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What Happens After the Honeymoon Is Over?

Initially, families are thrilled to reunite with their children. Yet, when reality sets in the honeymoon period often ends and the dynamics of family reunification become quite complicated. The outcomes are often dependent on the age of the children who are joining their parents. In the course of research about undocumented Latino adolescents in Washington, DC, I discovered that becoming a family after years of separation is not easy (Gozdziak 2014a, b, 392-414). In many instances the children and teens that reunited with their parents found that the families included US-born children and stepparents. This new dynamic complicates family relationships. Stepparents in particular are not always eager to support the newly arrived teens financially.

The expectations vis-a-vis younger children are obviously different. They are not pressured to repay parents, at least not when they are quite young. Adolescents and teens, however, are expected to pay back the smuggling fees the parents incurred in bringing them to the United States. These are not insignificant amounts. US officials estimate the majority (75-80 %) of unaccompanied children and youth (or rather their parents) hire smugglers (Stinchcomb and Hershberg 2014; White House 2014). Central Americans routinely pay between $4000 and $10,000 to have relatives brought to the United States (Tisch 2014). Many of the young people I interviewed felt abandoned by their families; for example, Cesar remarked:

I don’t know why, but my mom abandoned me twice: first when she came to the States and left me with my abuela, and later when I came here. She told me she paid for the coyote [smuggler] to take me across the border, but now I have to go to work to repay her. I wish I never came.

It is difficult to estimate how many adolescents are in Cesar’s situation, but interviews suggest that their numbers are not insignificant.

Parents can find parenting children whom they had not seen for a long time quite challenging. In the study reported here, parents often thought of the adolescents as the babies they left behind. But, they had in front of them teenagers who rebelled against curfews and resented being asked to babysit siblings they did not realize they had. The reality for parents did not conform to the romanticized imaginings of family reunions that spurred them to take on that extra job in order to put money aside to bring their son or daughter to the United States. Service providers were concerned about these intergenerational conflicts. Several social workers indicated that local gangs used such family issues to recruit newly arrived immigrant youth saying: “Your family does not want you. We can be your familial"

During this research I uncovered other troubling family dynamics. Initially, mothers welcomed their teen daughters with open arms and showered them with gifts; however, when the girls became a financial burden on the family, they sought to marry their daughters off quickly so they could become someone else’s responsibility. As one social worker said:

They parade these girls in front of the community whenever they get a chance to attract the attention of the men in the neighborhood. They pawn them onto the first man that expresses interest and the men are interested, but not in marriage. The girl gets pregnant and becomes a single teen mom! This obviously does not solve any problems, just creates more.

Service providers in Langley Park, Maryland, Alexandria, Virginia, and Washington, DC have established programs aimed at reducing teen pregnancy and supporting teen parents who want to remain in school. More is needed, however; programs need to focus on the whole family, not just the teens.

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