. Interactions in these institutional spaces teach youths about US laws and behavioral norms expected of young humanitarian claimants deemed deserving of protection, which are construed in opposition to discourses that stigmatize their co-ethnics as “bogus minors/refugees,” “bad” immigrants, and deviant Latino teenagers. I highlight how these institutional encounters shape youths’ sense of belonging and their commonsense understandings of the law or legal consciousness. I argue that the legal consciousness of unaccompanied minors is dichotomous and characterized by the following elements: (1) a combination of trust and fear in the state; (2) concurrent feelings of deservingness/rights and stigma/subordination; (3) information and misinformation about US laws. This dichotomous legal consciousness shapes how UACs claim belonging and rights, both in everyday social interactions and during their applications for legal status in humanitarian adjudication bureaucracies. They do so by leveraging knowledge about their rights and normative notions about desirable teen and migrant behavior, and by perpetuating stigmas about co-ethics as they distance themselves from these to signal their own societal belonging and deservingness of discretionary humanitarian relief.

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