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September 8, 2023

Q&A with Gabriella Sanchez, Research Fellow with the Collaborative on Global Children’s Issues at Georgetown University

In this interview, Gabriella Sanchez, a research fellow with the Collaborative on Global Children’s Issues at Georgetown University, discusses her work on the U.S.-Mexico border with children on the move, their sense of agency, and the importance of bringing their perspectives to the center of research development and implementation.

Gabriella Sanchez
Gabriella Sanchez

What does your research focus on?

Most of my work examines the facilitation of irregular migration for profit, a practice often referred to as migrant smuggling. For the last seven years, alongside a U.S.-Mexico border-based NGO called DHIA (Derechos Humanos Integrales en Acción), I have been part of a project that works with local teenagers to examine their role in the facilitation of border crossings, to identify the conditions that lead to their participation, and to provide solutions to reduce the risks they face. I also study the way in which young people traveling unaccompanied access irregular or clandestine mechanisms to reach destinations in other countries.

For example, U.S. migration policy has a long history of putting young people at risk by not providing the necessary mechanisms that allow them to travel in safe and dignified ways as they travel to the United States seeking safety, family reunification, or new opportunities. Many families invest heavily so that their children have a chance to improve their lives and often pay facilitators to bring them into the United States irregularly, given that regular pathways are unavailable to most. When many of these children arrive in the United States, they encounter a system that quite often does not allow them to accomplish their goals, which may include getting an education while working. We know well that many teenagers arriving to the United States do so to work, but the labor options available to them are often in incredibly dangerous settings, such as meat processing plants, tobacco farms, construction sites, or companies where harsh chemicals are used, all without adequate protections. Combining long hours of hazardous work with school is not viable for many, which limits their long-term prospects for social and economic stability and impacts their mental and physical health.

Why does this research interest you?

I'm a migrant myself. I was born and raised in Mexico but came to the United States as a teenager, and I had to work irregularly. Once I was able to regularize my presence in the country, the first job I was able to find was in the criminal justice system. It was there when I realized that the conditions people had to travel under—and the ones they faced once they were in the United States—often led them to become entangled with the law in ways that further prevented their advancement and put them and their families in even more precarious situations.

Through work, I became especially interested in the facilitation of border crossings and how the specific tasks that people performed in it became criminalized as migrant smuggling. It was troubling for me to realize that most people participating in this activity were migrants themselves who were trying to get by, and who most of the time had no criminal intention, yet were often sentenced to prison for performing tasks that would not be crimes had there been equally accessible paths to migrate regularly. It was here where I also found out young people played roles facilitating border crossings that really compromised their safety and well-being, yet they were vilified by authorities, policymakers, and academics as criminals, without any real interest to restore their rights or address the causes behind their involvement in smuggling. At the center of my research lies the belief that young people have a lot to say about the conditions they face and solutions to propose.

You are planning to develop a training module on ethical engagement and research with vulnerable children and youth. What inspired you to develop this training? Who is it for?

Most training and educational programs on topics like migration and development sell the belief that people trained under them will be ready upon completion to hit the field and start working with specific populations. Plenty of students and professionals who attend or complete these programs already work with people in mobility contexts and have great, commendable intentions. However, many of these training or educational initiatives do not teach participants to critically examine the nature of research or of community-based interventions financed by outside sources or international organizations, or to reflect on their own roles as researchers and development professionals. Projects on research and development often create hierarchies that situate outsiders (foreigners, men, adults) as experts. This minimizes local forms and understandings of organization, knowledge, or life, which are in turn labeled as problematic and in need of external solutions.

In migration research, given the conditions that people often travel under, it is not uncommon to find researchers or practitioners that operate on the belief that families do not know how to treat their children, that they put them voluntarily at risk and need to be trained or taught how to care for them, or that young people do not really understand why they are moving or traveling and need to be told about the risks. Many times as researchers, we don't interrogate where our own assumptions concerning people come from, why we feel they need help or guidance, or that we are the ones who have to come up with solutions. These dynamics inspired the training module. It is intended to be an introductory tool for the community at Georgetown University to interrogate their approaches to research and development so that they can be more effective supporters of the perspectives of people in mobility contexts and advocate alongside them for their needs.

What have you learned about involving young people in research about their lives? How does this kind of participatory research inform the field?

I hate it when researchers say that they do research to be the voice of the voiceless, or to give people a voice. Everybody has a voice. What we often fail to do is create spaces for those voices to be amplified. In the case of children, we often hear that they are too young, or incapable or unable to express what they need or feel; that perspective silences them and allows others–most often adults–to speak for them. Research should be about and with people. They are not subjects–the term alone tells you about the hierarchies implicit in research. People should be involved throughout the research process in ways that are meaningful and productive, in fact even profitable for them. They are the real experts. Addressing the inequalities present in research and giving people the place they are originally entitled to should be at the core of every single research and/or development initiative.

We often hear about the risks involved in working directly with children and young people in research. But what are the risks associated with not engaging them?

Quite often, we do not think of children as legitimate interlocutors, so we silence them in the process. We don't know what they experience, what they say, what they think about their experiences with policy. We hardly know how, from their perspective, development initiatives impact their lives. Most studies, reports, or policy briefs about children are written by specific adults with specific adults in mind, and they hardly ever engage children and their communities in the process leading to the production of those deliverables, which results in an often partial, skewed perception of their realities.

For example, the coverage concerning the U.S.-Mexico border creates the perception is that all children arriving at the border are toddlers or infants, and much content focuses on the isolated cases of those who are abandoned by their families or separated from them. Most migrant children are teenagers, many of whom travel unaccompanied but with the support of their families and loved ones. Thinking of children in a single way makes it harder to envision the challenges they face, but also their strengths and the way in which we need to make use of these to help them obtain the resources they need to thrive. By listening and paying close attention to what they have to say, we can collaboratively come up with policies and practices that improve their chances to succeed.

How has your work influenced the narrative about child migrants and related policy responses?

For me it is important to emphasize that what we do is not my work alone: it's the work that we do together, alongside children and NGOs. Working together towards destigmatizing the lives of young people in transit involves challenging narratives of illegality, crime, and work. Together we have created opportunities for young people to take center stage in platforms about their livelihoods often dominated by adults, to facilitate their engagement in the conversations that affect them, and provide opportunities for them to influence policies and programs.

What interesting findings can you share about your research so far?

States’ efforts to reduce available pathways for people to travel regularly and safely have led to the emergence of mechanisms that facilitate transits relying on semi-legal or clandestine methods. Behind these mechanisms are often people who by virtue of being in transit themselves, having experienced migration, or living along the migration pathway have extensive knowledge of routes, people, risks, and mechanisms to avoid detection. Most of these people, while definitely profiting, deal with incredibly precarious circumstances. Many of them are young people and children cut out of the labor market and having limited education who can make a profitable living out of their knowledge of border areas and migration checkpoints. One of the challenges they deal with is that their activities are often seen through the lens of crime control, and not that of human or child rights. And therefore, the measures that are taken against organized crime impact young people in ways that put them at grave risk of injury and criminalization. Being able to let the children articulate the challenges they face and bringing their observations into the development of protection policy has been one of the main goals of the research.

How can students, faculty, and the greater Georgetown community learn more about this topic and your research?

I hope to engage the Georgetown University community in my training module once it is developed. Through practical exercises based on participatory research methods, group and personal reflections, along with interactions with members of migrant and refugee communities themselves, the training will provide students and professionals with basic but practical tools to conduct field research in ways that avoid the reproduction of inequality and the reinforcement of discriminatory practices often found in research. You can also follow me on X @_gesanchez.