Theses Doctoral

Undocumented Youth: The Labor, Education, and Rights of Migrant Children in Twentieth Century America

Padilla-Rodriguez, Ivon

“Undocumented Youth” is a socio-legal history of Latinx child migration to and within the United States between 1937 and 1986. By drawing on archival collections from across the country, the dissertation analyzes a crucial missing dimension of Mexican and Central American (im)migration history that adult-centric histories have overlooked or obscured. The dissertation uncovers a legal system of migrant exclusion that relied on various legal and quasi-legal forms of domestic restrictions and removal that combined with federal policies governing international migration. Under this broad legal apparatus, “border crossing” included migration from Mexico into the U.S. and domestic migration across state lines. Federal and state officials denied ethnic-Mexican border-crossing youth, with and without U.S. citizenship, legal rights and access to welfare state benefits, especially public education. This hybrid system of restriction and removal resulted in multiple injuries to children and families, including migrant minors’ exploitation on farms, educational deprivation, detention, and deportation beginning in the 1940s.

The broad racialization of the criminal and invading “alien” of all ages at mid-century spurred ambivalent legal and political responses from officials in power that ranged from humanitarian to punitive. As grassroots activists and sympathetic policymakers found ways to intervene on behalf of unaccompanied and accompanied ethnic-Mexican migrant children, the state persistently and creatively enacted new draconian measures and refashioned well-meaning polices to reinforce the power and reach of the domestic removal apparatus.

In response to the rights deprivations and welfare state exclusion imposed on the nation’s migrant Mexican youth, child welfare and migrants’ rights activists devised a series of local welfare programs in the 1940s and ‘50s to restore border-crossing minors’ “right to childhood” based on middle-class norms of innocence, play, and education. These local efforts led ultimately to federal reform, specifically the establishment of the Migrant Education Program (MEP) in 1965 during the War on Poverty. However, the MEP’s introduction of a unique data collection technology in schools jeopardized the privacy of undocumented youth and their parents, making them vulnerable to the criminal justice system and federal immigration enforcement. This data collection helped transform public schools into school-to-deportation pipelines. Concurrently, undocumented Mexican and Central American youth were forced to endure different forms of educational deprivation and rights violations in carceral and quasi-carceral sites, in immigrant detention and on commercial farms.

The tensions and contestations over rights provoked by child migrants with and without U.S. citizenship after 1937 led to legal experiments, liberal pro-migrant federal policies like the MEP, and landmark court decisions, such as Plyler v. Doe (1982), that provided the rhetorical and policy foundations necessary to construct modern, child-centered mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion. These legal experiments and court battles also increasingly defined national U.S. citizenship as the sole grounds for claiming rights, eclipsing social and local citizenship as modes of belonging. As a result, they hardened the distinctions between the citizen and the noncitizen migrant. In the 1970s, a legal regime with strict noncitizen restrictions emerged that no longer collapsed all border-crossing minors into a single discursive and legal category. By the late-twentieth century only minors and adults without federal U.S. citizenship were identified and marginalized as “migrants,” marking a sharp departure from the category’s previous legal and social meanings.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Ngai, Mae
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 2, 2021