Abstract: Caminos a La Reunificacion: Pathways to Reunification for Central American Mothers and Their Children after Years of Separation (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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659P Caminos a La Reunificacion: Pathways to Reunification for Central American Mothers and Their Children after Years of Separation

Sunday, January 15, 2023
Phoenix C, 3rd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Sandra Castro, PhD, Assistant Dean, Adelphi University, Garden City, NY
Background and Purpose:

For many transnational mothers, reunification with their children requires sending for them and reuniting in the U.S. The factors that allow for reunification of transnational mothers with their children vary and may include waiting just long enough for the ideal conditions to be in place to allow children to migrate. Abrego (2014) identified these conditions as waiting until a turbulent time like war to end, saving a certain amount of money, settling, and achieving the appropriate conditions to send for children, and/or after obtaining the legal opportunity to do so. For many, it also can happen very suddenly and without much planning or anticipation due to unforeseen violence and/or the threat of violence that force them and their children to migrate. Unaccompanied children from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala entering the US since 2014 through the southern border attest to migrating to flee violence and seeking to reunify with parents in the US. Seen as a largely individual-familial decision, pathways for reunification are largely influenced by structural conditions that are largely dependent on sending country context, legal status, a child's age, and the length of separation.


Utilizing a phenomenological methodology, Feminist Standpoint Theory guided the research. Twenty-five in-depth, semi-structured interviews were conducted with transnational Central American mothers (ages 21-75) who had migrated without their children from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to Long Island, New York, between 1976-2019. Ten in-depth interviews were also conducted with key informants from direct service organizations. Participants were recruited via posted fliers and outreach to three direct service organizations. Interviews were transcribed verbatim and coded thematically.


My study found that mothers experienced four types of pathways to reunification: mother-initiated documented reunification, mother-initiated undocumented reunification, child-initiated undocumented pathways, and scattered reunification when multiple children arrived at different times. My findings demonstrate that legal status did not result in a quick and easy reunification process; instead, it actually meant a long period of separation. Furthermore, not all forms of legal status, Temporary Protected Status (TPS) in particular, facilitated legal reunification. Conversely, for undocumented mothers, undocumented status did not necessarily result in longer periods of separation.

Conclusions and Implications:

This study demonstrated that for Central American mothers, many of whom were either undocumented or had TPS, migration and separation was a long-term strategy, and reunification was only possible after years of separation. All these pathways led to complex patterns of reunification replete with parenting challenges. First, other actors who were not originally part of the child’s family of origin, siblings and stepdads, shaped mothers’ reunification experiences, specifically with respect to whether mothers felt supported during reunification. Second, in cases where mothers learned of severe harms their children experienced in their home countries and on their journeys, reunification experiences suffered. These phenomena resulted in mothers experiencing unrecognized sacrifice throughout the reunification process. This has important implications for social work practice and practitioners that work with Central American mothers and families who have reunified and are building new bonds and family relationships in the US.