This paper details the socio-legal factors that shape the relationship between the child, the family, and the state, and the ways unaccompanied migrant children’s lives have come to be defined and contested. The legal identity of migrant children is socially situated within a history that intertwines social movements of helping professionals, legal jurisdictions characterized by increasingly intolerant approaches to juveniles, and shifts in the treatment of unauthorized migrant youth under immigration law over time. In a globalized world, this triangular relationship between children, families, and the state becomes increasingly complex and dynamic. Social policies and legal norms often lag far behind the diverse and fluid domestic arrangements of transnational family ties. The article begins by tracing how the creation of the juvenile court and the emergence of the tutelary complex have radically shifted the notion of migrant children as legal subjects in the United States. Through the legal case of Polovchak v. Meese and the advent of the Special Immigrant Juvenile (SIJ) status, the author argues that the law and institutional practices ensnare youth between competing allegiances to the state and to the family. It is critical to understand the gravity of these forces on the ways youth navigate the complex and uneven terrain of everyday life.

Key Take Away Points

  • Examines of the socio-legal history of contemporary response to unaccompanied children
  • Traces of the emergence of the Special Immigration Juvenile status
  • Analyzes of the unintended consequences of SIJ that ensnare unaccompanied children between competing allegiances to the state and to their families.

Author Biography

Lauren Heidbrink is an anthropologist and Assistant Professor in Social and Behavioral Sciences at National Louis University in Chicago. Over the last fifteen years, Heidbrink has worked in the fields of international public health and human rights in Latin America and in lusophone Africa. She spent several years working with torture survivors seeking political asylum in the United States. Her research and teaching interests include childhood and youth, transnational migration, performance and identity, law at the margins of the state and Latin America. She recently published an ethnography on unaccompanied child migration and detention entitled Migrant Youth, Transnational Families, and the State: Care and Contested Interests (University of Pennsylvania Press 2014). Selections of her work also appear in Children’s Legal Rights Journal (Spring 2013); Transnational Migration, Gender and Rights (2012); and in Emerging Perspectives on Children in Migratory Circumstances (2010). She received a doctorate in anthropology from Johns Hopkins University and a MA/MS in International Public Service Management from DePaul University.


The author wishes to thank Walter Afable, the anonymous reviewers from JARC, and the young people and their families who generously shared their experiences.