Serving Refugee Children

Listening to Stories of Detention in the USA

by Montse Feu (Volume editor) Amanda Venta (Volume editor)
©2021 Others XVI, 228 Pages


Serving Refugee Children shows the struggles and traumatic experiences that unaccompanied and undocumented children undergo they seek safety in the United States and instead find imprisonment, separation from their families, and immigration enforcement raids. Current legislation and bureaucracy limit publication of first-person narratives from unaccompanied and undocumented children, but service providers and grassroots activists authoring the pieces in this collection bear witness to the children’s brave human spirits in their search for safety in the United States. Through the power of storytelling, Serving Refugee Children exposes the many hardships unaccompanied and undocumented children endure, including current detention center conditions. No child should have to live the persecution suffered by children featured in these stories, nor should they have to embark upon perilous journeys across Latin America or be subjected to the difficult immigration court process unaided. Researchers and readers who believe that the emotional bonding of storytelling can humanize discussions and lead to immigration policies that foster a culture of engagement and interconnectedness will be interested in this volume.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Advance Praise
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the authors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: Serving Refugee Children and Their Families
  • Part I escapes and crossings
  • Chapter 1. Seth Michelson
  • Chapter 2. Paloma Villegas
  • Chapter 3. Cassandra Bailey
  • Part II memories and bonds
  • Chapter 4. Melissa Briones, Alfonso Mercado, Abigail Nunez-Saenz, Paola Quijano, and Andy Torres
  • Chapter 5. Yessica Colin
  • Chapter 6. Ana Maria Fores Tamayo
  • Part III silencing
  • Chapter 7. Maria Baños Jordan
  • Chapter 8. Francisco Villegas and Paloma Villegas
  • Chapter 9. Estrella Godinez
  • Chapter 10. Jaime Retamales
  • Part IV the love of strangers
  • Chapter 11. Luz M. Garcini and Martin La Roche
  • Chapter 12. Juan A. Ríos Vega
  • Chapter 13. Amelia Cotter
  • About the Authors


People in the United States (U.S.) and the world are outraged at the news of the separation of families and the detention of unaccompanied immigrant children at the U.S. border with Mexico. Since 2018, haunting news of children locked in cages and heartbreaking footage of children dying in immigration detention have alarmed the general public. On March 6, 2019, Representative Lauren Underwood reported the potential physical and psychological effects of separating migrant families and children at the border to the House Homeland Security Committee Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.1 Her report followed the leak of a memo that revealed U.S. government plans to forcibly separate migrant children from their families and deport them more quickly.2 On July 2019, demonstrations started in front of several detention centers and in several U.S. cities with the campaign call “Never Again.” After her visit to a detention facility, Member of Congress Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez denounced “a culture of cruelty” and a lack of accountability for inhumane practices in immigration detention.3

Similarly, reports and articles published in 2019 denounced conditions in immigrant detention centers as, “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment that is prohibited by international law.”4 Cultural institutions, civic organizations, and politicians remain concerned about the humanitarian crisis at the border. In an effort to preserve artifacts that document this crisis, ←NaN | x→the Smithsonian drew international attention when it requested drawings by children that depict their living conditions in immigration detention.5 Legally, two judges, one in California and one in the District of Columbia blocked former President Trump’s asylum bans and restrictions. These legal, cultural, and political efforts have fought for humane border legislation and practices that are accountable to U.S. and international law.

However, the zero-tolerance policy implemented by the Trump Administration created a new form of unaccompanied children by separating families seeking refuge in the U.S. and created a pressing need for efforts drawing attention to families’ experiences in incarceration. The humanitarian concerns about recent administrative decisions are enormous: migrant parents who crossed the border with their children were forcibly separated while they awaited criminal prosecution; even more troublesome, non-profit organizations have documented a number of parents being deported without their children. For instance, Texas Civil Rights Projects counted 2,000 children in U.S. custody who were separated from their family members as a result of this policy. Serving Refugee Children: Listening to Stories of Detention in the USA (henceforth, Serving Refugee Children) focuses mainly on the surge of children and adolescents migrating—many of them without any legal or even informal guardian—from Central America to the U.S. escaping regional violence, abuse, and deprivation in recent years.

Serving Refugee Children captures the experiences and sentiments of Central American undocumented and unaccompanied minors (up to 18-years- old) in immigration detention centers, immigration facilities, and schools from the perspective of the individuals who have served them and their families in recent years (2016 to present). This bilingual anthology grew from conversations with students at Sam Houston State University about their experiences working with refugee children. The manuscript aims to create a culture of empathy and justice for those who seek refuge by disseminating the stories heard by service providers who care for youth and families in detention. Identifying details in accounts have been modified for legal reasons. Nonetheless, their accounts reveal the unseemly treatment that refugee minors suffer today. Ultimately, Serving Refugee Children demands the abolishment of U.S. immigration detention as it is conceived today and calls for a move towards models of safety, support, and prevention.

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1.Representative Lauren Underwood Facebook page, March 6, 2019. https://www.facebook.com/repunderwood/videos/2338476183098128/

2.Robert Crown Law Library Blog. Stanford Law School. http://liblog.law.stanford.edu/2019/01/memorandum-reveals-united-states-government-planned-to-traumatize-migrant-children/?fbclid=IwAR0SwaJtunt61twlm2OhWCxPJUG30gGQ5WvN8VAvt3YnRY4GGdhJcvK41yA

3.“Reporting Exposes Border Patrol ‘Culture of Cruelty’.” Morning Joe. MSNBC, July 2, 2019.

4.Kennicott, Philip, “Will Our Migrant Detention Cages Be Studied in Tomorrow’s Museums,” The Washington Post, July 18, 2019.

5.Cohen, Elizabeth, and John Bonifield. “Smithsonian Interested in Obtaining Migrant Children’s Drawings Depicting their Time in US Custody,” CNN, July 8, 2019.

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Editors thank scholars and writers for their feedback in the drafts of this anthology: Chris Castañeda, Amelia Cotter, Donna R. Gabaccia, M. Miranda Maloney, Annelise Orleck, April Shemak, as well as the blind reviewers. They provided invaluable critical improvements to the collection. Editors also would like to thank Raquel Chiquillo, Wendy Herrera, Cristina Nava Wilson, and Jenny Patlan for assisting us in the revision of Spanish variations. Montse Feu also thanks students in her Spanish and Honors classes that discussed some of the stories of this collection.

Introduction: Serving Refugee Children and Their Families

Montse Feu and Amanda Venta

Serving Refugee Children started with Lupe,1 a teacher in an immigration detention center in Texas, and her relationship with Luis, an unaccompanied child detained there. For 2 years she served as his teacher in the detention center. She was then asked to fly with him to the home of a distant relative, who would take custody of the child. Lupe did her best to keep Luis strong during his time in detention with reassuring words and expressions of care. Comforting the sad child was not easy—the rules of detention centers forbid touching or holding children, even when they are quite young. Concerned about the wellbeing of unaccompanied minors, Lupe’s Associate professor of Hispanic Studies, Dr. Montse Feu, contacted Dr. Amanda Venta, Associate professor of Psychology, who had been providing psychological services for detained immigrant children since 2012. This edited volume was envisioned as a way to make known to the general public the ordeal that children like Luis endure. Contributors, Cassandra Bailey, Maria Baños Jordan, Melissa Briones, Yessica Colin, Amelia Cotter, Ana Maria Fores Tamayo, Luz M. Garcini, Estrella Godinez, Martin La Roche, Alfonso Mercado, Seth Michelson, Abigail Nunez-Saenz, Paola Quijano, Jaime Retamales, Juan Ríos Vega, Andy Torres, and Paloma and Francisco Villegas share the same principled commitment to advocating for the minors’ wellbeing as Lupe, Montse, and Amanda. By foregrounding ←1 | 2→their valuable perspectives, Serving Refugee Children is committed to the reform and abolition of practices that compromise social justice and human rights.

In presenting the accounts written by those who serve children, Serving Refugee Children provides unprecedented access to one of the burning moral issues of our time. Contributing authors are volunteers or service providers in detention services and schools. They give a panoramic and grassroots view of their experience in serving refuge-seeking children. Contributing authors have spent many hours and sometimes years teaching, listening, and supporting the children and youth represented in these stories: Luz, Ximena, Toñito, Camila, Danny Mateo, Jeremías, Luis, Juan, Sheila, William, and Carlos.

The editors feel that sharing the experiences of these providers is a compelling political act of resistance to injustice and a call for action when legal constraints do not allow for the children’s first-person narratives to be disclosed to the general public and the communities directly affected by these detention policies. Storytelling provides a close and intimate view of the emotional wounds and costs of child detention. Authors, in sharing children’s strength and courage, demonstrate that justice, strength, compassion, and human connection are necessary for the wellbeing of refugee children.

The authorship of this anthology is indeed unique—rarely are the experiences activists, grassroots representatives, health and human services professionals, workers, researchers, teachers, and volunteers who serve unaccompanied minors in detention centers and schools disseminated to the general public. Authors Michelson, Fores Tamayo, and Baños Jordan volunteered providing poetry workshops in Spanish; Bailey, Colin and Godinez interviewed unaccompanied immigrant youth in centers and schools in Spanish with the goal of providing psychological services; Briones, Garcini and Laroche volunteer in respite and hospice centers; Lupe and Retamales worked and volunteered in detention centers; and the Villegas siblings and Ríos Vega have experienced discrimination in schools both in their own skin and in the stories of their students. The stories shared here show that authors soon become friends and allies that try to comfort unaccompanied minors. Readers will find fleeting moments of happiness, like when Toñito speaks his variety of Spanish with volunteers at the respite center that welcomes him, and finds joy playing with other children there. However, other stories demonstrate the lack of socialization and comforting physical interaction that children experience in detention and how this lack can cognitively and emotionally affect them.2 By offering unprecedented access to children’s experiences during or shortly after ←2 | 3→their detention in the U.S., the accounts in this volume ask readers to be concerned about refugee-seeking children and care for them.

On Storytelling

Although Serving Refugee Children is based on true events, names and identifying details of the unaccompanied minors have been changed to protect them. Storytelling and anonymity present a unique contribution of this anthology. Existing publications are limited in scope because, in providing identifying details about the youth involved, they require permission from both the child and the legal guardian prior to publication. This requirement produces two important selection biases. First, few stories are shared due to the difficulty of attaining these permissions. Second, only children who have a legal guardian available and willing to provide permission are represented in the available literature. This bias is particularly damaging given the current immigration context of the U.S., where a large number of children currently arriving to (or having recently arrived to) the U.S. come by themselves or are separated from their guardians at the U.S. border. Silencing these stories because of the impossibility of obtaining permission to publish is a tremendous disservice to the immigrant population. Relatedly, children who have come with or have been reunited with guardians in the U.S. are often in the care of an undocumented person. It is well documented that these adults readily fear deportation and avoid even much needed medical services due to fear of identifying themselves and the children under their care. Requiring the written permission of these caregivers therefore excludes the very families who are most marginalized in our society and the immigration system from participating in literary and research efforts focused on their situation.

Equally relevant, children might lack the skills to tell their stories as well as a critical understanding of their own situation. Not only they are often small children, but they have also escaped violence and poverty, experienced a dangerous and long trip, are confused on being detained, do not know how long they will be detained, and feel lonely and miss their loved ones. For example, Luis was only seven or 8-year old, and Jeremias was sixteen when they were detained. Although they had distinct coping mechanisms, neither had sufficient English skills to speak for themselves. Denying them of the use of the first language in the centers only aggravated their trauma and their fear. Despite the hard conditions they experienced, Luis and Jeremias ←3 | 4→were expected to learn English and communicate in this language, which only created harder paths and destinies for them, and made them ultimately unable to tell their stories as they would have in their mother tongue.3


XVI, 228
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2021 (July)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2021. XVI, 228 pp., 1 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Montse Feu (Volume editor) Amanda Venta (Volume editor)

Montse Feu (Ph.D., University of Houston) is Associate Professor of Hispanic Studies at Sam Houston State University. She is the author of Correspondencia personal y política de un anarcosindicalista exiliado: Jesús González Malo (1943-1965) (2016) and Fighting Fascist Spain (2020). She is the co-editor of Writing Revolution: Hispanic Anarchism in the United States (2019). Amanda Venta (Ph.D., University of Houston) is Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Houston. Her research focuses on how relationships between children and caregivers affect mental health with more than 100 publications and funding from the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Institute of Minority Health and Health Disparities.


Title: Serving Refugee Children
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246 pages