American Flags at Half Mast behind Chain Link Fencing.

Growing up with undocumented parents can place children at a disadvantage.  Indeed, studies find that children with undocumented parents are likely to face increased levels of poverty, depression and anxiety, housing instability, and educational barriers. As these youth come of age, they can take on additional responsibilities for the family including financial support, sponsoring undocumented parents for Lawful Permanent Residency (LPR), and providing immigration policy updates. However, it remains unclear how the immigration status of the young adults shapes the support they provide to their undocumented parents.

In other words, how does parental support differ between citizen young adults and undocumented young adults?

My recent study examines how U.S.-born citizen and DACAmented college students manage parental illegality in their families. This qualitative study draws on 41 semi-structured interviews with Latinx college students who vary in immigration status. All participants had at least one undocumented parent and lived in Southern California at the time of the interview. 

The findings suggest that young adults’ legal status shaped the strategies used to mediate parental illegality. Young adults engaged in tactics to support their undocumented parents, including informing undocumented parents about their legal rights, sharing tips about how to navigate interactions with police or ICE, easing fears family separation, and creating strategies to minimizing threats of deportation or detention. The in-depth interviews revealed that citizens and DACAmented young adults’ support was facilitated or constrained by their own immigration status.

Citizens attempted to use their protected legal status to support their undocumented parents in two ways. First, citizens investigated the immigration petition process and sought out possible options to adjust their parents’ legal status. Participants detailed how they looked up information about sponsorship on the Web, discussed the family’s case with lawyers, and strategized how to cover the costs of sponsorship. Only three participants were able to successfully petition their parents for Lawful Permanent Residency—with the vast majority unable to do so due to state-sanctioned restrictions. Second, citizens helped their undocumented parents by stepping in to shield parents from threats of deportation. Driving undocumented parents through and around checkpoints was the most commonly used tactic. The strategies used by citizens underscores the advantages and drawbacks of citizenship in mixed status Latinx immigrant families.

DACAmented young adults shared legal capital and immigration policy updates with their undocumented parents. Respondents’ unique social characteristics as acculturated bilingual college students with DACA shaped the set of tactics used to help their undocumented parents. Access to DACA allowed these young people to help in similar ways to that of citizens. For instance, both DACAmented and citizen young adults were able to provide financial support through part-time jobs and open credit cards that parents could use. However, DACA’s temporary and unstable nature during the Trump administration confined DACAmented respondents to a state of precarity wherein their safety and futures were threatened. In response to this uncertainty, DACAmented young adults made use of legal resources on their campus. These youth were able to access targeted on-campus resources and programming for undocumented students including a centralized resource center, classes, conferences, scholarships, legal services, housing, DACA renewal clinics, professional development, academic consultation, support groups, and immigrant rights organizations. This network of resources for undocumented students on campus served as a mechanism as to how DACAmented young adults acquired legal capital. These young adults then shared these resources with their undocumented parents with the intention of mediating the harmful effects of illegality in their families.

In the context of a restrictive sociopolitical climate, this study sheds light on how adult children of undocumented immigrants develop strategies to combat threats of family separation, detention, and deportation. Young adults draw on resources available to them to support their undocumented parents—albeit some are better positioned to provide legal knowledge than others. The strategies implemented by adult children of undocumented immigrants highlight the need for policy addressing the legal vulnerability of undocumented and mixed status families. Until then, children of undocumented immigrants will continue to endure the burden of navigating a broken immigration system.

Vanessa Delgado is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Sociology at UC, Irvine. Her research examines the incorporation pathways and educational experiences of Latino/a/x families. Delgado’s research is featured in several journals including Law & Policy, Journal of Latinos and Education, Sociology Compass, Socius, and Journal of Marriage and Family. Follow them on Twitter @VanessaD015