Abstract: Community Partnerships to Compensate for Immigration Policy Shortfalls: Family Reunification Efforts for Migrant Children (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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Community Partnerships to Compensate for Immigration Policy Shortfalls: Family Reunification Efforts for Migrant Children

Sunday, January 15, 2023
Laveen A, 2nd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Maryam Rafieifar, PhD, Assistant Professor, Montclair State University, Montclair, NJ
Sloan Lorenzini, LCSW, Doctoral Candidate, Florida International University, Miami, FL
Richard Beaulaurier, Associate Professor & Graduate Program Director, Florida International University, Miami, FL
Background: In 2021, over 100 thousand unaccompanied migrant children that crossed the U.S.-Mexico border were released to parents or sponsors (the highest amount in a decade), and the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) shelter facilities became overwhelmed. The ORR is responsible for supporting the minors as the agency locates an appropriate caregiver and searches for the family, guardians, or a suitable sponsor. A confluence of lack of shelter capacity and complications from the Covid-19 pandemic intensified and increased the barriers to family reunification. The ORR family reunification screening process requires adults to apply to receive the child, even their own child, to comply with a rigorous screening process. The adult applicant must undergo a criminal background check, an investigation for child abuse/neglect, and a formal interview. Undocumented parents seeking reunification may fear cross-examination and probative inquiry, which may make them reluctant. Parents can, however, secure aid from a community-based organization (CBO) to satisfy reunification demands.

Methods: The collective case study method was adopted to explore the experiences of undocumented families who were reunified with their children with the help of a community organization. The sample was recruited at a CBO in Miami, FL, between February and September 2021. In-depth semi-structured interviews were conducted. Qualitative data were collected from six parents and four CBO staff. Grounded theory and thematic analyses were used. The interviews were transcribed and coded to identify central themes and illustrate the results.

Results: Respondent parents were females from Mexico and Central America. They expressed their rationale for allowing their children to cross the U.S/Mexico border, their experience with the ORR, and the reasons they pursued community-based guidance. All parents stated their children departed from their country with a trusted adult (often a relative). However, upon arrival at the U.S/Mexico border, the children were forcibly taken from the caregiver and declared unaccompanied under federal law. Children were sent, without their caregivers, to shelters for approximately 40 to 70 days. The parents expressed distress as they could not learn if the children were safe or identify their location. Producing the documents required by the social workers was another source of difficulty. Findings indicate that respondents believed their undocumented status was a major impediment. All parents stated that communication with the ORR was frustrating and that friends/families referred them to the CBO for support and to navigate a complex system.

Implications: The ORR can increase its efficiency and partner with trusted community organizations. Such CBOs have the procedural expertise to serve as liaisons with families and Federal bureaucracies. CBOs can guide and coach families as their work through the byzantine reunification process. These strategic alliances can increase the likelihood and speed of family reunification and preserve assets (financial and human), and mitigate trauma. Educating social work practitioners about the function and availability of CBOs’ support can help them better aid their clients with reunification issues. Increasing awareness can advance policy advocacy and alert educators to childhood toxic stress experienced from separation to enhance preventative measures.