Methods. The current study used a convergent, parallel, mixed methods design. We conducted semi-structured interviews and conducted surveys with 70 undocumented parents with dependent children to explore their proposed child custody arrangements in case of detention or deportation. Participants were recruited through community-based organizations in two Southwestern cities. Parents were majority female (80%), from Mexico (89%), and in a married or cohabitating relationship (81%). We coded interviews according to the presence and strength of the child custody plan (0 = no verbal/written plan, 1 = verbal but no written plan, 2 = a notarized plan). We used thematic analysis to better understand how families think about child custody plans and the barriers to planning for deportation and/or detention.
Results. Of the 70 undocumented immigrants, 39 parents (55.7%) reported no plan, 26 (37.1%) reported a verbal plan that they shared with a spouse or family member, and 5 (7.1%) reported they had a notarized plan. For families that did not discuss a child custody plan, the greatest barrier centered on being too afraid to think about it; “You know we just try to think positive. We don’t have any type of plan whatsoever. We don’t even think about something going wrong like that.” Parents who reported having a verbal plan acknowledged that having a plan was important, but were generally unaware that legal advocates recommend the plan be written and notarized; “…Well since we do not have a deportation order we haven’t thought about that [a written plan].” For all families that reported discussing a child custody plan, the most frequent scenario was that children would remain in the U.S. with the non-deported parent or another family member with legal status. Demographic differences between the three groups were observed. Parents who were married (X2 = 6.53 (2), p = 0.38) and had one or more U.S. citizen children (X2 = 11.61 (4), p = 0.20) were more likely to have discussed a plan or have a written child custody plan compared to unmarried parents and parents with non-citizen children.
Conclusions. Without notarized child custody plans, children in undocumented families may be at a greater risk of long-term separation and possible child welfare involvement. Since both are associated with negative outcomes for children, having a notarized plan is a key way for undocumented parents to protect their children. Findings suggest the need for interventions that reduce parental anxiety and educate undocumented parents about their parental rights.