Blanca Villaseñor Roca

This description of Blanca Villaseñor Roca's work was prepared when Blanca Villaseñor Roca was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1995 .


Blanca Villaseñor established the first program in Mexico focusing on youth migration. Her Desert Youth Shelter provides a safe harbor for youth deportees from the United States, helps them to earn enough money to return home and conducts path-breaking research, human rights defense and advocacy for policy reform on youth migration.

L'idée nouvelle

In the late 1980s, Mexican-United States migration began, for the first time, to attract large numbers of unaccompanied children. Blanca Villaseñor was the first person in Mexico to respond programmatically to this tragedy by establishing a shelter and support program for the unaccompanied children deported from the United States who found themselves trying to survive on the streets of border town Mexicali.

More than a compassionate response to an acute new social need, Blanca's Desert Youth Shelter has drawn two powerful connections–one organizational and one in policy–that extend the promise of dramatically improving, if not actually solving, the U.S.-Mexico migration problem.

First, building on her earlier work with the "squatter city" of migrants that has become a permanent fixture on the edge of Mexicali, Blanca has mobilized an extraordinary array of citizen supports for the Desert Youth Shelter. Restaurants and grocers provide food. Small businesses provide temporary jobs for the youth so that they can earn enough money to buy bus fare home. Professionals–such as doctors, counselors, lawyers and builders–provide pro bono services. Blanca is systematically sharing her "citizen support" model with other migrant and social service programs along the 1,500 mile border.

Second, mobilizing her former colleagues at the local university, Blanca coordinates an integrated action research, human rights defense and policy advocacy program that is bringing the unknown facts of youth migration–and U.S.-Mexico migration more generally–into the public debate. As Blanca herself puts it:

"By illuminating the youth dimension of migration we hope to inform strategies to reform economic policy. We are expanding our contacts along the entire border and amplifying the scope of our survey work to the geographic areas of large deportations. We are seeing, for example, a correlation between migration and street children in border cities. The number of deportations from California doubled in 1994-5. The Mexican government argues that this is because of stricter enforcement. But we see that migration with California has also doubled. Our thesis is that the migration problem has its roots in our economic structure. Our economic pattern promotes migration and poverty. We do not want to work here on the border simply providing aid and defending human rights. We want to have a policy impact by having more direct relations with the migrant exporting states of Jalisco, Michoacan, Guanajuato, Zacatecas, Oaxaca, and Sinaloa. We want to help advocate policies that will create jobs in these states. We want to help those states understand the consequences of migration on their local economies. On their communities. On their children. What are the economic benefits from migration? There is no good research here. It is alleged that remittances form the third largest source of income in some of these states. If this is so–and no one knows for sure–then groups related to migrants should have more clout with government to insure that the rights of the remittance-senders are defended."

Le problème

The passage of the Simpson-Rodino Bill providing amnesty for undocumented aliens inside the United States in 1985 and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) of 1994 highlight the profound changes affecting the ancient patterns of human migration between Mexico and the United States. With the "free trade" driven integration of the two economies, the overall volume of human traffic is increasing steadily. At the same time, and somewhat inconsistently, the United States is seeking to narrow the bottleneck of legal migration and to limit illegal migration. Billions of dollars are being spent on border enforcement, and the number of deportations is increasing commensurably.

The circumstances of the growing number of people caught up in the border enforcement and deportation process are increasingly desperate. Compelled by the declining economies in their home regions in the first place, Mexican migrants are often too poor to return home. They end up on the streets of and in the shanty towns now exploding alongside Mexico's border cities.

Since the late 1980s, in a new development, many of these new migrants are children, some as young as ten years old. Typically, they travel hundreds of miles to get to the border and have no means of returning home. Once deported back to Mexico, they are lonely, lost, penniless, hungry and homeless. Vulnerable and hopeless, they beg on the streets of border cities, often going door-to-door in search of help.

Given sufficient resources, many would return home to their families or seek employment elsewhere in Mexico. However, without help, they have little alternative but to live on the streets of Bordertown, Mexico, waiting for another opportunity to cross into the promised land. For the overwhelming majority, that dream will never become a reality.

La stratégie

Blanca begins her work with the view that an efficient and compassionate service for the needs of youth deportees can help to accomplish two interrelated further goals, citizen involvement and policy reform. She believes that without active voluntary citizen involvement in treating the symptoms of migration, there is no way that society will ever tackle the causes of the problem through reform in economic and social policies.

A given for Blanca is that the service to youth is absolutely first class. The work begins even before a deportation happens. Whenever the U.S. authorities are about to deport a group of youth migrants to Mexicali, the Mexican consulate in California alerts the Desert Youth Shelter. As soon as they arrive at the border there is someone there to greet them and bring them to the Shelter.

The Shelter offers counseling to help the youth put their situations in perspective and better understand the emotional and economic challenges they face. Migrant youth are often overwhelmed by the enormous responsibility placed on them by their families, who rely on them to make it to the U.S. alone. The counseling is intended to help them focus on their goals and identify obstacles to overcome. Often the children just need to talk to someone openly about their feelings of fear, loneliness, rejection and even failure after having been turned back from reaching their hard-sought goal.

In most cases the Shelter provides more comprehensive forms of assistance. When families cannot send money to the youth to pay for their return home, Blanca helps the children find temporary jobs. Occasionally, in cases where youth do not have families to turn to, she helps them build new lives in Mexicali or elsewhere. This may include finding permanent jobs, re-enrolling in school and even finding adoptive families.

To engage the local community, she provides them with highly leveraged ways in which they can contribute to the shelter and its support program. Those who contribute food, clothing, professional services and employment opportunities to the kids at the Shelter know, for example, that the average time for kids to reside there is two weeks and that 80 percent of them return home. That Blanca has effectively proved the Shelter's value to the community is further evidenced by the fact that the city government also makes a monthly contribution.

But Blanca makes sure that her volunteers and the municipality know far more about youth migration than the bare facts of the desperate circumstances of youth deportees. She systematically surveys youth in order to get a handle on the causes of the problem where the kids come from, why they left home, where they were going in the U.S. and why, what they hope to do upon their return. Thanks to the Shelter's ongoing research program, Mexicali's citizens understand that they can never manage the migration issue alone; and that they should not have to. They see the correlation between migration and street children in border cities. They come to understand the economic forces driving migration from the states of Jalisco, Michoacan, Guanajuato, Zacatecas, Oaxaca and Sinaloa and are beginning to ask questions about how to formulate policies that will create jobs in these states. With Blanca's help, Mexicali is building links in these "migrant exporting" regions to help them take stock of the consequences of migration for their economy, communities, families and most of all children.

The Shelter also fights for migrants' rights, both to protect the dignity of the person and as a means to mobilize political support for policy reform.

As a direct result of the youth deportee service work and the ongoing research into the underlying causes of youth migration, Blanca is shifting her own focus toward building coalitions of action that involve the entire border and the migrant exporting regions.

La personne

A native of Monterrey, Blanca was deprived of a secondary level education because her father and mother believed that a woman's proper place was in the home. When she moved to her husband's hometown of Mexicali, however, she enrolled in secondary school and later completed university studies in sociology. A brilliant student, she became a lecturer at the local university in Mexicali.

When the United States Simpson-Rodino Bill provided amnesty for undocumented aliens inside the United States in 1985, Blanca was active in a group of women professionals that had raised funds to build a cultural center in the poor area of town and had played an ongoing support role for that poor community. Because of the workings of Simpson-Rodino, a squatter community of migrants appeared almost overnight in Mexicali. These were individuals whose U.S. residence was being regularized through Simpson-Rodino. The process took longer than expected and the familiar problems of squatter settlements descended upon Mexicali.

Over the next nine years, Blanca became progressively more involved in the problems of migration. She began by organizing soup kitchens. Success here led to creating a legal advice service that enabled migrants to command social service provision from the city. Concerned about the wider relationship between the growing squatter "city" and Mexicali proper, she mobilized an impressive array of citizen supports for the squatter settlement. As the new youth dimension to the migration problem emerged in the late 1980s, she was among the first in Mexico to identify it. And she was the first person to do something about it, quitting her university job in order to volunteer full-time to launch the Desert Youth Shelter in 1990.