California program for migrant children could be a national model if legislators support it

An unaccompanied migrant child who was seeking asylum, is registered by a border patrol agent after she crossed the Rio Grande river into the United States from Mexico in Roma, Texas, U.S., May 14, 2022. REUTERS/Adrees Latif. |

By Stephanie L. Canazles | guest commentary | 

Migration by unaccompanied minors remains a central topic in immigration. Adding to concerns for young migrants’ welfare, the New York Times recently exposed the prevalence of migrant child labor in the U.S. and the conditions under which unaccompanied Central American children fall into exploitative, dangerous and life-threatening jobs. 

Following these revelations, the Biden administration announced plans to increase enforcement of immigration and labor laws – actions that many advocate for. But this oversimplifies child labor in the U.S. as a failure of oversight, and ignores that children engage in labor migration as a means of survival

Families need alternatives to support themselves. Thus, efforts to protect unaccompanied immigrant children in the U.S. must pair law enforcement with the provision of social services that offer new opportunities for migrant children and their families.

We don’t have to look far to imagine this pairing. California, which is consistently one of the top three states receiving unaccompanied minors, offers an alternative policy and programming approach, known as Opportunities for Youth, or OFY. Despite its successes, the project is scheduled to end Dec. 31.

In 2020, Gov. Gavin Newsom created the first state-funded project aimed at providing post-release services to unaccompanied minors placed with sponsors. Administered by the state Department of Social Services’ Office of Immigrant Youth, OFY relies on eight agencies across five California regions – the Bay Area, Central Coast, Central Valley, Inland Empire and Los Angeles metropolitan area – to implement “culturally and linguistically responsive, trauma-informed” post-release services to unaccompanied children and youth. 

Rather than coupling government-funded social services with school enrollment and limiting its reach to students or to referrals by legal service providers, OFY agencies are uniquely able to serve the unaccompanied minors who are hardest to reach: tender-aged children, teen parents and youth workers. OFY also offers support to unaccompanied young people until the age of 21, three years later than services offered by the federal government.

The last three years of OFY programming has reached more than 1,400 children and their families, suggesting it’s a promising model that can work longer-term. The children are equipped with resources provided by case managers and program navigators, and receive mentors who reinforce for youth that, regardless of legal designation, they are not alone and can ask for support. 

Providing youth with tools like material support, trusting social connections and emotional competence are what social workers refer to as protective factors, which foster resilience and agency.

OFY also moves away from a one-size-fits-all approach and reflects the differences in each region. Whether developing math and English workshops in Los Angeles, soccer clubs in San Bernardino, visits to museums and aquariums in San Francisco for children living in Sacramento, or finding K-12 school enrollment alternatives for farm-working youth in the Central Valley or teen moms in the Bay Area, OFY is youth-centered and culturally-responsive.

As one OFY case manager put it, they’re “focused on letting kids be kids who can play and feel joy.” 

My research with service providers in California and Texas shows that trauma is vicariously felt by service providers who experience burnout and compassion fatigue. Supporting community helpers, especially those with immigrant backgrounds, including sponsors, can promote wellbeing that keeps trusted adults in children’s lives. This is especially critical in serving unaccompanied youth who have lost touch with adult caregivers along their migration and settlement journeys.

The fate of child migrants in cities across the state depend on our willingness to accept that enforcement agendas are not enough to secure the safety, wellbeing and integration of unaccompanied minors. We must develop networks around them that center their humanity and strengthen their protective factors. It is not only the fate of individual youth that are on the line, but that of their families and others they feel responsible for.

As the California budget undergoes negotiations in the coming months, the state has the opportunity to evolve the pilot project into a long-standing program that can serve as a model for others seeking to support the hardest-to-reach unaccompanied children and child migrant workers across the country.

Stephanie L. Canizales is an assistant professor of sociology at UC Merced. Her forthcoming book, “Sin Padres, Ni Papeles,” examines why unaccompanied youth migrate from Central America and Mexico to Los Angeles and how they navigate school, work, family and community life without parents or papers. This article was originally published by CalMatters.

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