How Art Helps Immigrant Children Find Their Voice

by Silvia Rodriguez Vega

By giving voices to those who have yet to be heard, we help create a world where all children are valued, respected, and protected. In Drawing Deportation, I wrote about the children of immigrants and migrant children coming from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. Here, I recount their experiences and fears related to anti-immigrant policy, rhetoric, and family detention or deportation. The book highlights the lives of children growing up along two border states, Arizona and California, during two political administrations, Obama and Trump. It contributes to the literature on a population that is vastly understudied, preadolescent immigrant children of color. What is perhaps most significant about the book are the accounts coming from the children themselves through journal entries and drawings. Here, I share the stories of Alex and Max.

Fear of Being Taken

Figure 1

At the time that this drawing (Figure 1) was created in 2008, Alex was a 7-year-old boy in elementary school living in South Phoenix. I saw him daily in his school uniform, a white polo shirt and navy-blue pants. Alex was born in Phoenix, but his parents were undocumented immigrants from Sonora, Mexico. Sonora is located on the other side of the border, just a few hours if traveling by car. However, Alex has never been there because, as he says, his family “don’t have papers.” Like many of the children who were part of developing a mural about peace in the community center, Alex drew images of the opposite of peace, where he depicted authority figures taking someone away as exemplified in Figure 1 and the zoomed in version of figure 2. More specifically, children expressed fear of the sheriffs taking away not only their parents or loved ones, but also themselves, too. Alex’s drawing took up very little space on the 11 x 8.5 sheet of paper. Although the children had access to multiple pieces of paper, markers, crayons, and color pencils, some drew only in pencil and on the bottom left corner of the paper. Despite the small scale of Alex’s drawing, the content of the image is powerful. Zooming in (Figure 2), we can see three stick figures and a vehicle with lights on top, similar to a police car with the sirens wailing. Two of the individuals are shackled together and have long streams of what resemble tears running down their faces along with big frowns. The third figure closest to the car is wearing some kind of headset with wires. On one side, the figure with the headset is holding one person by the arm and with the other hand is touching the car. It is unclear if Alex drew himself in this picture or someone he knows, but researchers affirm that if children live within a mixed-status family, they also internalize the fear of being undocumented, even if they are citizens and legally cannot be deported.[i]

Figure 2

Alex’s drawing informs readers about the everyday lives of immigrant communities, especially in highly surveilled places like Maricopa County in Phoenix, Arizona. This image and many like it warn viewers about the dangers of color-blind thinking when it comes to interactions between communities of color and police officers.[ii] They demonstrate that in some communities, enforcement officers represent a threat rather than a source of safety.[iii] Particularly, Alex’s drawing illustrates how authorities exercise legal violence in immigrant communities, where children often talked about “seeing sheriffs take immigrants away.” Policies like the 287(g) agreements rupture family cohesion, creating lasting consequences for children. Reports from 2007, 2010, and 2018 argue that children’s academic, emotional, and physical wellbeing decrease when a parent is detained.[iv] Unfortunately, arrests, detention, and raids were common themes in the drawings by these children.

Figure 3

When it came to children in California, they also shared sorrows related to detention and deportation. For example, in Max’s drawing (Figure 3) we can see the representation of the US, where he is, and Mexico, where his “Tía Divina” is now living after her deportation. Although his entire immediate family is no longer with the aunt, in the drawing he singles himself out. He draws where he is located on the map, Los Angeles, CA, and he locates his aunt in the northeastern part of Mexico. The longing for his aunt is noted in the puzzle like drawings of his aunt and him, emphasizing the distance and border between the two. Max’s drawing and story resemble many of the children who shared about a family member who has been deported.

These accounts of immigrant children’s fear of separation in Arizona and California provide context to their everyday lives as they encounter state-sanctioned legal violence. This violence comes in the form of immigration policies and rhetoric that they are most commonly exposed to through the media. Immigration policies are impacting children by increasing their stress and fear of family separation. To some degree, the possibility of being separated from their parents is realistic and fills them with worry, but telling their stories, drawing, make-believing, and performing gives these children a method of relieving some of that tension. Taken together, the effects of these policies in Arizona and California carry destructive consequences for children of immigrants. In response, art and artmaking allow us to visualize what the impact of this fear may be in their lives. I hope you read Drawing Deportation and witness the visual stories of all the children I met. 

[i] O’Leary and Sanchez, “Anti-Immigrant Arizona.”

[ii] Crenshaw and Peller, “Reel Time/Real Justice Colloquy”; Patton, “The Endless Cycle of Abuse.”

[iii] Bornstein et al., “Critical Race Theory Meets the NYPD.”

[iv] Capps , Paying the Price; Cervantes et al., Our Children’s Fear ; Chaudry et al., Facing Our Future.  

Silvia Rodriguez Vega is an Assistant Professor at University of California, Santa Barbara, in the Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies.

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