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Unaccompanied migrant youth’s work and school lives: What we know and where we go

Updated: Dec 13, 2023

December 11, 2023

Guest Blogger:  Stephanie L. Canizales, PhD, University of California at Merced

Unaccompanied youth arriving in the United States each year endure unpredictable migration, arrival, and coming-of-age pathways. Displaced by violence and poverty, some Latin American-origin youth in the United States are apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border and begin their journeys from the custody of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, where the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) is charged with safely releasing a child to an adult sponsor. Others evade apprehension at the border and enter the U.S. clandestinely and outside of the view of the state.


Regardless of the mode of entry, unaccompanied migrant youth might arrive in search of long-settled relatives already living in cities and towns across the United States. They can find support that enables their coming of age as students in schools and teenagers in their local communities. Those with less suerte (luck), might have long-settled relatives that are so precariously situated that they cannot offer the material and emotional support migrant youth require upon arrival. Others might be the first in the family and community network to migrate to the U.S. and, therefore, entirely bereft of identifiable potential caregivers and companions.


If youth are accounted for by federal agencies, the government makes efforts to locate a new sponsor for a child—a relative or non-relative adult willing to claim responsibility for the young person. But when youth’s presence is unknown, the absence of support sets them on a pathway of full independence in their transition to adulthood.


My research and writing over the last decade have focused on telling the stories of youth who remain undocumented and unaccompanied as they come of age in the U.S. and how youth navigate everyday life to achieve stability in the short term and mobility in the long term.


What We Know


When unaccompanied are growing up in the U.S. without an adult caregiver, their most urgent need is securing their survival. They must work to afford rent, food, clothing, and other daily needs. They must also work to pay off their migration debt and remit money to support their left-behind families. The jobs youth obtain are among the least desirable in the U.S.: manufacturing, agriculture, construction, and the like. That migrant youth are growing up as workers in exploitative and dangerous jobs is at odds with the Western normative notion of the dependent child that is socialized in protective households and schools and looked after by caring community members and peers.


While critiques of migrant child labor abound, meaningful efforts to mitigate the root causes of this phenomenon—the privatization of economic markets, securitized development policy, the disinvestment in education and health care systems, stalled immigration reform—are sparse..


A thread of my research, which culminates in the publication of my forthcoming UC Press book, Sin Padres, Ni Papeles, has focused on shaping our understanding of just what that coming-of-age pathway means for undocumented immigrant youth’s incorporation into U.S. society. I introduce the concept of work primacy to explain how poor and working-class individuals' attempts to meet urgent financial needs through work in exploitative jobs. These jobs  offer little opportunity for advancement, and make work the central organizing institution in their lives. When work is the central institution organizing youth’s time and resources, it is also central to shaping their sense of self and future. Unaccompanied migrant youth who grow up independently in the U.S. assume the social identity and role of workers and make decisions in everyday life that prioritize and advance that identity and role.


Work primacy plays out in school, for example, by guiding how youth make meaning of education and decisions about their learning. My research finds that, even when migrant youth maintain educational aspirations, they make pragmatic decisions about school enrollment. Some youth determine school to be too costly. On one hand, time spent in class is time not spent working. On the other, the cost of school enrollment today outweighs its potential benefits tomorrow. The ability to plan for the future is a privilege that unaccompanied migrant youth workers cannot afford. Others enroll in school—typically adult English-language night schools—until they learn enough’ English to secure immediate wage and job mobility.


Indigenous Guatemalan and Mexican youth face the distinct challenge of being immigrants in an anti-immigrant society, and Indigenous in an anti-Indigenous Latinx immigrant community. In another forthcoming book project co-authored with linguistic anthropologist Brendan O’Connor, we detail how Indigenous youth navigate an “ecology of adaptation” through the process of preparación, which entails learning Spanish to navigate the Latinx community before embarking on English-language learning. Many of the Indigenous youth in our research learned some Spanish in their origin country, in transit, or, for many, upon arrival in the U.S.. Indigenous youth might experience delays in school enrollment but find adult English-language schools particularly useful for their linguistic adaptación.   


Where We Go


As unaccompanied minors continue to migrate and enter low-wage work across the U.S., we are witnessing the rise of a new generation of undocumented Latin American-origin immigrant youth and young adults who are coming of age in the U.S. as low-wage workers. Decades of research on undocumented Mexican and Central American immigrant families and communities speak to the detrimental intergenerational social, political, economic, and health effects of remaining undocumented and relegated to exploitative and dangerous work conditions.


Research also points to interventions. A clear first step is to offer legalization options to long-settled undocumented individuals living in the U.S. today. These long-settled immigrants might include some of the youth who arrived as unaccompanied minors but are now young adults. Importantly, they might also include adults who are called upon to be sponsors and caregivers to today’s unaccompanied minors. Politically, socially, and economically stable households and families are more likely to offer material and emotional support to newly arrived youth than those with precarious positions.


The potential of immigration reform to promote mobility within and across generations is observed in Jody Agius Vallejo’s work on the rise of the Latino middle class among recipients of the legalization benefits of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, and their children and grandchildren, who achieved new educational and occupational heights.


In the absence of immigration reform, we might then move toward creating more immediate, albeit ad-hoc responses, such as expanding opportunities for learning for migrant youth workers, recognizing that in the neoliberal capitalist U.S. economy, educational attainment and English-language learning are essential for employment and wage mobility.


States, counties, and school districts can invest in non-traditional learning options, including adult English-language night schools, continuation schools, and newcomer programs. In the state of California, where I conduct my research, newcomer program models and dynamics vary. An International School model is one in which a culturally-responsive cross-subject curriculum and culturally-sustaining pedagogy can facilitate learning and relationship building among diverse groups of newcomer students.

Programs in less-resourced contexts might take the shape of English Learners classrooms that tailor English class curriculum to student needs. Alternatively, continuation school programs, which offer classes that start later and end earlier to  accommodate youth’s work obligations through curriculum and program completion requirements, can support the learning of youth who might otherwise be entirely disconnected from school because of financial obligations. As my research shows, adult English-language schools might better support longer-settled unaccompanied youth and young adult workers. 

In its holistic approach to newcomer education, the International School model might produce the most positive learning outcomes. Funding agencies of all levels of government and philanthropy interested in advancing educational access, immigrant mobility and well-being, and the lives of children and youth should prioritize developing equitable investment strategies that equip resource-constrained programs with capacity to serve the growing number of newcomers arriving to the US each year. Doing so is critical to students’ learning and social and emotional well being.

Finally, program instructors can and should be trained in trauma-informed and culturally responsive learning to support the high rates of newcomer unaccompanied youth arriving in the U.S. each year, especially non-Spanish language speakers like Indigenous youth.


Increasing educational opportunities and resources may buffer unaccompanied migrant youth workers from or mitigate the consequences of work primacy. And even as they promote stability in the short term and mobility in the long term as they come of age, they are just the start.


We welcome additional comments and reflections, please email us at: or through the Immigrant Ed Next website. 


Suggested Citation: Canizales, S.L. (2023, December 11). Unaccompanied migrant youth’s work and school lives: What we know and where we go. Immigrant Ed Next.

Copyright © 2022: Sophia Rodriguez, Immigrant Ed Next-All Rights Reserved

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