Research into undocumented child immigrants takes a twist: Their story is her parents’ story

When Stephanie Canizales chose to do her doctoral research on child migrants without parents, she had no idea she was starting out on a remarkable personal journey

May 04, 2018 Susan Bell

As a PhD student researching undocumented child immigrants from Central America and Mexico, Stephanie Canizales has already established herself as a leading scholar in her field. Along the way, an unexpected theatrical twist worthy of a modern-day novela brought her research closer to home than she could’ve ever imagined.

Canizales, who will receive her PhD in sociology from the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences on May 11, was inspired to explore the lives of these child migrants — many of whom experience what she describes as “extreme forms of exploitation” — after meeting a group of young indigenous Guatemalan Maya garment workers in downtown Los Angeles.

These undocumented minors had migrated to the United States without a parent to support their families, who remained abroad. Finding low-paid piecework in the garment industry, earning mere cents for putting in a zipper or sewing a sleeve, they toil in sweatshop conditions, often locked in during working hours without access to proper ventilation or lighting. Subject to wage theft and fearful of losing their jobs, they can refuse to drink water and will wear diapers during working hours to avoid taking bathroom breaks.

Through her research, Canizales spent four years in the field, building trust with hundreds of undocumented young migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico who arrived in the U.S. without a parent as unaccompanied minors, some as young as 11 years old. In addition to toiling in the garment industry, they find work as janitors, meat packers, dishwashers, restaurant workers, car washers and domestic workers.

Although it’s illegal, employers hire these undocumented minors, sometimes out of sympathy, Canizales said, but often to exploit someone willing to work for wages as low as $69 to $80 for a 55- to 70-hour week.

Heartbreaking stories of undocumented child immigrants

Of all the heartrending stories that Canizales heard during her research, the one that touched her the most was that of the first child migrant she ever met: her mother.

When Canizales began her research, she had no idea her once undocumented Salvadoran parents had themselves been unparented child migrants. It was only after talking to them about her research that they finally opened up, recounting to her for the first time their own migration stories as they fled the civil war in El Salvador to come to the U.S.

Neither of her parents had told their U.S.-born children their migration stories because they feared reliving traumatizing, heartbreaking memories — something Canizales finds common among parents in their situation.

I had to wrap my head around the fact that the story I was uncovering about unaccompanied youth in L.A. today is the same story that my parents lived.

Stephanie Canizales

“I had to wrap my head around the fact that the story I was uncovering about unaccompanied youth in L.A. today is the same story that my parents lived,” Canizales said. “This uncovering of my family history brought my research full circle, making me feel like my whole path has been intentional.”

Inspirational journey

Canizales’ groundbreaking doctoral research has made her the foremost academic expert on unparented Central American child migrants, said Jody Vallejo, associate professor of sociology and American studies and ethnicity and associate director of the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration. Vallejo is also Canizales’ co-dissertation adviser with Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo, the Florence Everline Professor of Sociology.

Canizales’ achievements include being the first graduate student in her department to receive a National Science Foundation grant and the publication of her award-winning research in leading peer-reviewed journals. In August, she begins a new job as assistant professor of sociology at Texas A&M University.

She aims to publish her dissertation as a book in the next three years and start a second book on unaccompanied minors in rural communities throughout the United States. Canizales hopes her research will help policymakers come up with effectively targeted measures and practical advocacy for unparented child migrants.

“I’d love to develop some kind of community collaboration with organizations and legal service providers for unaccompanied minors and get more people involved in the research,” she said.

Access to necessary resources

Born and raised in the Pico-Union district close to USC, Canizales was already familiar with the L.A. landscape. USC’s inner-city location, she said, gave her access to the resources she needed as an ethnographer, enabling her to use L.A. as a laboratory for her research.

“I tell everybody USC Dornsife is a great place for a qualitative researcher who needs to interact and observe how people live their lives on a daily basis,” she said.

In addition, the fact that USC connected her with influential leaders and advocates in the L.A. community enabled her to take her work beyond the university — a pivotal factor, she said, in her development as a scholar.

Canizales considers her most important sociological research contribution to be her exploration of how migrant youth are redefining success and belonging in American society.

“Being employed and giving back to their local community through everyday participation are symbols of success and belonging for them, as is overcoming their trauma, depression and isolation,” Canizales said.

Published at a political and historical moment in which immigrants are being criminalized in a way that separates them from prospects for U.S. safety, health and prosperity makes Canizales’ research especially timely.

“My work looks at how immigrant youth, even the most marginalized, are identifying with American society and finding value in the work that they do,” she said. “If we incorporate immigrants into the discourse of American growth and prosperity, rather than saying they’re slowing it down, then we’ll all be better for it.”