Between Children and Transnational Economic Actors:The Discounted “Belongings” of Young Chinese Migrants

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Each year, approximately 1,500 Chinese youth (typically aged 15–17) migrate alone and clandestinely to the United States. While most intend to advance themselves and their families socially and economically, not all are immediately successful: some are apprehended and placed in removal proceedings. Here, immigration cause lawyers are tasked with presenting clients who might otherwise be termed “economic migrants” as uniquely vulnerable and deserving of legal status. Drawing on extensive ethnographic research, this article confronts a disconnect between the forms of belonging many young Chinese migrants prioritize—belonging to the workforce and to transnational kin and peer networks—and lawyers’ strategic disregard for these situated identities. It asks: How do young migrants reconcile their largely autonomous maneuvering with the accounts put forth by their attorney—accounts of cultural coercion, parental deficiency, and unagentive “children”? What forces give rise to these narratives, and what are their consequences for clients, and for lawyers? Tracing the utilization and suppression of meaningful identities in various institutional, kin, and community contexts, this article illuminates the ways in which young migrants’ pursuit of one form of status, namely legal, powerfully impacts their valuation and attainment of other, more discrete markers of success.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)4-18
Number of pages15
JournalPolitical and Legal Anthropology Review
StatePublished - Sep 1 2016

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
©2016 by the American Anthropological Association


  • Cause lawyering
  • China
  • age
  • rights
  • unaccompanied child migration


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