Document Type



Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Social Welfare

First Advisor's Name

Miriam Potocky

First Advisor's Committee Title

Committee chair

Second Advisor's Name

Richard Beaulaurier

Second Advisor's Committee Title

Committee member

Third Advisor's Name

Hui Huang

Third Advisor's Committee Title

Committee member

Fourth Advisor's Name

Matthew Marr

Fourth Advisor's Committee Title

Committee member


Immigrants, Citizen Children, Undocumented, Guardianship

Date of Defense



Custody of children in the event of family separation is one of the significant issues that needs to be addressed in the preparation process. Some parents make arrangements to delegate the legal guardianship of their children to another person so that if they ever get deported, they would not lose ties with their children. Using a qualitative design, this dissertation has explored the undocumented parents’ decision to choose a guardian for their US citizen children in preparation for possible future family separation. It also looked at how the parents communicate such decision and their immigration status with their children. To answer these questions, 27 individuals who delegated their children’s guardianship to the leader of a community organization were interviewed.

The findings showed parents’ long-term exposure to traumatic experiences before, during, and after migration to the United States. The cumulated disadvantage and long-term stress resulted in uncertainty, constant fear of immigration enforcement and family separation, and distrust in the government. Therefore when they became aware of the guardianship option available in the community, they considered it seriously. Community's trust, the long history of successful family reunification cases, the organizations' resources, and other types of assistance the families received were the reasons they concluded guardianship a viable option. These findings were confirmed by seven volunteers and staff members at the organization.

Children's knowledge of their parents' immigration status and consequently their guardianship decision depended on children's age, their experience of immigration enforcement, and their immigration status. The reasons for not communicating the immigration status and guardianship decision with the children were children's inability to comprehend and silence to protect them. Communications about legal status were around travel limitations, future plans, children's fears, worries, and efforts to decriminalize being undocumented. Communications about guardianship focused on introducing the guardian as a trusted person to whom the children could go if anything happened to them and the possibility of living with others. However, most did not provide details on their conversation.

This dissertation has direct implications for the child welfare and immigration fields. It explains how these families engage resources, cope, and prepare for possible immigration crises that might negatively impact their children. The translational objective of this research is to inform the development and implementation of evidence-based programs designed to mitigate the traumatic impact of immigration enforcement on children's mental and emotional health.





Included in

Social Work Commons



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