California State University, Long Beach

Unknown Journey

During perilous crossings north, young Guatemalans brave the risk of kidnap, rape or death at the hands of drug cartels, human traffickers and gangs. Those aren’t the only dangers the young travelers face. There is the blistering hot desert and potential abuse often experienced as they migrate northward across international borders, one professor has discovered.

Townspeople hand food to migrants on train
The hands of migrants and food givers meet as a train carrying young migrants heads north. Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Times.

Dr. Lauren Heidbrink, a cultural anthropologist and assistant professor of Human Development, said young people are migrating at levels not seen since World War II. Many of them are indigenous youth, fleeing political turmoil and the violent legacies of armed conflict in Guatemala to the relative safety of Mexico and the United States.

This migration is much like how their parents and grandparents fled during Guatemala’s 36-year war (1980-1996), when the CIA-backed Guatemala military targeted indigenous communities, often massacring and destroying entire villages, according to Heidbrink. Guatemala’s officials Commission for Historical Clarification report states that by the war’s end, more than 200,000 people were killed or had disappeared, 1 million people were internally displaced, and an additional 200,000 people fled the country.

Children on a horse
Children race alongside a train in southern Mexico that is headed north. Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Times.

Heidbrink wanted to know why it was that nearly 20 years since the Peace Accords in 1996 there were so many young people fleeing their communities. “Many people were forced to flee and could not see their parents or children again,” she said.

Having conducted research with unaccompanied children detained in the United States for her first book Migrant Youth, Transnational Families and the State (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014), Heidbrink wanted to learn more about those young people who were deported.

Deportation can impact family unit, community

With a $197,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, Heidbrink has made frequent research trips to Central America to study how young people reintegrate into their families and communities following their return. She has spent time documenting what the intimate, interpersonal and social impacts of deportation have been on the integrity of the family unit and community as a whole.

Migrants enter the river
Migrants test the current of the Rio Grande River in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico in an attempt to cross the border into the United States. Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Times.

“Many children are forced to return home and many of them re-emigrate,” Heidbrink said. “There are tensions in the families and communities that go beyond their physical suffering.”

She challenges stereotypes that either dismiss youth as  simple victims or criminalize them as juvenile delinquents. In her studies, Heidbrink has shown a nuanced and contextualized understanding of how and why young people are on the move and how the plight of young refugees maintains the potential to change international policy. The findings she shares with legislators, diplomats and policymakers, including briefings with the U.S. Department of State, USAID and Guatemalan officials, provide depth and historical perspective on a publicly charged issue. Heidbrink serves as a resource for Central American youth in the U.S. and provides expert-witness testimony in immigration hearings, while reaching the public with her research through her blog, Youth Circulations.

Laura Heidbrink buys fruit at market
Dr. Lauren Heidbrink visits a market during one of her trips to Central America. Photo courtesy of Walter Afable.

Through her research, Heidbrink has been able to trace how refugee children are part of a family structure and the ways their return has enduring emotional, socio-cultural and financial effects on their families and communities. Her work involves household surveys, ethnographic interviews, participant observation and youth auto-ethnographies. Enlisting multi-media technologies, such as digital storytelling and photography in her work with youth, she values young people’s own insights and interrogates current academic understandings of “expertise.” In making her research accessible to a broad public — through writing on current issues, interactive art exhibits, and community events—she pushes for the social relevance of research and data-informed public policies.

“For many children forced to return, deportation compounds the conditions which spurred their initial migration,” Heidbrink said. “In the absence of support or services, stress and tensions emerge in the families and communities that exacerbate those conditions.”

Guatemala village
Young migrants can encounter tension or awkwardness from family members should they return home to Guatemala. Photo courtesy of Lauren Heidbrink.

She began work as a case manager with Central American asylum seekers in the late 1990s at the Marjorie Kovler Center for the Treatment of Survivors of Torture in Chicago. There, she witnessed the worst of humanity reflected in the physical, emotional, and mental trauma inflicted by governments upon their citizenry. That motivated her to study how civil war and public policy responses spur future generations to flee their homeland, their harrowing journeys traversing Mexico, and the long-lasting effects of conflict on future generations.

Heidbrink recently was honored with the 2018 Foundations for Change: Thomas I. Yamashita Prize awarded by UC Berkeley’s Institute for the Study of Societal Issues recognizing her as an outstanding young social change activist in California whose work enriches academic scholarship through community engagement.

Farm workers in field
For many Guatemalan families, farming is a way of life. Photo courtesy of Lauren Heidbrink.

The Yamashita Prize committee wrote, her work “challenges legal and political ambiguities and provides advocacy for unaccompanied minor children. Moving between academic, political and social worlds, Lauren has engaged in sustained ethnographic engagement with immigrant communities.” She was nominated for the award by Dr. Samantha Gottlieb, a medical anthropologist.

“Her passion for and commitment to social justice and to seeing change is unique,” Gottlieb explained, adding that Heidbrink’s research is especially critical now the treatment of child migrants is under heightened public scrutiny.

Through her research lab and teaching, Heidbrink exposes her students to the imperative of humanitarian relief and meaningful social change. According to one of her students, Jina Shim, Heibrink’s work is important “because it allows for people to recognize the necessity of institutional change, and to be able to understand the reasoning between the children’s and other migrants’ reasons for migrating.”

Women squeeze onto a truck headed for town in Guatemala.
Women squeeze onto a truck headed for town in Guatemala. Photo courtesy of Lauren Heidbrink.

“Given that so many CSULB students are immigrants themselves or children of immigration, many of whom are first-generation college-goers, understanding and valuing the experiences and contributions of young immigrants and refugees resonates with them,” Heidbrink said.

Heidbrink has recently completed a manuscript entitled Negotiating Returns, currently under review with Stanford University Press, that provides insight on the assets and tactics indigenous Guatemalan youth enlist as they navigate post-deportation life.

In addition to the NSF grant, Heidbrink additionally was honored with an American Council of Learned Societies Fellowship ($40,000) and, more recently, the Fulbright Schuman Foundation’s 70th Anniversary Scholar Award ($40,000) to study unaccompanied child migration in Europe.

Heidbrink shares her research of young refugees with legislators, diplomats and policymakers in an  attempt to provide depth and perspective on the human rights issue.