Abstract: Evidencing Violence and Care in Transit: Undocumented Migration through Mexico and the Pragmatics of Shelter (Society for Social Work and Research 23rd Annual Conference - Ending Gender Based, Family and Community Violence)

Evidencing Violence and Care in Transit: Undocumented Migration through Mexico and the Pragmatics of Shelter

Friday, January 18, 2019: 5:45 PM
Golden Gate 6, Lobby Level (Hilton San Francisco)
* noted as presenting author
John Doering-White, PhD Candidate, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor, MI
Background and Purpose: How do social service organizations produce “safe spaces” in contexts that are often seen as unsafe? Across Mexico, a web of non-governmental organizations, commonly referred to as “migrant shelters” provide humanitarian aid to undocumented Central Americans fleeing pervasive community violence at home. To the extent that shelters maintain a “no smugglers allowed” stance, they are legally protected sanctuary spaces under Mexican immigration law, despite the undocumented status of those who seek their aid. However, as previous researchers have discussed, shelters often unwittingly become hubs for smugglers to “recruit” clients, with varying degrees of consent and coercion. This paper asks how shelter workers and migrants negotiate the competing demands that safe spaces and surrounding economies place on practice. It finds that they rely on material and embodied signs to publicly sustain a “no smugglers allowed” stance while respecting that, amid intensified immigration enforcement throughout Mexico, many people see relying on smugglers as the most viable means of traveling through the country. These findings suggest that shelter workers and those they assist both produce and contest an unstable distinction between a safe organizational environment and a violent outside.

Methods: Findings draw on 20 months of ethnographic fieldwork in and around migrant shelters across Mexico between 2014 and 2017. Fieldwork included participant observation as a volunteer within shelters and in-depth interviews (audio-recorded and transcribed) with shelter staff and migrants accessing shelter spaces. 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. This process of data collection allowed for comparison between reported speech and actual practice.

Results: Shelters workers and migrants negotiate a structural tension. On the one hand, they advance a humanitarian framework of service to vulnerable individuals. On the other, the operate at the margins of human smuggling economies. To navigate this contradiction, they employ a discourse of excluding those involved in human smuggling and a practice of accommodating these very individuals, at least implicitly. They adopt tactics of identifying presumed smugglers without having to verbally label them as such. This negotiation was visible in the context of their intake procedures, through which they exchanged, presented, and sequestered material objects, such as toilet paper, donated clothing, knives, and cell phones. Embodied signs, such as blisters and bleeding wounds also became tentative indicators of collaborative and coercive relationships with smugglers.

Conclusions and Implications: When the need for secrecy and discretion limits the extent to which language operates as the core mechanism for assessment and intervention within social service work, material signs take on a prominent role in mediating the line between “safe spaces” and risky social environments. Considering how material objects and signs mediate care work is particularly important for social service providers working with criminalized populations who may avoid more explicit verbal communication, yet still seek assistance.