“Es Como Que no los Conociera”: Reunification of Unaccompanied Migrant Youth with Their U.S. Families

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Family reunification following migration-related separations is often challenging for immigrant youth as they adjust to their new environment and reacquaint with their caregiver. Scant research has explored the experiences of family reunification specifically for unaccompanied immigrant youth.

A recent issue of the journal Social Work Research, co-published by NASW and Oxford University Press, showcases a study of family reunification experiences. This study was a secondary analysis to explore the complexities of family reunification through the lens of attachment theory and family systems. Data were collected from 30 youth, six parents, and four school administrators via focus groups and semi-structured interviews. Unaccompanied immigrant youth had arrived at the United States in the previous three years from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, or Mexico. Data were analyzed using thematic analysis. (In theoretical thematic analysis, rather than imposing a preset coding schema, recurring topics that answer the research question are identified in the narratives and may be used to create a codebook. In this study, the team independently read through the transcripts in search of family-related challenges that unaccompanied immigrant youth face following reunification with a parent or guardian.)

The results showed that the youth struggled to reconnect with their parents due to prolonged separations, which contributed to loneliness and feelings of loss. Parent–child attachment disruptions contributed to problems related to relationships among family members, traditional family roles and hierarchies, and new family constellations (e.g., blended families). In addition, the results point to the importance of developing interventions to increase trust, empathy, and communication between unaccompanied immigrant youth and their parents.

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Study Authors:

  • Liza Barros-Lane, PhD, LMSW, assistant professor of social work, University of Houston-Downtown
  • Kalina Brabeck, PhD, professor, counseling, Rhode Island College
  • Jodi Arden Berger Cardoso, PhD, MSSW, associate professor, Graduate College of Social Work, University of Houston

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The journal Social Work is a benefit of NASW membership. It is available online or, at a member’s request, in print. Children & Schools, Health & Social Work and Social Work Research are available by subscription at a discounted rate for NASW members, either online or in print.

Learn more about the NASW Press journals and subscriptions.