Vulnerable agents : obscured vulnerability and exaggerated agency in Mexican migrant children

Thompson, Amy Christine
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In social work practice, understanding the agency of a migrant child (or their capacity to form and act on their own decisions) is essential to understanding his/her situation, motivations, and options. This, in turn, is essential to assessing whether the child has been victimized in any way that requires redress or further protection; identifying risk behaviors that require intervention; and/or identifying the supports and resources the child needs to move forward. This dissertation leverages a grounded theory mixed-method approach to further understanding of migrant children’s agency in action and explore related themes of vulnerability. The cultures and state systems that migrant children move through, may determine their capacity for agency as surely as any internal processes. In order for a social work practitioner to assess a migrant child client’s situation and collaborate with that client on solutions, the practitioner must have an understanding of the client’s capacity to effect these changes. That is, the practitioner must understand both the complex context of the environments that the migrant child lives between, as well as the child’s agency within that context. To date, however, the discipline lacks a contextualized operational definition of agency in application to migrant child populations. This study’s conceptual framework is based on a definition of agency in migrant youth proposed by the author and based on Social Work’s Person-in-Environment perspective. The sample population is drawn from the Children's Rights, Immigration Policy & National Security: Mexican & Central American Unaccompanied Migrant Children project’s research on recently repatriated Mexican migrant youth residing in detention facilities in three Northern Mexico border towns. Data collected include quantitative surveys (N = 204) of recently repatriated Mexican migrant youth and qualitative interviews with a subset of the surveyed population (n = 32). Descriptive statistics of survey data reveal the obscured vulnerability of Mexican migrant children (MMC). The author draws on grounded theory analysis techniques to construct a theory of MMC’s exaggerated agency, how it emerges and the mechanisms by which it obscures the population’s vulnerability. Implications for social work practice and policy are identified and discussed.