Carola and Marcelo Suárez-Orozco: Recent Presentations at Vatican Focus on Education and Poverty, Human Trafficking

The Suárez-Orozcos have written extensively on issues affecting the emotional and educational development of immigrant children and youth.

Carola Suárez-Orozco, UCLA professor of education, and GSE&IS Dean Marcelo Suárez-Orozco presented two talks last month at the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences at the Casina Pio IV in The Vatican City. Both are noted experts on immigration’s impact on children and youth and spoke on “The Empire of Suffering: Trafficking of Children in the Global Millennium” at a conference titled, “Trafficking in Human Beings: Modern Slavery” on Nov. 2-3, and on “Educating the Children of Immigrants for the 21st Century” at the 2013 Workshop on “Bread and Brain, Education and Poverty,” which was held on Nov 4-6. Founded in Rome in 1603, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences is the only supranational academy of sciences in the world, with representatives from 36 countries who participate in study groups and meetings to examine specific issues. Their deliberations and scientific papers are published by the Academy or jointly with other publishers.

The authors of “Learning a New Land: Immigrant Students in American Society” (with Irina Todorova. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2010) and “Children of Immigration (The Developing Child)” (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), the Suárez-Orozcos have written numerous books, chapters, and articles on issues affecting the emotional and educational development of immigrant children and youth, including the effects of having undocumented parents or family members, dealing with micro-aggressions and stereotypes, and the impact of early education. Dean Suárez-Orozco has also written on collective trauma and violence (Cultures under Siege: Collective Violence and Trauma, Cambridge University Press, 2000).

Carola Suárez-Orozco greeted Pope Francis amid crowds at the Vatican.
Carola Suárez-Orozco joined the scores of the faithful to greet Pope Francis at the Vatican.

The Suárez-Orozcos shared with Ampersand the timely topics that they discussed among the prestigious cadre of scholars and experts at the Vatican, and their opportunity to take part in efforts by Pope Francis and the Catholic Church to diminish and eradicate those conditions that keep humanity in darkness.

Ampersand: What was it like to be selected to these delegations of the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences?

Carola and Marcelo Suárez-Orozco: The Holy Father, as a child of immigrants, as the spiritual leader whose life has embodied a dedication to the poor, is deeply concerned with how education should benefit our most vulnerable populations worldwide. Poverty, hunger, immigration, access to education, and the context that rob all human beings of dignity and opportunity are urgent priorities of the Holy Father.

At the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, earlier this month, scientists, researchers, and practitioners  from around the world gathered to consider the most recent evidence and to make recommendations to Pope Francis to guide the global conversation on bringing critical gaps and needed interventions moving forward. We were deeply honored to respond to his call to examine the nexus between immigration, poverty, and education.

&: In your abstract on “Educating the Children of Immigrants,” you write about the “immigrant paradox.” What is it?

C&MS-O: While immigrants are poorer than their non-immigrant counterparts, they tend to have better outcomes in a range of physical, psychological, and educational domains. However, the longer immigrants reside in their new societies, they lose that initial advantage.

This flies in the face of conventional expectations as many recently arrived immigrants face a wide range of stressors and risks – like high rates of poverty, discrimination, micro-aggressions, unauthorized status, fewer years of schooling, and social isolation – and yet they do better than their counterparts who remain in their countries of origin as well as better than second- and third- generation immigrants. This immigrant paradox has emerged in many post-industrial nations and seems to indicate that in many countries, we are failing in our task to embrace our newcomers as members of our societies.

&: How do you explain the determination and resilience of immigrants?

C&MS-O: Immigrants self-select and tend to be driven by optimism and the motivation to do better for their families. Let’s call it an immigrant vigor—an enormous national resource that should be harnessed and treasured.

&: What are the particular challenges that newcomer students face and how does that challenge their academic achievement?

C&MS-O: In many ways, what newcomer students need from their schools is very much what all of our students need. What works for them works for everyone – safe schools, rigorous and engaging curriculum, relational connectedness with teachers and peers, as well as strong academic language and literacy supports.

Beyond that, our research suggests that newcomer students face a number of particular challenges that most school environments are unprepared to systematically address – the challenges of acquiring the academic language of their new nation, protracted family separations prior to migration and often complicated family reunifications that follow, for some the many difficulties of living in the shadows of unauthorized status, among many others. (Click here to read Carola Suárez-Orozco’s post on “Growing Up in the Shadows” in the Psychology Benefits Society blog. In our session, we made recommendations for practice based on an NSF funded study of promising practice schools in New York City and Sweden serving immigrant origin students.

&: How can access to the digital environment change the landscape for the most impoverished students?

C&MS-O: New digital technologies have an enormous potential to reach learners in the most remote areas of the world where there is no literacy, no teachers, and obviously, no classrooms. Professor Maryanne Wolf, working with a team of MIT media lab researchers, is doing exemplary work bringing tablets with smart apps to children in the most remote areas of Ethiopia with intriguing initial results suggesting that children that can make these tablets their own, teach each other, and in a generational reversal, teach their elders basic literacies. The potentialities are breathtaking, though still of course in initial stages, requiring culturally and locally relevant synergies.

&: How is the Vatican planning to address the issues of education and poverty?

C&MS-O: The Holy Father has spoken with a steady voice and great moral clarity on inequality, poverty, and the rights of all immigrants. The Pontifical Academy will soon release a statement outlining priorities as well as concrete steps to be taken by the Vatican State. Concurrently, a book of collected essays based on the original papers presented will be published within the year, aimed at the scholarly and policy communities but also to all concerned citizens.

GSE&IS Dean Marcelo Suárez Orozco (at center) greeted fellow Argentinian Pope Francis.
GSE&IS Dean Marcelo Suárez Orozco (at center) greeted fellow Argentinian Pope Francis at the Vatican in November.

&: In a separate Vatican workshop you presented on human trafficking, apart from the conditions of poverty and lawlessness, what allows human trafficking to become so pervasive and undetectable?

C&MS-O: Trafficking is now a fully globalized part and parcel of an ever more interconnected, miniaturized, and yes, dystopic world. Forced labor is turned into economic value or profit for the traffickers. It thrives in the era of advanced technologies, mobile devices, and social media. It is a global empire generating billions of dollars in profits. It involves failed states with weak or no institutions and rachitic economies, as well as the advanced high-income postindustrial democracies of North America and Europe. It encompasses all continents and races, the world’s religions and languages.

The victims and the crimes are at once everywhere and nowhere. Like Poe’s “Purloined Letter,” it is hidden in plain sight. In trafficking, the movement is nearly always from low – or lower – income origins to high- or higher – income destinations. Well-travelled corridors include trafficking from Bangladesh, the Philippines, and Thailand to the Gulf Countries; the Caribbean, Mexico, Central and South America to the United States; and from the former Soviet Union to the European Union. Trafficking involves the exploitation of the strong over the weak – in the case of children for sex or labor, the exploitation is from older to younger generations.

&:  You say trafficking is “hidden in plain sight.” How is it eventually detected, controlled, and hopefully, eliminated? Are there any examples of success in this?

C&MS-O: Part of the problem is that trafficking resists easy generalizations. Its constituent units are diverse and causally linked to disparate origins: the enslavement of Thai girls for sexual tourists, the trafficking of immigrants from Mexico and Central America for labor exploitation in Southern California, and the [indenture] of child soldiers in Africa. It also involves cultural practices such as the estimated 150,000-500,000 “restavec” children in forced domestic labor in Haiti, and the trafficking of brides from North Korea, Vietnam, and Indonesia to Taiwan, Japan, and China.

When it comes to children, [trafficking] involves a broad set of domains such as agricultural work – including debt bondage, domestic work, commercial sexual exploitation including Internet pornography, the use of children for drug trafficking, child soldiers, illegal adoptions, begging,  and organ trafficking. National and supranational bodies, including signatories to the 1949 UN Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and the 117 co-signatories of the 2000 United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime and the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons – the so-called Palermo Protocol – have primary responsibility to enforce national and international anti-trafficking laws, treaties, and regulations.

Trafficking is a severe human rights violation of the integrity and inherent dignity of all human beings. There are individual successes in our country and globally. Guatemala’s swift development of a national DNA data bank to detect illegal adoptions – really a baby theft and selling conspiracy, is a good example. But tragically, trafficking on the whole is probably on the rise. We all need to open our eyes and act as members of the human family, as citizens, but also as consumers, to punish individuals, mafias, conglomerates, and companies with blood in their hands.

&: What happens when the trafficking of children goes unchecked?

C&MS-O: Trafficking is a crime enslaving millions of people – perhaps as many as there are people in Afghanistan (29.8 million, according to the Global Slavery Index, 2013). Twenty-seven percent of all detected trafficked are children, and two out of three are girls.

Trafficking rips children from their family and community, rupturing trust and attachment. Forced child labor involves three criteria. First, it turns a child into an “instrument of gain” by extracting profit from forced labor. Secondly, it removes them from the proscribed pathways that enable children the world over to reach and master culturally determined developmental milestones in the biological, emotional, cognitive, moral, and social realms required to successfully make the transition to adulthood. Thirdly, it is life-thwarting, harming of the child’s physical, psychological, moral, and social well-being, placing children in contexts that are inherently dangerous and beyond the developmental readiness and maturational capabilities to meet horrendous challenges.

We find PTDS-consistent symptomatology – flashbacks, nightmares, depression, helplessness, hopelessness, anxiety disorder, panic disorder, somatic symptoms, as well as insomnia, guilt/shame and loss of self-esteem. There is social withdrawal, amnesia and disassociation. We find elevated rates of substance abuse, eating disorders, suicidal ideation, gestures, and acts. Maltreatment from traffickers, employers, and exploiters often result in malnutrition, broken bones and teeth, dislocations, head and brain injuries. Sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS, as well as complications from Hepatitis B & C, uterine infections, complications in pregnancy, and infertility are all secondary to trafficking. Other illnesses that are reported to be high amongst trafficked victims include malaria, asthma and other lung diseases, anemia, and gastrointestinal diseases.

Children in the empire of suffering are the victims of two simultaneous crimes: they are violently assaulted and robbed of their childhood but they are also robbed of their future. When children the world over are working through the developmental milestones, the littlest denizens in the empire of suffering are removed from the challenges and joys of normative child development, swimming against a powerful undertow ever threatening to drawn them. We completely concur with Pope Francis that these most horrendous of crimes must be given absolute priority for eradication.


Above: Carola and Marcelo Suárez-Orozco strolled the gardens of the Vatican when in The Papal City to present their research on education and poverty, human trafficking. All photos courtesy of Marcelo Suárez-Orozco