Expanding Borders, Revealing Crises: Central American Refugees' Embodied Resistance to Crises of the State

In Summer 2014, thousands of Central American children—sometimes alone and sometimes with their mothers and parents—made their way without visas across multiple borders to reach the United States. Mainstream media covered the dramatic increase of these "unaccompanied minors," revealing images of the inhumane conditions in which hundreds were being detained at the border. Public
discourse, as evident in politicians' speeches and journalists' headlines, suggested that migrants—including refugees and asylum-seekers—constituted a "crisis" in the United States. My talk will analyze President Obama and his Administration's construction of Central American migrants as a crisis. Based on a close reading of letters to Congress, governmental Fact Sheets, speeches, and other written documents of the administration, I argue that the language that initially established violence against migrants as the crux of the crisis, simultaneously erased the role of the United States in supporting the conditions that are expelling migrants from their homelands. It is precisely the militarization of borders, both by the United States and with its support also by Mexico, that migrants are made especially vulnerable during their arduous journeys. The faulty logic during a purported moment of crisis, made it possible to propose what are arguably forms of extension of the border, via family detention centers and ramped up enforcement, as the main solutions. Central American refugees, therefore, are left with only their bodies to resist. They rely on their bodies when they cross international borders and later when they enact hunger strikes from within detention, to draw attention to the true crises: U.S. intervention and nation-states' long-term unwillingness to enforce human rights protections in the region.

Leisy J. Abrego is Associate Professor in Chicana/o Studies at UCLA. She is a member of the first large wave of Salvadoran immigrants who arrived in Los Angeles in the early 1980s. Her research and teaching interests—inspired in great part by her family's experiences—are in Central American immigration, Latina/o families, the inequalities created by gender, and the production of "illegality" through U.S. immigration laws. Her award-winning first book, Sacrificing Families: Navigating Laws, Labor, and Love Across Borders (Stanford University Press, 2014), examines the well-being of Salvadoran immigrants and their families—both in the United States and in El Salvador—as these are shaped by immigration policies and gendered expectations.
Her early research examines how immigration and educational policies shape the educational trajectories of undocumented students. Her second book, Immigrant Families (Polity Press, 2016), is co-authoredwith Cecilia Menjívar and Leah Schmalzbauer and delves deeply into the structural conditions contextualizing the diverse experiences of contemporary immigrant families in the United States. More recently, Abrego has been writing about how different subsectors of Latino immigrants internalize immigration policies differently and how this shapes their willingness to make claims in the United States. Her current project examines the day-to-day lives of mixed status families after DACA. Her scholarship analyzing legal consciousness, illegality, and legal violence has garnered numerous national awards. She also dedicates much of her time to supporting and advocating for refugees and immigrants by writing editorials and pro-bono expert declarations in asylum cases.


Dr. Abrego's speech will be introduced by Dr. Emmanuel Brunet-Jailly.