Tear Gas, Children and ‘Distracted Outrage’

Dissecting the Most Common Response to Young Migrants in Distress

The mother is frantic and frightened, clutching the hands of her twin daughters (young enough to still be in diapers) as they rush from tear gas. Maria Lila Meza Castro traveled from Honduras to Tijuana with her twin daughters in an attempt to reunite with their father, who lives in the United States. The photo of her, taken by Reuters photojournalist Kim Kyung-Hoon, quickly supersedes the story of that journey and within hours, the image has gone viral, sparking both outrage and indignation (at either the those who’d fired the tear gas or those seeking asylum).

In this Q&A, anthropologists Lauren Heidbrink and Michele Statz dissect the outrage of those who oppose the Trump administration policies, as well as the ways in which such responses, along with the images themselves, do little to address or better understand the experience of those like Castro.

Heidbrink, an assistant professor in Human Development at California State University, Long Beach, has been researching deportation and child detention both in the U.S. and in Central America since 2006 and is currently based in Greece researching child migration throughout Europe. Statz, an anthropologist of law and assistant professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School, Duluth campus, has been studying public interest immigration advocacy on behalf of unaccompanied Chinese youth since 2010. Since 2014, they have operated the website Youth Circulations, “an archive tracing the real and imagined circulations of global youth.”

Q. Images from the U.S.-Mexico border have “gone viral” once again. The photographs of migrant children and parents fleeing tear gas at the San Ysidro border, which were taken by professional photojournalists on the scene, have sparked what seems like now-familiar polarized responses — either outrage or understated justification. Let’s talk about the outrage because you’ve raised concerns about this response, in particular, and challenged these visual narratives.

MICHELE: These images provoke necessary outrage but they also sell. And that’s a crass but legitimate interpretation of what’s happening here. Child migration is really clickbait. So rather than supply data as BuzzFeed fodder, we’re committed to dismantling the surprise and novelty of these realities.

Youth Circulations presents a “curated” collection of media, research, artistic and activist representations of “youth mobility and the politics of representation.”

LAUREN: By focusing on these images, it allows us to avoid or ignore the more pernicious realities. The images of women and children fleeing tear-gas at the U.S. border incites this public indignation, but it doesn’t propel the public to question U.S. foreign intervention in Central America. Or the proliferation of extractive industries or lopsided free-trade agreements.

These horrific images incite surprise, they incite empathy. But for the most part, they don’t compel us to examine the erosion of asylum protections in the U.S. or to make efforts to dismantle private immigration detention or, as the recent New York Times article mentioned around Southwest Keys in Texas, to question how non-governmental organizations are profiting from the detention of unaccompanied minors. I could go on but what we have is distracted outrage.

Q. Share a bit about the work you’ve done around “victim narratives” as they relate to migrant children, in particular?

MICHELE: We’re all pretty familiar with this victim narrative, and it centralizes on children of color. It’s a long-standing and really violent narrative.

The strategy is to characterize these people who structurally have less access to power.

When you focus on this child victim, all of the power is taken from the child herself or himself and placed in the hands of advocates — these people who “give voice” to the victimized.

And in the context we’re discussing of migrating children, the strategy powerfully ignores that children and young people make decisions and those decisions are influenced by this whole host of factors and relationships.

It just effectively de-contextualizes all of the conditions that spur migration and instead focuses on the individual victim. And then we are left with the centralized victimhood instead of the structures that create and benefit from victimhood.

LAUREN: In my research with young Guatemalans and certainly in Michele’s work with Chinese youth, we see young people as social actors, as caregivers, as contributors, as valued members to their households, not only in the U.S. but also in their countries of origin.

The victimhood narrative privileges the poverty, the violence or the abuse that may spur some people’s migration but it doesn’t reveal how young people survive and adapt and rebuild their lives in circumstances that are not of their own choosing.

Q. Can you talk more about the counter-narratives you offer and what makes them so essential?

MICHELE: Again and again, we keep finding young migrants as agentive and skilled and creative transnational actors who are steadily shaping and contributing to communities both here in the U.S. and in their home countries.

It’s powerful to focus on how these young people are very meaningfully contributing to flows of people and capital and ideas. And the inverse to this, at least for Lauren and I and the media more broadly, is that we’re really responsible to hold up the possibilities that these counternarratives introduce and even demand.

LAUREN: If we’re committed to introduce and value these counternarratives about and by global youth, then we have no option but to re-think current policies and practices that claim to serve them and to really try to unsettle some of the concepts and postures and ideas of victimhood people take for granted.

For us and for our research, we’re committed to understanding young people as experts in their own lives, their own experiences, and communities where they have considerable knowledge and skills and capacities.
Yet when it comes to devising policies to serve them, they’re the objects of the policies and programs and these policies and programs have long-term consequences for them and for their families, but they don’t have a seat at the table. It’s really nonsensical.

Only when we start to recognize young migrants as experts by experience and create opportunities to meaningfully involve them in discussions of policies and institutional practices, only then will we see meaningful change.

Q. Share some of the research you’ve found about the ways in which the news media and NGOs focus on trauma affecting migrants vs., say, the visual storytelling that occurs around domestic trauma, such as school shootings.

LAUREN: The way that NGOs and the media look at and frame childhood migration, we see this pornography of violence that focuses on the more visible and spectacular forms of violence. And also focuses on interpersonal violence as well. These images and narratives that are put forth by organizations and the media risk humiliating and stigmatizing those with structurally less power.

Additional categories that are examined in detail on Youth Circulations.

These spectacular forms of violence exist alongside far more mundane but no less impactful forms of structural violence. So instead of NGOs and the media focusing on what this violence looks like, they could be looking on how this violence is produced and reproduced in policies and institutions. And how those kinds of policies and practices then shape everyday life.

MICHELE: I think what happens, and I saw this a lot in my research with public immigration attorneys, is that what we end up with is this narrative in which elite professionals are depicted as the necessary — and then the often exclusive — arbiters of what’s best for children.

Especially in this particular context in which things are happening so fast, and everything is changing so quickly, there’s not a lot of time for reflexivity. But at the same time, I think we need to be extraordinarily mindful of the fact that these are classist and racialized and gendered and often generational presumptions that elite professionals can and should do for youth and their families. And we all hold them. And so there’s this challenge and opportunity to become more self-aware of our social location and also to recognize that our experiences and perspectives and interpretations of what’s right and what’s best are not universally shared.

LAUREN: And what would these conversations look like if a reporter or a scholar or someone working in an NGO were talking about or writing about their parents or their grandparents? What image would I select for the NGO brochure or the front page of the newspaper if I were reflecting the complex realities of my own community?

Ultimately, until newsrooms and academia and NGOs represent a more diverse America, we’re destined to obscure the full story of what’s happening behind these images.

Q: The impact, which we’ve been discussing, of these narratives often conflict with the intentions of the reporters, photojournalists and those in the nonprofit community who are telling these stories. Images are central to understanding what’s happening in real-time, but how to do add context that affects the impact of these stories?

MICHELE: In terms of breaking these patterns, the goal has to be to avoid these distractions and the clickbait mentality. And I say that knowing full-well that Lauren and I are in a profession where we have the time and the specific niche audience. But at the same time, we have to remember that the information that we and the public need to engage with these issues more critically does exist.

There’s really accessible and rich data out there and the context around these issues. And there are scholars who are documenting what that looks like in real-time and from a variety of perspectives and using a lot of different modes of media.

My wish would be to see coverage that moves beyond that clickbait mentality, to think not only with sensitivity about the individuals and the family members and the community members who are being covered, but also to incorporate and include some of that more insidious but often below-the-radar policy work that is leading us to these moments of panic and confusion at the border.

LAUREN: As an anthropologist and researcher, I always think, well, what can I contribute to this conversation based on the work that I’m doing in communities.

I think when we see these images and when we read the news about what’s going on at the border, we’re not surprised. But I think that we’re not surprised and the public is a massive professional failure on our parts.

Researchers in immigration, we have to be more expansive in the ways that we communicate. We have to develop relationships with reporters and policymakers, have to enlist diverse multimedia formats so that together we can reach a broader and more diverse public with more contextualized, historical analysis.

And this comes full circle because it’s one of the primary purposes of Youth Circulations, to meet a demand for nuanced and accessible analysis. We need to do better to communicate the knowledge that we have.

Q. We’ve talked about reframing coverage with an eye toward journalists and non-profit organizations, but why don’t we close by returning to our original discussion about the outraged reaction of so many who saw these photos and read these stories. What does moving beyond “distracted outrage,” as Lauren called it, look like?

LAUREN: How do we transform this outrage and hysteria into productive action? The first step, get informed. There are researchers and there are also ways to get involved locally, whether that’s to volunteer, whether that’s to work with a small organization or to look at the local policies in one’s own community around — for example, local law enforcement collaboration with immigration enforcement. There’s something you can do at a very local level.

Political engagement and involvement are absolutely critical. But I think ultimately, one of the things that we as teachers encourage our students to do is to ask questions and get more information, to get involved and to advocate for change where you think it’s necessary. It may seem overwhelming and far-away for some people, but all of these things have local, state and national contexts.

MICHELE: It’s really important to underscore that this is not just an issue at the U.S.-Mexico border. Lauren and I have both worked in these traditional gateway cities, and in my current research, I’m doing most of it in these very remote, rural areas. And there are immigrants everywhere. There are immigrant community members across the U.S. So at the risk of sounding a little bit like Pollyanna, if we are truly committed to understanding these issues and fostering a culture of awareness and sensitivity, then get to know your neighbors. I don’t think it’s something relegated to the media or scholars. It’s just a simple reality of humanity.

Editor’s Note: The transcript of this conversation has been condensed for space and clarity.