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This article explores critical ways that migrant groups engage in diverse forms of resistance. In this comparative case study, we draw on our longitudinal ethnographic research on migrant groups, particularly those that are characterized as undocumented, with a focus on the ways in which they engage in activism and resistance in China and the United States, respectively. We aim to expand the literature about comparison by asking: how is comparison understood differently through the lens of crisscrossing, and what productive insights can be uncovered through this theoretically informed approach? What implications might crisscrossing have for studying grassroots level resistance from migrants across borders?


Migratory flows characterize our world to new degrees due to social crises across the globe and climate change. In both Europe and the United States, opponents of migration maintain unprecedented fears of the “other” moving in and reconfiguring cultural norms and power relations accompanied by racist nativism and xenophobia (Ngo 2017). As policy interventions and hostile rhetoric are mobilized against the alleged invasion of “strangers” to society, there remains resistance from migrant groups seeking social change globally (Portes 2010; Bauman 2016). This article addresses these concerns by engaging in comparative work on undocumented migrant resistance in China and the United States. We engage differently in our comparative work by asking: how is comparison understood differently through the lens of crisscrossing (Sobe 2018), and what productive insights can be uncovered through this theoretically informed approach? Why is this comparison of the migrant experiences and resistance of two different groups, in two different contexts, useful for studies of migrants and education, and migration and mobility as a process and case ripe for crisscrossing comparative research? To answer these questions, we review relevant literature about comparison in order to extend the conversation by leveraging the theoretically informed crisscrossing approach in our research about undocumented migration and migrant resistance. Then, we outline our theoretical approach of crisscrossing (Sobe 2018), which we argue is necessary to advance comparative research on migrant groups across space-time contexts. We build upon recent historical and comparative research that utilizes crisscrossing as theory and method. Finally, we apply crisscrossing theory as method to the data in our comparative analysis of migrant populations, including their similar experiences of exclusion and encounters with public authorities, the forms of communication and solidarity that emerge, and how they engage in organizing and activism within the anti-immigrant contexts. We offer implications for understanding undocumented migrant experiences vis-a-vis nontraditional modes of comparison.

Situating Comparison

To situate our inquiry and the comparative case study research we engage in here, we first contextualize how comparative education research has been undertaken, including key debates in the field around what comparison means. We move beyond normative and conventional modes of comparison to account for global and local articulations of activism undertaken by undocumented migrant groups who are invisible and excluded from global and local civil societies. We argue that the migrant groups’ activism is nonetheless reconfiguring social spaces that counter hegemonic policies and practices.

We think through how comparative work has been entangled in the field of comparative and international education (CIE), specifically debates about globalization and the global-local binary that influences who or what gets compared. In part, comparative education research has been conditioned and constrained, perhaps, by the preoccupation with theorizing in the field, especially debates between globalization and difference (Bauman 1998; Robertson and Dale 2015), and world cultural theory (Anderson-Levitt 2003; Ramirez 2003) and institutional isomorphism (DiMaggio and Powell 1983; Carney et al. 2012). In particular, world culture theory interprets the global convergence of educational and cultural worlds as a facet of modernity driven by the logic of technology, science, etc., and centers on “longitudinal and cross-national research designs and quantitative analysis” (Ramirez 2003, 246). Thus, the empirical work tends to favor data “that could be collected, quantified, and rendered comparative on a global scale” (Carney et al. 2012, 374). Meanwhile, world culture theory has been challenged by scholars who focus on the local enactment of world-level phenomena and highlight the centrality of agency and the politics behind the implementation of global reforms in different national contexts (Anderson-Levitt 2003; Carney et al. 2012; Schriewer 2012). These debates over global convergence, local practices, and mechanisms for institutional changes underscore that new institutions and actors are partaking in social and class struggles in new, operative, and emergent spaces beyond national and transnational boundaries.

These debates influence the notion of comparison and potentially how empirical work is understood/undertaken. This means an exclusive focus on the unit of analysis itself (e.g., the nation or the demographic/population) has yielded many studies to specific nation-states, which could miss the complexities of an ethnoracial group, experiences of curriculum or schooling at local levels, and systems within/across levels (i.e., organizational or policy) (Anderson-Levitt 2003). This challenge is then taken up by comparativists who work within and across geocultural and geopolitical contexts, creating a binary that is often debated: the global/local nexus. Comparativists studying similar phenomena across space or time often reimagine concepts such as culture to include particular “local” contexts instead of abstractions like the “global” (Bartlett and Vavrus 2017). Research that ignores complexity, contestation, and worldviews beyond the Western, neoliberal, or capitalist lenses neglects essential features of meaning making. From this, we argue for the usefulness of crisscrossing comparison for the study of migrant experiences of activism to reveal the relational juxtapositions of migrant experiences of activism and resistance (Sobe 2018).

Specifically, literature on global agency or transnational activism has often focused on the hegemonic influence of formal intergovernmental organizations and international nongovernmental organizations (Mundy and Murphy 2001; Edwards and Brehm 2015). Our focus, however, is a relational, grassroots level perspective about migration processes and forms of resistance. Social activism in these marginalized political and social spaces is not a social action with substantial autonomy (Smith et al. 1998; Böhm et al. 2010). Successful social movements of marginalized groups do not always involve in public displays of contention; instead, they often mobilize political leverage to advance collective interests through means that are not in the public spotlight (Tarlau 2015; Yu 2018). However, migrants’ resistance and activism still manage to occupy a certain degree of social space supported by emerging networks of interpersonal relations, informal rules, and shared ideas. We want to document and theorize how marginalized migrant groups have mobilized and gained solidarity through a conscious communication of politics and a reliance on informal strategies and relations through our comparative project. To uncover these aspects of migrant resistance, we engaged a crisscrossing theory-as-method approach to compare relationships and processes in juxtaposition from our empirical research.

Crisscrossing Comparison: Theory as Method

Sobe’s (2018) genealogical account of CIE narrates the field’s history and why historicity inheres upon a future for comparison with ethical relation at its core. Accounting for the past and its recursive echoes in the present encourages comparative scholars to reflexively engage in knowledge construction and co-creation. Sobe (2018) argues for a reimagination of comparison, that is, crisscrossing comparison, with focused attention to myriad forms of knowledge and historical contextualization that enable different global realities to enhance the field. While the conceptualization of crisscrossing is emerging and evolving, and has been taken up mostly in historical work and literature review (e.g., Kester et al. 2021), we expand this as theory and method to empirical comparative work on migration with our project. The crisscrossing moment(s) occur through our initial research questions and our data analysis, informed by the long history of comparative work and research on migrant/migration, and the points that intersect, that is, when/where/how migrants conceptualize resistance and belonging, how their experiences form a narrative/counternarrative to dominant ideologies, and how their communication in response to policy discourse generated formal and informal moments of organizing. We ultimately argue that this entangled, relational crisscrossing comparison sheds new light on grassroots, and often ignored, forms of solidarity and resistance for migrant groups, especially from populations that are undocumented and alienated, or considered outsiders to the society of which they are a part.

Unpacking Crisscrossing Comparison

Reimagining comparative work is enhanced by problematizing its methodological modalities. In our study, we do this by tracing the phenomenon of undocumented migrant experiences and resistance comparatively. Sobe (2018) characterizes previous comparative work through the “yardstick and Venn comparisons,” analyzes their shortcomings, and discusses a pathway to improve upon them. The yardstick approach is typified when “the researcher typically begins the study with measuring stick in hand—and, problematically, with yardsticks that are near at hand” (Sobe 2018, 331). This method of comparison relies on established standards or benchmarks, especially those that are readily available or in proximity to researchers (i.e., when migration researchers measure immigrant belonging and success based upon how well they assimilate, learn English or acquire employment, Rodriguez 2020). Sobe (2018) describes the Venn model in comparative research as a comparison and contrast with “the logic that two situations, institutions, practices, systems, etcetera, can be probed to determine what lies in the shared space of commonality and what distinct difference lies outside” (331). Inherent in this approach is defining boundaries of inclusion and exclusion and placing the object of study on a balanced plane that assumes the possibility of comparison, which is also common in traditional case study methods (Yin 2014). Sobe (2018) problematizes these methods by stating that “comparisons [occur] on a field conceived and built on narrow, culturally specific criteria, and thus invariably involve judging and choosing” (333). Detailing the limitations of the yardstick and Venn comparison methods evoke the necessity of researcher reflexivity in moving beyond the myth of objectivity.

Furthermore, Sobe (2018) writes that such “comparisons are predicated on the isolation of case” (333). These assumptions elide the living complexity of people and contexts selected for comparative research. Often accompanying yardstick and Venn comparative methods is the assumption that selecting an object of research thus removes the possibility of and importance of interactions beyond the researcher’s scope. Sobe (2018) clarifies that a broad orientation to the relational in comparative research guides the field and its scholars to moving through the chasm of challenges that circumscribe a pursuit of comparison predicated on unexamined a priori categories, norms, or assumed objectivity. Relational coconstruction of comparative knowledge aids in attending to the colonial legacies and limited results that also accompany these forms of comparison. These latter points from Sobe (2018) mark a critical bridge to thinking comparatively through more nuanced case study approaches.

To address the problems posed by “yardstick” and “Venn” comparisons (namely, the requirement of an agreed upon norm that different phenomena can be compared), Sobe (2018) proposes the notion of “crisscrossing” comparison as a process of thinking and acting that occurs throughout the inquiry process. Contrasting this “process” orientation—which it shares with Bartlett and Vavrus’s (2017) comparative case study approach—with that of an academic technique based on a shared “third point” (336) for comparison, he argues that crisscrossing is relational and “invites us to embrace comparative research as fundamentally an encounter or, more accurately, reiterated encounters” (339). In our project, we felt the need for rethinking comparison, and to some extent thinking about theory as method. In other words, our theoretical orientation of “crisscrossing” offers a new way to think about comparison, and links with our methodological approaches.

In crisscrossing, the process of encountering involves foregrounding difference rather than similitude in an effort to generate surprise and new perspective. As a relational act, crisscrossing implicates the researcher, requiring them to view themselves as entangled in a history of what it means to compare and the tendency to categorize and construct hierarchies but also to resist that tendency in search of surprise. Key to this is rethinking the “situatedness” (336) implied in the idea of bounded contexts that often form the basis of comparison. Instead of beginning the process of comparison with “parallel accounts simply laid out next to one another” (336), crisscrossing requires imagining the researcher and the objects of inquiry as “interweaving and intercrossing” (336–37).

Thinking in this way, we began our inquiry from points of difference, as Sobe notes, Sophia in the United States studying undocumented migrant youth and Min from China studying undocumented migrant teachers. We then engage the reader to view the juxtaposed data as a collective experience of relational migrant resistance. While accounting for these points of difference, we unraveled the possibility that the phenomenon of migrant experiences and collective negotiation and resistance cut across our spaces and times of difference, and we forged new paths for relationally and horizontally understanding of undocumented migrants.

Important to this crisscrossing model is also our methodological reflexivity. As researchers, our inclination is to compare discrete contexts, or discrete nation-states, but in our case, we wanted to move beyond the binary of the West/East, the global/local, citizen/noncitizen, migrant or native, and instead explore the underlying and fluid connections across space, time, and context. To this end, “crisscrossing” comparison enabled us to do so by shifting our attention away from globalized notions of migration and activism around which we could make our observations in the United States and China comparable and toward the idea that each set of observations unfolded in unique but intersecting ways. And to get to this stage, we had to be reflexive within our own methodological and topical approaches to open new spaces to think across, horizontally, and vertically about undocumented migrant resistance. Taking this theoretical orientation, we offer an additional connection to the previous research on migrant activism in CIE. Specifically, we consider how research advances the conversation about grassroots social movements for migrants.

Crisscrossing Comparison: A Case of Undocumented Migration and Mobility

While empirical research examines specific migrant populations, trends, and perceptions of citizenship, belonging, activism, etc., our attempt is to use undocumented migration and our data/research as case through which to apply crisscrossing comparison. Migration and mobility as a case, and an inherent comparative process, allows us to look across context, space, and time at actions, processes, and juxtapose different experiences of resistance from our participants. Nyers and Rygiel (2012) explain how mobility, from this perspective, becomes a resource employed by migrants when they enact agency. Studying migrant mobilization and resistance, through crisscrossing comparison, reveals how the “irregular” movement of people creates a shift in the meaning of politics and “political” itself. The analytic power of crisscrossing as theory-and-method for understanding mobility challenges the prevalent idea in social science that space and movement are distinct, suggesting instead, viewing space as a product of the movement of people, the flows of goods, services, and interactions among people. Thinking in this way privileges mobility and resistance as a way of life to which all people have access to varying degrees, by highlighting the agency marginalized migrant groups have. Crisscrossing comparison positions migration and migrant resistance within juxtaposition to each other and across context, space and time. This work, as Turner (2016) emphasizes, “is subversive in that it addresses both the (im)possible agency of noncitizen (migrants), against a focus on passivity, victimhood, and ‘bare life,’ and equally accounts for changing nature of citizenship ‘from below’ through active ‘transgressions’” (143). This scholarship intersects with our interest to understand the grassroots level processes across space and time, and how migrants are engaging in social movement work that is critical to their survival and space-claiming in their respective localities.


Theoretically, crisscrossing informs our methodology. Challenging the study of migration and migrant resistance is the way that traditional case study methods are employed. Thus, we utilized the crisscrossing approach that “puts relationality at the center … and aims to surface the entangled complexity of sometimes disparate educational actors, devices, discourses, and practices” (Sobe 2018, 335). While juxtaposition and the construction of truths about what is normal and good is an inescapable aspect of comparison, crisscrossing assumes that the objects of comparison begin on equal footing and that the value of this type of research is its ability to offer a new “standpoint” that can “de-familiarize” and enlighten rather than rank based on a common metric (Sobe 2018, 337). Bartlett and Vavrus (2016, 2017) have similarly called for juxtapositions and relations rather than bounded in a comparative case study. To complement Sobe’s theoretical strategy, we have implemented a comparative case study (Bartlett and Vavrus 2017). Bartlett and Vavrus (2017) argue that researchers ought to trace across sites and scales to understand how the phenomenon [migrant resistance] came into being and how dichotomies, static categories, and taken-for-granted notions of what is going on emerge (10). To this end, we use crisscrossing comparisons to compare relations and experiences of migrant populations in our studies, and to traverse unique cultural contexts, uncover shared struggles, and feelings of hope and despair for migrant populations in similar yet disparate sociopolitical contexts to expand notions of comparison.

Contextualizing Juxtaposition of Undocumented Activism in the United States and China

In the United States, the previous administration’s heightened racist nativist (Ngo 2017) approaches to policy and practice were prevalent, including threats to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that provides temporary relief from deportation and opportunities to work for undocumented young people. Anti-immigrant policies and a lack of overall immigration reform has plagued the United States since the nineteenth century as US policy targets various immigrant groups favorably or unfavorably and through processes of racialization (Sanchez 1999; Goodman 2015). To date, research addresses how undocumented youth navigate anti-immigrant policies, access educational and social resources, engage in political action, and promote voice amid hostile national and local rhetoric and policy actions.1 This body of literature has attempted to increase the visibility of undocumented youth in positive ways, showcasing their activism in racialized policy contexts and political times, with focuses on the experiences of undocumented youth eligible for DACA, and the barriers to higher education these youth face. Less focus has been about the experiences of undocumented youth that are “ineligible” for DACA benefits, and how their experiences in K–12 schools are stifled once they confront the harsh policies that limit their educational and social opportunities beyond high school.

Meanwhile, in the Chinese economic and political milieu, China has been undergoing profound social and economic transformations in the past 4 decades, which include the unprecedented domestic migration with about 280 million migrant workers. However, one of the most influential state policies that impacts Chinese citizens, the household registration system, commonly known as hukou, remains in place. Under this system, the Chinese population is divided into the urban hukou holders and rural hukou holders. Despite the essential services provided by rural migrants for urban development, their rural hukou documentation status denied them access to state-subsidized food, housing, employment, schooling, and other social services that are reserved for urban hukou holders (Chan and Zhang 1999). Urban officials are unwilling to extend their jurisdiction to migrants because they were considered outsiders in the cities. Frequently, rural migrants are subject to discrimination and periodic expulsion (Yu and Crowley 2020; Yu 2021). The presence of this large migrant population in the cities has initiated a very different kind of relationship between the state’s control and local communities, which created the conditions for a variety of grassroots movements, especially those around fair wages for the migrant population’s work, improvement of their living environment, and the education of their children.2

United States and China are similar in how they treat migrants, who are deemed as “other” or outsiders. Despite that many of the undocumented youth in the United States study have lived American childhoods and been in the United States for several years (Gonzales 2016), they are excluded as outsiders to the US racial paradigm, especially toward Latinx migrants (De Genova and Ramos-Zayas 2003). In a similar way, the migrant teachers in the China study, who work and live in migrant communities, despite being native-born Chinese citizens, are treated as strangers in the city (Zhang 2001) without urban hukou document status because of their rural-to-urban migrant backgrounds (Yu 2015). The policies and legal structures in both countries that represent the coercive state power targeting migrants have similar strength and significance, especially as it pertains to documentation status and its impact on families and communities. Nevertheless, both migrant groups have engaged in various forms of organizing and resistance in the limited social spaces they entered. Such actions are often invisible and seemingly insignificant, and yet they challenge the ways in which these migrant groups are positioned in the society.

Research Positionality/Reflexivity

Our research team included two faculty researchers with backgrounds in the social and cultural contexts of education policy and practice and who collected the data for this article, and two graduate assistants in comparative education and research methodology. As we discussed previously, crisscrossing comparison necessitates researcher positionality and reflexivity. Related to positionality for the longitudinal studies, Sophia is the child of a foreign-born Cuban immigrant parent and has a strong investment in increasing access to opportunity and equitable school for Latinx immigrant populations. In addition to being a former public-school teacher with largely immigrant and minoritized groups, for the last decade, Sophia has studied migrant populations in multiple locations across the United States (Rodriguez 2017, 2018, 2019). Min is a Chinese immigrant to the United States and has been working with migrant community grassroots organizations in China for over a decade. She was a teacher in the underground community schools for children of migrant workers; these experiences shaped her commitment to examine complex systems of inequality and the role of community organization for the education of migrant children (Yu 2016, 2018; Yiu and Yu 2022).

Two graduate student research assistants contributed to data analysis and writing. Cathryn is a critical scholar in training whose research agenda centers refugees, immigrants, and racially minoritized groups in education, especially Latinx and first-generation students navigating endemic racism in the US south. As a queer, White, and anti-racist scholar, Cathryn enacts anti-oppression and promotes equitable education access as an organizer spanning the spaces of higher education, and conducts research with refugee communities; Jeremy is a White, cisgender male and focuses on educational research methodology and program evaluation, his research includes critical studies of the history and practice of evaluation and the application of critical methodologies in conducting evaluation. Jeremy has a background as a public-school teacher and is committed to research that advances equitable and socially just policies and practices. He approached his involvement in this study as a valuable opportunity for critical methodological examination and a chance for reflection and learning in collaboration with the other authors.

Analytic Procedures in Crisscrossing Comparison

We leveraged alterative data analysis with crisscrossing methods to underscore the exclusion and resistance of undocumented migrants in restrictive contexts. By this, we mean we juxtaposed a subset of our data, including interview and observational data. Respectively, Sophia and Min carried out nearly 5- and 10-year ethnographies (Yu 2016, 2018). Both studies examined the experiences of undocumented migrant populations in constrained contexts, specifically those that have restrictive/anti-immigrant policies and practices that sustain inequity for migrant populations.3 Each study investigated how undocumented migrants (i.e., youth and teachers) created spaces of resistance in response to institutional and societal constraints in the United States and China. We traced the experiences of migrant teachers and youth through ethnographic methods to understand the deep cultural realities and patterns across contexts. For this article, we discussed how our phenomenon of migration processes and migrant resistance (teachers and youth) was relational, contiguous, and entangled despite geographic differences and political, civil, societal variation.

Data Sources

Our original studies used qualitative methods, such as multisite fieldwork, and extensive semistructured interviews with undocumented migrants with deep attention to reflexivity, including high school youth from Central and South America in the United States (n=63) and multigenerational migrant teachers in China (n=25), and extensive participant observations in school and community settings, such as libraries and community centers. For the larger studies, we collected over 1,000 hours of participant observation data and hundreds of interviews. Interviews were conducted by Sophia and Min in their respective studies.

Data Reduction

For this crisscrossing comparison, we selected data in each of our studies that spoke to our research questions and migrant resistance, for example, interviews, focus groups, and observational data. These data revealed exclusion, a sense of solidarity, or forms of communication and actions (themes connect previous research about migrant resistance and social movements). We discussed interview and focus group data, and observations of migrant groups engaging in resource-sharing, reflections on the constraints they face due to their migration status, and moments where they organized against institutional or political constraints during our weekly research team meetings. Meeting weekly as a research team helped us to determine consensus around the codes to mitigate bias in the findings, and address validity and reliability (Armstrong et al. 1997; Kirshner 2009).We excluded data that were not relevant to their activism and resistance and migration status, such as data related to their student-teacher relationships, racism in school and community contexts, and school curriculum. We integrated narratives from both studies to offer a more engaged and grassroots level perspective on how migrant groups resist constraints, and gain solidarity, resource-sharing, and organizing in formal and informal ways.

Crisscrossing and Coding

The traditional, normative methods of coding are not well-aligned with our crisscrossing approach. Thus, we engaged some traditional mechanisms and forms of “flexible coding” (Deterding and Waters 2018) as a strategy aligned with the relational juxtaposition embedded in the crisscrossing methods. We met weekly for several months, read literature about crisscrossing and social movements in civil society, discussed transcripts, shared ideas, took notes on whiteboards, and gathered screen shots of our evolving ideas about the experiences of migrants across our contexts. As noted, reflexivity is important to crisscrossing as well so part of this phase also involved us reflecting on our positionalities and how those informed our understanding of the data. We juxtaposed interviews, focus group, observational data and artifacts and documents to reveal continuities and collective experiences of migrant resistance and engaged in a three-phase data analytic process.

In the first phase, we read the data separately and discussed an initial codebook and open codes during weekly research team meetings. Through collective discussion we developed an initial list of 12 codes in a first round of reading the data (app. A) and stored this information in Microsoft Excel. These themes were based upon crisscrossing comparisons of migrant experiences in relation to larger theories on migrant resistance and social movements. We tracked the frequency of these codes for the codebook in Microsoft Excel and went through several discussions as a team before reducing the data further.

In a second phase of inductive coding, we discussed the initial codebook and came to a consensus, based on our tracking of the frequency of codes earlier, on a consolidated list of five codes: power and authority, solidarity, emotional support, action and communication, and need for knowledge about rights (app. A). To achieve this inductive codebook and data reduction, we relied upon crisscrossing as Sobe (2018) described: while attending to qualitative rigor, we eschewed yardstick or Venn diagram comparative approaches. Instead, we relied upon juxtapositions, within the data and, across our collective reflections through our disparate subject positions as a multi-ethnic, multiracial, and in-training to expert critical migration scholarly identities and experiences. Thus, we embedded collective, reflective awareness in the relational space of our research team and as we traversed the geographic distance with im/migrant lived experiences expressed through the data. The crisscrossing (Sobe 2018) method enabled us to foreground participants’ often ignored solidarity and resistance, which, through traditionalist comparative methods, may have been overlooked, particularly where methodological nationalism is present (Robertson and Dale 2008).

In the third phase we revised the codebook in preparation for analytic coding, which involves returning to our key concepts from related literature, such as migrant activism and resistance, social movements in the public sphere and civil society (Fraser 1990). In phase three, we read and coded data again separately and then came together in research team meetings. We developed a consensus around how migrant populations respond to public authority, what are their forms of communication and shared interests and identities, and recognition of their need for action and resistance. Ultimately, in phase three we collapsed codes from phases one and two to deductively—namely, in conversation with literature—to achieve consensus on the final, phase 3 codes: interactions with public authority, forms of communication and building solidarity, and organizing (app. A). We present the findings based on this final coding phase below.


Migrants have been deemed “illegal” and “undocumented” when they do not possess an official documentation sanctioned by the state, but at the same time, the migratory movement that leads to these classifications also provides a means for collective organizing and resistance in the form of solidarity. We summarize our relational juxtapositions about migrant experiences and resistance in three episodes: (1) interactions with public authority, (2) forms of communication and building solidarity, and (3) formal and informal organizing.

Episode 1: Migrant Interactions with Public Authority

Although China and the United States differ politically and culturally, our relational juxtapositions allow us to compare how migrant teachers and undocumented youth in our studies interact with various forms of public authority and to highlight the common experiences of being classified through regulatory practices as noncitizens and undocumented, situating them in an uncertain relationship to public authority and political systems. Public authorities our participants interacted with represent narrowly defined and widely recognized positions of power such as representatives of governments, police and immigration officers, and school leaders. For example, the “state” in many cases was represented by immigration agents and law enforcement (see Turner and Mangual Figueroa 2019; Rodriguez 2022). In addition, “papers” (referring to legal documents) function to regulate who are illegal or legal. This is important because having papers can affect one’s ability to move freely and openly in public spaces. Participants describe how the interactions with public authorities, such as government officials, police, and immigration officers, influenced their feelings of safety and cultivated the need for resources and additional knowledge.

Specifically, our participants encounter various forms of surveillance, gatekeeping, and policing by public authorities. For example, a group of migrant teachers in China shared the story about forceful school closure by the local government authority. The school closures were abrupt; for example, a large-scale series of forceful shutdowns of community schools serving over 14,000 migrant students occurred in 2011, wherein some schools were completely demolished overnight and thousands of migrant students left with no school option in the city (see Yu and Crowley 2020; Yu 2021). A field note from participant observations in China describes the policing presence after the shutdown notice to a migrant children school arrived: “Following the notice, there were groups after groups of officers in uniform ‘showed’ a visit to the school in the middle of the school day: the officers of city urban administrative and law enforcement bureau (CUALEB, or Chengguan in Chinese) would be followed by the police from the public security bureau (PSB, or Gongan in Chinese), and sometimes they just show up together at the school gate” (field notes, November 2011 [Fang Laoshi]).

Migrant teachers and migrant students were considered outsiders to the cities and their schools were deemed illegal. There are layers of policies and regulations in place, serving as road-blocks for migrant teachers and students to enter urban public schools. Meanwhile, the community schools for migrant students where these teachers worked were not state-sanctioned and increasingly targeted by the state. The excerpt here reflects the intensification of the surveillance and policing of the schools where migrant teachers work.

Among the youth participants, encounters with public authority figures reinforced their sense of being outsiders. Interactions with immigration officers were described as often jarring and violent during immigration journeys to the United States, but these officials also occupied a constant presence in communities and neighborhoods in the US public authorities—directly or just by imagined threat—loom large in participants’ lives in ways that affect their behavior, thinking, and everyday actions. An undocumented youth describes the looming and actual presence of immigration officers on his journey to the United States: “I felt like the world was falling on top of me and I don’t know, sometimes I felt like crying because I had no way of communicating, I couldn’t communicate with my mom for the whole 3 months, call her or anything like that … . We crossed the river in a small boat to the car that was waiting for us on the other side and suddenly there was the airplane, the helicopter and it illuminated us (shined lights on them), and the police came so we had to run back” (interview, February 3, 2016). In this excerpt, the undocumented youth recalls the experience during their migration journey. The encounters with law enforcement and border patrol for these youth are unimaginable and entail often multiple months of travel and separation from family members. As young children cross borders alone, they frequently meet with violent criminalization and adultification regimes at the border.

Another participant recounts an interaction with immigration officers while preparing to leave for school. The youth said, “‘What’s going on?’ And there’s some people out there, White guys in blacked out Tahoes, and we don’t know what’s going on. My mom said, ‘It’s immigration. Just open the door.’ I didn’t know anything” (field notes, May 2017). The participant encountered immigration officers and described the confusion and uncertainty of the moment.

Whether through physical demolition of schools and deportation or through monitoring and surveillance techniques, the public authority was described across our interviews as a presence that isolated, separated, and disoriented the migrants. An undocumented youth described immigration officers detaining and deporting her father, then coming back to look for her mother and brother: “Exactly a week after he was deported they came knowing to our house, and they were like, ‘okay, we’re gonna take your mother and your brother.’ And we were like, ‘what?’ And my brother was still in school, so my mom was like, ‘no, no, no. You can’t take him. He’s still in school. You can’t. You can’t.’ And they were like, ‘no, you have to’” (field notes, 5/2017).

In the context of school, undocumented youth participants expressed how public authorities intersect with their school lives and the burden that brings despite being allegedly protected in schools. One youth describes this manifestation of gatekeeping in school after a parent was deported: “Even at school. You couldn’t even … like, how do I talk to somebody? There was never somebody there to talk to. And I remember that morning when my dad got deported, my mom came in and she was freaking out … . And I felt like I needed somebody to be there and talk to me, but there was nobody at school. There was nobody to talk to. Other than, maybe, your guidance counselor, but it’s not the same” (group interview, March 2016). These interactions with public authorities reinscribe migrant populations’ precarious legal and political positioning, subjecting them to state-sanctioned surveillance, targeting, and criminalization.

Episode 2: Various Forms of Communication to Build Solidarity and Shared Identity

In response to the practices from public authorities, however, migrants in both China and the United States responded agentically through solidarity, enabling practices of collective resistance. While public authorities enacted constraints on the rights and freedom of migrants in both contexts, mobilization and solidarity offer examples of resistance against bounded notions of citizenship. Next, we describe how the practices of communication developed and the sense of solidarity emerged. Our comparative analysis reveals that despite their negative experience with public authorities, state bodies and institutions, and law enforcement, migrant groups in our studies assemble in unexpected ways to communicate, network, and devise local forms of resistance. In interviews, we observed informal networks and webs of communication, often not initially directed in opposition to specific expressions of public power but rather in solidarity with those who were similarly positioned, sharing common experiences and understandings. Participants’ personal encounters demonstrate a burgeoning need to connect with those who reciprocally understand and affirm that they are not alone; participants signal a shift from isolated, individual identity toward the formation of communal, social identities with other recipients of public authorities’ surveillance and control. In their own ways, both the migrant teachers and undocumented youth coalesced to form systems of emotional support and solidarity. These systems developed through shared discourses, often emanating from their interactions with public authority.

Migrant teachers in China recognized themselves and their work as support for a larger alliance of migrant community even as they faced school closures. For instance, Teacher Fang describes comforting her migrant students after receiving notice of the school’s imminent closure: “all of us teachers—we considered ourselves as mother hens guarding the chicken—tried our best to console our students … I remember telling my students, ‘do not be afraid, do not be afraid, you are also the flowers of the motherland! Our government will not neglect us.’ However, the government eventually tore us apart …” (field notes, November 2011 [Fang Laoshi]). Despite facing the reality of the school’s looming demise, Teacher Fang’s solidarity with her migrant students is evident in the reassurances she expressed. In this example, teachers communicated and recognized their shared experience as a catalyst for solidarity.

Undocumented youth participants characterize the forms of communication among one another as creating a community. One youth describes how meeting another youth became a way to communicate, share knowledge, and build a sense of community. For example, the youth said, “we’re like really united, cause we went to middle school, elementary school, and high school together. So everybody knows each other. It’s just, it’s just a different like, environment. Cause we tell each other everything” (group interview, May 29, 2015). This youth’s perspective is important because it demonstrates how communication leads to deep relationships and strong group bonds.

Migrant teachers in China also echo the relational connection undocumented youth share results from informal communication about migrant experiences. These teachers engage in caring for each other, listening to each other’s frustrations and challenges, and offering support to respond to the isolation and separation forced upon them by public authority. In a group interview conducted at a dinner gathering at one teacher’s home, teachers shared the following exchange:


We will share some teaching materials we each find to prepare for our lessons. Ying (another teacher in the school, who is also an activist) knows many people; she always told us about the lectures in the universities, some of them are held for us. Juan got my son in her class; she would tell me how he was doing.


Not just that, I mean when we have all this and that problems, talking to each other really helps …. Like you got a big stone on your chest, they can’t really remove it for you, but you can breathe after they lift it a little bit for you. (group interview, January 2011)

The teachers’ communication with one another offers emotional support because of the shared discourse about their experiences. The lectures in the universities are a part of their mutual activism, because they made their voice heard by people beyond the migrant communities. The “stone” on their chest, which is in part due to the constant threat of school closures and a lack of public funding and resources, is lifted because they connect to and care for one another.

For the undocumented youth, communicating and cultivating a shared discourse is even more explicit, as the “papers” that determine their legal status in the realm of public authority also adopt a relational and linguistic meaning. This is demonstrated in an exchange between youth and the researcher:4


Can any of them describe what it means to them to have papers?

Youth 1

I feel normal.


What does that mean?

Youth 2

I feel normal because I know I’m here with papers.

Youth 3

So you don’t think it’s an honor to say I have papers.

Youth 4

Yes, also because I see that some people, well one cousin that doesn’t have papers, he got in an accident and they kicked him out. They told him he couldn’t drive.

Youth 3

So you feel safe?

Youth 5

It’s not so much because of that it’s that you have the luck to go to your country and come back and see your family, and a lot of us don’t have that.

Another youth to her

You don’t have papers?

Youth 5


[They high-five each other.]


That’s why I’m wondering if it’s a status thing? Does it mean something among the community?

Youth 6

You feel free, right?

Youth 4

Yes, that too, with more opportunities because some of you in some jobs they ask for papers. (group interview, April 27, 2016)

Participants high-five when they recognize that neither of them has “papers,” transforming the object of their legal uncertainty into a source of solidarity. In this exchange, youth share language of “papers” to make sense of their status within a broader public, opening up the possibility for mutual understanding.

Episode 3: Formal and Informal Organizing

The third episode captured in our relational juxtapositions of migrant experiences relates to organizing and action of migrant populations that evolved from their daily lives, including examples of how migrants organize toward a collective purpose. Participants’ descriptions are predicated on their interactions with public authority, the first episode, and the collective power developed through identifying each other as having mutual interests and experiences, the second episode. Their formal and informal actions reveal the way in which they plan and organize for collective action. While both groups are positioned as illegal and outside juridical notions of citizenship, the significance of their sense of solidarity and organizing for action lies in how they are engaged politically and actively in a manner akin to citizens.

Interviews with undocumented youth indicate a desire to have their experiences understood by adults in their schools and the broader publics. From their reflections, youth discuss the need for teachers to understand their experiences. For instance, they said: “They’re aware of what’s going on, they’re just not aware of how extreme it is, and how it extreme it impacts the students. And things other than … deportation. I feel like they know about the movement, and they know what’s going on, and they hear this and that, but they don’t really get to hear a student’s actual voice and actual story. Like, this is what’s really going on, this is what me and my mom have to go through. My mom has to put me to drive because she’s scared, or … just simple things” (group interview, March 2016).

Youth gained awareness of their rights and their ability to respond to and resist public authority through conversations with their peers as well as in community organizations. They reflected on their need to know, utilize, and advocate for their rights within what are often precarious—if not violent—interactions with public authority. One youth explained the uncertainty that often accompanied these interactions, saying, “it was courts after courts. And I feel like that whole system. You don’t understand anything that’s going on. We weren’t really aware” (group interview, March 2016). Responding to this uncertainty, one youth described an information session that introduced a “know-your-rights” publication, which, along with informal dialogue among peers, allowed youth to build an understanding of their rights regarding enrolling in and safely attending school, what to do when an immigration officer knocked on their door, and how to navigate court systems. This understanding provided a sense of agency and capacity to respond in challenging circumstances. One youth reflected on her experiences, saying, “now I’m like, ‘dang, if they would come to my house now. Hell no, I’m not going to open the door. I’m gonna say what I have to say. I have my rights’” (group interview, March 2016).

Migrant teachers’ formal responses centered around the desire for “recognition and respect” from public institutions and authorities. For instance, migrant teachers mobilize resources for their teaching and professional development and organize to create their own magazines and newspapers, and later social media collective accounts, which provide the basic platform for the work of migrant teachers that are neglected by the larger society (field notes, August 2016). In addition to communication-based responses, migrant teachers also worked with parents and community members to raise funds for building improvements in order to maintain their collective work. They also mobilized against school closures by tearing down public posters that advised of the upcoming school closing and sharing open letters about the life and work of the impacted schools on social media. Formal organizing is described in a memo from interviews with teacher-activists: “Migrant teachers and parents began to reach out to activists, organizations, and the mass media, as well as engage in various types of social networking sites and online public forums. A large number of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that had been working closely with migrant communities, especially the student associations and the research centers of major universities, held public gatherings and workshops to discuss the matters” (field notes, November 2011).

Migrant teachers mobilize not only to gain support from their ties of solidarity at both personal and organizational levels but also to negotiate with local governments. Our comparative analysis demonstrates how these activities represent the mobilization capability of the migrant community, and the persistence of their actions. Their organized actions not only aimed at getting resources to solve problems such as the events of school closures or the needs of distributing resources but were also targeted at addressing the continuous issues faced by migrant communities. Although migrant groups in our studies are not fully embraced within a society governed by state relations, it is exactly that exclusion that makes their mobilization and organizing substantial and transformative.

Discussion: Crisscrossing Comparison of Undocumented Migrant Resistance

Across our episodes, we found how discourses and meanings emerged around issues of legal status, “having papers,” and how that shaped identities and actions for the undocumented migrant youth in the United States and migrant teachers in China. We also found similar conceptualizations of these populations’ identities and positionality. In other words, our migrant participants across the contexts understood the hurdles that accompanied their migrant status, and yet they engaged relationally to understand the stories they held in common in order to forge political alliances, resistance, and microlevel activism. It is crucial to reconsider the role that migrant communication and resistance plays in their everyday lives—in many ways as a form of survival—and also how it is useful for challenging the dominant anti-immigrant narratives and criminalizing policies targeting migrant populations across the United States and China, and globally.

The crisscrossing comparison occurs through our comparative analysis of migrant resistance, that is, encountering public authority, the forms of communication they engage in as a response to societal exclusion, and their organizing and solidarity. Sobe (2018) emphasizes that comparative research is an active process of crisscrossing, which “is a constant activity across the lifespan of a research project” (336). Similar to Hartong and Piattoeva (2021) and Kester et al. (2021) in adopting crisscrossing comparison to make relationality the center of inquiry, we recognize that this approach “challenges us to responsibly take up an ethical imperative to relate to others in a humane, nonreductive, nonviolent manner” (337) and conceptualize our comparison as marked by continual readjustments and intercrossing over the course of our project.

We explore why crisscrossing comparison is useful for studies of migrants and education. In this approach, context is transformed from a matter of fact into a matter of concern (Sobe and Kowalczyk 2018; Hartong and Piattoeva 2021). We pay more attention to the questions of “how context is relationally (re)produced, transformed (de/re-assembled) and also how it attains meaning in social organization and scholarly interpretation” (Hartong and Piattoeva 2021, 229). Specifically, we contextualize the comparison of the day-to-day threat of detention and deportation to undocumented youth in the United States, especially with increased cooperation between local law enforcement and immigration and customs enforcement (Verma et al. 2017; Ee and Gándara 2020) and the Chinese migrant teachers’ constant fear of school closing and community displacement that reflect their “document-less-ness” under the coercive state power and legal structures. We recognize the relevance of location, politics of scale, their emergence and ongoing transformation (Hartong and Piattoeva 2021) and argue that youth and teachers in both contexts were able to reflect on their experiences to form a different narrative to dominant discourse, understand their forms of exclusion, and become critical of the policies and practices targeting them.

Through the daily resistance to their negative encounters with public authorities and their broader experiences of exclusion, migrants in our studies gain a sense of solidarity and learn about their rights from each other’s experiences. Their communication in response to policy discourse further generated opportunities of formal and informal forms of organizing. The examples of migrant youth in the United States learning about their “rights” and knowing how to combat law enforcement and immigration officers emerged through informal organizing. Meanwhile, Chinese migrant teachers’ lives and work are still very much influenced by state policies, but they strived to maintain emotional and social ties with one another, as well as to stay informed about the ever-changing state and local policies and organize collective ways to navigate the impacts.

Moreover, by situating our analysis in the long history of comparative research on migrant/migration, we also address how comparison is understood differently through the lens of crisscrossing, and what productive insights can be uncovered through this theoretically informed approach. Through these shared experiences and formal and informal organizing, migrant populations recognize themselves as political subjects and legitimate their experiences through recognition of themselves and their exclusion from the broader anti-immigrant policies and practices. We attest that migrants are able to discuss, debate, and forge new pathways and tactics for survival (Nicholls and Uitermark 2016), which pushes back the conventional comparison on migration success such as how well they assimilate or acquire employment. By juxtaposing not only our research participants’ experiences and resistance but also our own reflexivity in the research process, challenges, and the analysis and interpretation of what we have collected and compared, we as researchers can better understand migrant experiences in relation and their collective actions and resistance across time, space, and contexts.

We argue that the crisscrossing comparison sheds light on centering grassroots forms of solidarity and resistance for migrant groups, especially those who are considered as outsiders to the society of which they are a part. While these populations are not protesting or on the frontlines of overhauling systemic racism, xenophobia, white supremacy, or regional superiority, their everyday acts of resistance, which include identifying the needs of one another, communicating the sense of solidarity, and organizing to support and sustain collective action, showcase their intellectual and organizing acumen in community and school spaces that continually exclude them.

Implications and Conclusion

This article offered an exploration of crisscrossing comparison of undocumented migrant experiences and resistance. We have argued for crisscrossing comparative methods as a generative and productive way to study migrant resistance. Traditional modes of comparison have examined the nation-state, or often focused on particular racial/ethnic populations, prioritizing static categories and contexts. In our use of crisscrossing, we instead positioned our data relationally to uncover continuities across space, time, and context. This exploration reveals how crisscrossing can help us rethink migration as a relational process that certainly impacts migrant groups differently but also uncover common humanity, efforts, and struggles within diverse groups. Given the prevalence of migration as a global phenomenon currently challenging nation states, a comparative investigation provides important insights for how migrant populations are navigating local, albeit different, contexts in ways that speak to their survival and everyday negotiations in restrictive spaces.

Even though the United States and China are geographically, culturally, and politically different, the policies and legal structures in both countries are anti-immigrant and exclusionary, and place significant burdens for migrant groups. Moreover, the immigration enforcement regimes in each context bear on the everyday lives of migrants in addition to the state and local level constraints. The exclusion and contradiction they face inhibit their well-being and social advancement. Crisscrossing comparison for future work in migration would be useful when researchers aim to understand migrant populations’ movement, encounters with public and social institutions, and how they combat and engage in a collective struggle across geopolitical and economic systems, which ultimately provides new insights about migrants’ resistance in contested spaces. Groups are internally displaced and facing challenging migration journeys only to be met by unwelcoming narratives and false projections of national unity despite their contributions to the local societies they migrate to and build communities within.

The challenges of doing this crisscrossing comparative work relate to the very real differences in political, governmental, and civic life in certain contexts. In addition, researchers would need to have conducted in-depth longitudinal research. A final challenge might be that researchers would need to have built long-standing deep relationships with the communities and engage in reflexivity about the process and challenges of this work. The adoption of the comparative case study approach was crucial for the realization of crisscrossing and uncovering continuities across space, time, and context. It would be hard to recognize the relations if we had only examined our two longitudinal studies separately. Rather than thinking of migrant youth in the United States or Chinese migrant teachers as the case, we consider the politics of mobilization and resistance as the phenomenon we seek to explore, and the case is formed by tracing across sites and scales to understand how the phenomenon came into being in historical and contemporary process, and how a sense of shared place, purpose, or identity with regard to the phenomenon was produced in this process. Even though not every study of migration will lend itself to crisscrossing comparison because there are limits to what researchers can do and also the purpose of each study, we urge that researchers continue to engage collaboratively and comparatively in order to critically bear witness to the experiences of migrant communities and collectively garner attention to the organizing and resistance they engage in, and as a means toward counteracting hostile and unwelcoming political climates across the globe.

Appendix A.  Codebook and Codes

Phase 3 (Deductive Phase)Phase 2 (Inductive Phase)Phase 1 (Open, Initial Coding)
Interactions with public authority

•  Power and authority

•  Representatives of governments (e.g., police and immigration officers)

•  School leaders/officials

Forms of communication and building solidarity

•  Solidarity

•  Emotional support

•  Emotional support

•  Collective reflection on interactions with public authority, frustrations, challenges (talking, listening)

•  Recognition of shared oppression (teacher-to-student; youth-to-youth)

•  Caring for each other

Organizing (formal and informal)

•  Action and communication

•  Need for knowledge about rights

•  Informal and formal organizing

•  Knowledge/awareness of rights “papers/papeles” (legal documents)

•  Agency

•  Talking/writing/fundraising

•  Capacity to respond

•  Recognition or respect


We wish to thank Noah Sobe and Zeena Zakharia for comments and support on earlier drafts of this article. We also would like to note the equal contributions of Cathryn Bennett and Min Yu.

1 Gonzales et al. (2015); Cebulko and Silver (2016); Rodriguez (2017); Rodriguez and Monreal (2017); Wong et al. (2019).

2 Fu (2017); Jakimów (2017); Wu (2017); Yu (2018).

3 Both of these studies received Institutional Review Board approval. All names are pseudonyms. For details about the in-depth critical ethnographies we conducted, please see Yu (2016, 2018) and Rodriguez (2022).

4 Here “Interviewer” refers to Sophia.