Abstract: Hospitality and Humanitarian Aid Along the Central American Migrant Trail (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

Hospitality and Humanitarian Aid Along the Central American Migrant Trail

Saturday, January 18, 2020
Liberty Ballroom J, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
John Doering-White, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of South Carolina, SC
Background and Purpose: Humanitarian aid workers assisting Central Americans who suffer violent abuses while migrating without authorization through Mexico face a troubling paradox: how to sustain clandestine pathways of undocumented migration while also striving to remedy the route’s indignities by making them visible to state bureaucracies. A crucial aspect of this blend of secrecy and publicity is that migrant shelters maintain their legitimacy in the eyes of the state—in other words, their professional status—by dialoguing with state officials who are presumed to be complicit in a broader trend of impunity and corruption. This paper considers how shelter workers rely on different moral and legal frameworks to juggle these contradictory imperatives while working with victims of abuse to access justice.

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 paper in particular draws on an extended case study that traces one man’s recovery and pursuit of formal humanitarian recognition after being shot through the chest while hopping freight trains through Mexico.

Results: In working to harmonize intersecting and often contradictory moral and legal frameworks, shelter workers often rely on hospitality rhetoric. While human rights represents a judicial notion of justice and accountability in the face of extrajudicial violence, hospitality rhetoric draws attention to how different actors rely on less formal moral systems to articulate a right to access, recognition, and inclusion. Shelter workers, for example, draw on imagery that calls on state functionaries to maintain historical traditions of sanctuary. Migrants who suffer abuses, meanwhile, make subtle critiques about deficient hospitality when shelter workers hesitate to make deals that might accelerate bureaucratic processes with elected officials that many presume to be corrupt. Hospitality, in short, is a rhetorical device that allows diverse groups of varying professional legitimacy to make claims.

Conclusions and Implications: In early 2019, the Trump administration announced the “Migrant Protection Protocols,” an agreement between the United States and Mexico whereby Central American asylum seekers must remain in Mexico while their cases make their way through the US asylum system. This paper speaks to the that asylum seekers have been facing well before the “protocols” as growing numbers of Central Americans have been bottlenecked south of the US-Mexico border, displaced from their home communities and effectively blocked from accessing the US asylum system. Many who are stuck in this limbo view the idea of human rights cynically. Hospitality may offer an alternative or supplemental rhetorical device for advancing claims in support of immigrant communities.