Abstract: Y El Luto Sigue (And the Grief Continues): Latinx Immigrants' Experience of Ambiguous Loss in the Age of Anti-Immigrant Sentiment (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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Y El Luto Sigue (And the Grief Continues): Latinx Immigrants' Experience of Ambiguous Loss in the Age of Anti-Immigrant Sentiment

Friday, January 22, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Elizabeth Sanchez, MSW, Research Associate, UC Riverside, Riverside
Sandy Philbin, MSW, Social Worker, None, Riverside
Cecilia Ayon, PhD, Associate Professor, University of California Riverside
Objective: Informed by Boss’ ambiguous loss theory, this study examined the relationship between restrictive immigration policy and Latinx immigrants’ experiences of ambiguous loss. Ambiguous losses lead to confusion and uncertainty that cannot be clarified; and can involve a physical or psychological absence. Related concepts include complicated grief, which involves a prolonged grieving process; and anticipatory loss, the expectation that a loved one will die. As immigration policy increasingly criminalizes undocumented immigrants, they lose their liberty and lack the opportunity to return to their country of origin (COO). The findings reveal immigrants experience extreme loss due to their inability to engage in cyclical migration, an example of an “unintended consequence” of stringent immigration policy.

Method: In-depth semi-structured interviews were completed with 30 Latinx immigrant mothers who are undocumented or members of mixed-status families. Most participants had lived in the U.S. between 11 and 32 years (2, less than 5 years). The interview guide included questions on their experiences in the U.S., impact of immigration policy, parent-child interactions regarding the immigration context, and recommendations for policy change. For the purpose of this paper, we focused on responses related to ambiguous loss. Constructivist grounded theory methods informed the analysis. A constant comparative approach was used while completing initial, focused, and axial coding. Multiple steps were taken to support the trustworthiness of the study (i.e., multiple coders, peer debriefing model, and multiple quotes are used to support each theme).

Results: Participants’ quotes illustrate their experiences of ambiguous, complicated, and anticipatory loss. Participants experienced ambiguous loss through physical absence of their homeland (e.g., lifestyle, culture, language, religious traditions, food, tu gente, tu pais), physical absence caused by the death of a parent/family member (inability to return to COO), and psychological absence of their family in COO (e.g., uncertainty of seeing family again and the yearning for family interactions). Ambiguous loss was described as a collective experience, one that affected all immigrants or family members. A subtheme, intergenerational loss, emerged where children vicariously experienced their parents’ loss or where youth are unable to “know'' their native family (mom, do I have a grandfather?). Complicated grief was experienced through symptoms of depression, anxiety, stress, helplessness, isolation, nervios, and desesperacion. Anticipatory loss was described as “dos dolores” (two pains), “knowing my parents will die” and knowing that “I will be unable to return” to COO for the funeral. Participants expressed duality in prioritizing family—having to choose between their children’s future in the U.S over returning to their COO to be with their parents.

Conclusion: Immigrants experience extreme loss due to their inability to travel to their COO. This loss is disenfranchised, as it is not socially recognized, leaving immigrants to mourn in silence their ties to family members who they are unsure if they will ever see. Practitioners serving immigrant communities should integrate grief/loss assessments to better inform treatment and support/educational groups. At a policy level, immigrants need to have the opportunity to adjust their status so that they can reclaim these lost social interactions.