Date of Degree

6-2021

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph.D.

Program

Social Welfare

Advisor

Martha Bragin

Committee Members

Robert C. Smith

Luis Barrios

Subject Categories

Migration Studies | Social Work

Keywords

Central American, transnational mothers, immigration, posttraumatic growth (PTG), unaccompanied minors

Abstract

This study analyzes the experiences of migration, separation, and reunification of transnational mothers from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala and their children. Drawing on data collected from 25 mothers living and working on Long Island, New York who migrated to the US during four periods from 1976-2019 and whose children returned to them, sometimes years later. My findings suggest that transnational mothering is an experience marked by multiple forms of structural, institutional, and interpersonal violence, along with the commitment to sacrifice for their children. Taken together, transnational mothers operated within a form of “compounded disadvantage” (Abrego, 2014) due to their frequently undocumented status. However, such mothers’ experiences also illuminate a remarkable transformative process, post-traumatic growth (PTG), that both enables and is enabled by transnational mothering among the study participants.

I identified four pathways to reunification, which included: mother-initiated documented and undocumented pathways, child-initiated undocumented pathways, and scattered reunification when multiple children arrived at different times. 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 the mothers’ identifying the experience of unrecognized sacrifice throughout the reunification process, as they once again put child and family needs above their own. This study also provides evidence of PTG and resilience through their participation in organizations, leadership-building initiatives, and support systems in the larger community, which enabled them to endure and to thrive.

I conducted this study from 2018-2020, during a period of draconian measures to deter migration on the southern border that targeted immigrants, mostly families and children from the Northern Triangle who were fleeing violence and seeking reunification, in addition to undocumented and even legal immigrants with Temporary Protected Status (TPS) in the US Despite the fact that local and federal administrations created a context of fear, it did not hinder migrant women’s transnational mothering, or subsequent advocacy and access to resources for themselves and their families.

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