Volume 34
Issue 2
Winter '20

The Adultification of Immigrant Children

Written By: Laila Hlass


Children occupy a “liminal childhood” in the immigration legal system, provided neither child-appropriate protections, nor necessarily the meager rights afforded to adults. At times, they are viewed through a protectionist lens, infantilized and robbed of agency. More commonly, however, immigrant children—largely teens of color—are subjected to adultification. Adultification refers to the phenomenon whereby children of color suffer a wide variety of negative outcomes across a diverse range of public systems, including education, juvenile justice, and child welfare, because they are perceived as more adult-like than their white peers.

This article casts new light on the lack of proportionality for children across the spectrum of immigration legal proceedings. Through the lens of adultification, I show how laws, policies and practices regulating children are disproportionately harsh. To remedy the injustice of the current situation, I reimagine an immigration legal system founded in the norm of proportionality, recognizing the vulnerabilities of and bias impacting migrant children. In particular, I argue that a reconceptualization of migrant children should incorporate lessons learned from failures within the juvenile justice system, which has been reckoning with problems of adultification and infantilization of children for more than a century.

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