Immigrant parents and citizen children face legal and social complexities that are not clearly understood and, too often, are omitted from discussions about policy and enforcement.
To investigate and evaluate such issues, Eithne Luibheid, director of the University of Arizona's Institute for LGBT Studies and an associate professor of gender and women's studies, is leading a research team focusing on immigrant parents who are both documented and undocumented.
Chiefly, the team wants to understand how immigrant parents whose children are U.S. citizens negotiate government structures to gain public health services and other benefits for their children.
"Many families are what some people call 'mixed-status families' where some of the members are legal and others are not," Luibheid said, noting that this can be the case even with both parents are residing in the country legally.
"There is a lot of misinformation among immigrants and also officials who are confused about the rules and how to apply them," she added.
Luibheid is principal investigator on the project, "Immigrant Mothers with Citizen Children: Rethinking Welfare Policies in a Transnational Era," which earned a nearly $26,000 award from the UA's Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences Grants.
Nearly one-fourth of all children in the U.S. and one-third of those in Arizona are children of immigrant parents, Luibheid noted.
Prior studies have suggested that some citizen children are not receiving the benefits they are entitled to because their parents are fearful of being deported or are worried about being labeled as undocumented, even when they are in the country legally, she said.
"So you have a lot of disparities among children. That's a big issue that must be addressed," Luibheid said.
The UA team intends to interview 20 immigrant women whose children are U.S. citizens to understand their specific situations, struggles and survival strategies.
The researchers also want to understand how flows of support move across borders, particularly from Mexico to family members in the U.S.
"We're thinking about the support of families in a context where transnationalism and living across borders are a of reality for millions," Luibheid said, adding that welfare policies must be rethought with these issues in mind.
The complexities are daunting, as one recent case has proved.
This month, The New York Times reported on the case of Monica Castro and her daughter, Rosa – both U.S. citizens.
Castro filed a case against the U.S. government after a domestic dispute led to the deportation of her daughter. Castro's husband, Omar Gallardo, was detained for being in the country without legal documentation, according to court documents.
In June, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled against Castro's claims that the Border Patrol has no legal right to deport her daughter. She has since appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Sally Stevens, director of the Southwest Institute for Research on Women, also known as SIROW, said the team's multidisciplinary approach will allow her and others working on the project to illuminate the complex issues beyond the often used one-dimensional approaches.
Other team members are Rosi Andrade, an associate researcher professor with SIROW; V. Spike Peterson, a UA professor in the School of Government and Public Policy; and Mari Galup, a doctoral student in the gender and women's studies department.
Andrade, whose work has focused on the social, cultural, and political experiences of Hispanics, has been strongly involved in engaged scholarship and projects that connect UA research with the broader community.
Peterson's expertise is in studying ways in which economic shifts at the local and global scale affect women. And Galup, who is pursuing her doctoral degree, will serve as a research assistant.
Legislation since the 1990s has increasingly criminalized undocumented immigrants, so it is important to consider not only social issues, but political ones as well, Stevens said.
"Previous and recent changes in laws and polices have changed people's behaviors and, in some cases, made it more difficult to obtain entitlements," she added.
The team has begun conducting preliminary interviews with service providers. Interviews with parents are slated to begin in January, with the team drawing on many of SIROW's community resources and connections.
After completing data analysis, the team intends to share findings with the general public by way of community forums and publications.
"We are really looking at survival strategies at determining if families are frightened to seek out benefits to which they are entitled simply because they are people of color, because of an accent or because they have a particular type of name," Luibheid.
"People describe citizen children with immigrant parents as second class because even though they are citizens, they are not able to access benefits to which they are qualified," Luibheid said, adding that similar challenges exist for low-income and LGBT families.
"I see many kinds of families that are not valued and who face extraordinary struggles," she said. "We can do better."