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The Institutionalization of Suffering: Vulnerability by Unaccompanied Minors


This dissertation focuses on the way immigration legal, social service, and charitable institutions use narratives of trauma, suffering and vulnerability to determine who is worthy of economic, social, and emotional resources. My research employs a mixed methods approach, combining participant observation with twelve participants, focus groups with nineteen participants, and secondary data (N=503) of unaccompanied minors.

First, this study illustrates that the narration of suffering is a discursive practice habitualized among unaccompanied minors. Institutions require unaccompanied minors to disclose this information in order to categorize them as unaccompanied minors and provide them access to resources. As a result, unaccompanied minors harm relive trauma and exhibit somatic-emotional signs of harm. This includes physical manifestations such as biting, picking, and crying, and affective/emotional effects, such as expressing feeling distress, hopelessness, regret, depression, and anger. Over time, their engagement with a myriad of institutions and experiences of coerced self-disclosure on a continual basis shape unaccompanied minor’s subjectivity and in turn their identity, resulting in unaccompanied minors identifying as traumatized and vulnerable.

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