Abstract: Evidencing Causes of Abuse Along the Central American Migrant Trail (Society for Social Work and Research 22nd Annual Conference - Achieving Equal Opportunity, Equity, and Justice)

Evidencing Causes of Abuse Along the Central American Migrant Trail

Friday, January 12, 2018: 10:07 AM
Marquis BR Salon 13 (ML 2) (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
John Doering-White, MSW, Doctoral Candidate, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor, MI

Central Americans migrating undocumented through Mexico routinely suffer abuses at the hands of uniformed officials and organized criminal networks (WOLA 2015, Doering-White et al. 2017 in press). The purpose of this study was to understand the complex causes that lead to Central Americans' formal claims of human rights abuses despite legal mechanisms that allow undocumented migrants who report abuses to regularize their immigration status. Building on recent social work scholarship that discusses the challenges of putting human rights discourses into practice (Androff 2016), this presentation considers tensions that arise between simultaneously documenting and denouncing the causes of human rights abuses with undocumented populations in transit. Findings from this study demonstrate how performances and reinterpretations of material evidence of violence can both bolster verbal testimonies and complicate aid workers’ efforts to make causal claims.


This presentation draws from a subset of data collected during 18 months of ethnographic research along the Central American migrant trail through Mexico. This paper draws from a sample of 15 cases at a shelter in Central Mexico where individuals and groups of migrants were encouraged by shelter workers to report abuses. The study site was chosen because it routinely assisted undocumented migrants who had received gunshot wounds while riding the network of freight railways many migrants use to transit through Mexico. Semi-structured interviews (40) with both shelter workers and migrants were audio-recorded and transcribed, often relying on “material probes” to prompt responses that might otherwise remain unspoken (De León and Cohen 2005). Paired with participant observation (1,000 hours) documenting interactions between officials, shelter workers, and migrants, this data allowed for comparison between reported speech and actual practice. Field notes were coded iteratively during fieldwork to identify emergent themes and later refined through further analysis in conversation with the coding of interview transcripts.


Central Americans and shelter aid workers often saw material evidence of violence, ranging from torn clothing to bullet wounds as key for bolstering oral testimonies of abuse. However, in the midst of investigating these claims, state investigators often reinterpreted material evidence to contest claims about who perpetrated these abuses. In addition to the reasons migrants reported for abandoning applications for humanitarian recognition, such as fear of collusion between officials and organized crime or the burden of waiting out opaque bureaucracies, these material reinterpretations also influenced migrants’ decisions to abandon their cases.

Conclusion and Implications:

This study demonstrates how gaps often arise between testimonies of abuse and the material evidence of violence. This study also illustrates the value of ethnography for revealing how claims are supported and contested in practice, often in subtle and unspoken ways. Considering the slipperiness of material evidence is important for social work practitioners who are involved in making causal claims within broader efforts to document and denounce injustice.