Chinese difference and deservingness: The paper lives of young migrants

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Each year, approximately 1,500 youth migrate alone and clandestinely from China to the United States. If apprehended and placed in removal proceedings, these individuals and their legal advocates often prioritize specific narratives of family and age to qualify for legal relief. Such narratives are not new, of course. Shaped and arguably demanded by the law and broader ideologies of race, childhood, and citizenship, in many ways these accounts reflect both the intent and the constraints of an earlier subset of migrants, the Chinese “paper sons” who purchased family stories and identity papers to circumvent the Chinese Exclusion Act. Yet, as this article demonstrates, a meaningful divergence exists—one chiefly dependent on contemporary migrants’ status as “children.” For Chinese youth designated Unaccompanied Alien Children, establishing the vulnerability worthy of protection largely relies on a complex tale of cultural obligation and coercive, exploitative parents. As a result, instead of selecting one family over another as a century ago, today a specific and considerably more damaging image of the migrant’s family is put forth. Moving between the “paper sons” at the start of the 20th century and those daughters and sons at the end, this article critically explores the role that relatedness, either fictitious or filtered, plays in establishing legal relief in the United States. It likewise examines the unsettling of valued ties that occurs when actual, intimate relationships are silenced or diminished in the process.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1629-1648
Number of pages20
JournalAmerican Behavioral Scientist
Issue number13
StatePublished - Nov 2016

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The author disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship, and/ or publication of this article: This research was supported by the National Science Foundation Law and Social Sciences and Cultural Anthropology Programs and by the University of Washington’s Department of Anthropology.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2016 SAGE Publications.


  • Legal relief
  • Migrant families
  • Paper sons
  • Protection
  • Unaccompanied minors


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