Stempel doctoral student researches family separation, guardianship in immigrant communities

Undocumented immigrants who have children born in the United States live with a particular fear: What will happen if they are deported, and their children are left alone in this country?

“How do parents deal with this?” wondered Maryam Rafieifar, a doctoral student in social welfare at the Robert Stempel College of Public Health & Social Work. “What steps do they take to ensure their children’s safety?” Rafieifar wanted to find out.

Even when their parents are not deported, many children are impacted by the precarious situation. For example, parents’ fears of being found out might stop them from seeking medical care for themselves or their dependents and keep them from taking advantage of state or federal food and other programs for which their U.S.-born children qualify. The resulting stress and deprivation can have a devasting toll, Rafieifar says. “These children are at higher levels of risk for developing mental health issues and other health issues.”

Several years ago, Rafieifar discovered a Miami-based nonprofit that aims to help undocumented parents and their children. The Nora Sandigo Children’s Foundation offers a number of services and resources for families, and the organization’s founder and namesake has accepted the guardianship of more than 1,200 children over the years. For those who live with their undocumented parents, Sandigo provides guardianship for legal and medical concerns. For those whose parents are deported or detained, Sandigo provides full guardianship: The children live with her and she cares for them.

The organization’s mission and the families it serves immediately caught Rafieifar’s attention. “This is a big decision, to give guardianship of a child to somebody else. I wanted to look into the decision-making process. What factors or processes contribute to such decision? And how do they communicate it to their children? No one has done any research on this guardianship issue, so I decided to do my dissertation on this.”

[caption id="attachment_8084" align="alignright" width="300"]Maryam Rafieifar & Nora Sandigo Maryam Rafieifar, left, and Nora Sandigo[/caption]

Since 2018, Rafieifar has been conducting research around those questions by interviewing families receiving help from the foundation. But that inquiry hasn’t stopped her from actively contributing to the organization. “It’s my passion,” she says of assisting however she can. “It’s all related. I’m working on a dissertation, but I also help them.” She has volunteered at the foundation’s events and lent a hand during activities such as packaging food and school supplies. Most recently during the pandemic, she wrote and submitted grant proposals and successfully raised funds for the cause from several sources.

Rafieifar also recently earned a $1,000 grant from the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues in support of her study. The award will cover costs of a translator, an interviewer and gift cards for participating families.

Rafieifar, herself an immigrant from Iran, has served immigrant and refugee communities for years. She previously worked for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Iran, where she managed a project providing primary health care services to Afghan refugees and undocumented immigrants. She also worked at the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. She is currently a member of the Initiative on Social Work and Forced Migration at FIU.