[Guest Covid19 series post] Conducting Research with Undocumented and Mixed-Status Families During COVID: Ethics, Practices, and Methods


A growing body of research on undocumented migration explores the production of U.S. immigration policy and enforcement, including its effects on undocumented and mixed-status families (where at least one member is undocumented). Research on the lived experiences of undocumented immigrants are crucial, especially in light of today’s political climate, because heightened enforcement practices (such as detention and deportation) have vast consequences not only on immigrants themselves but also on their families and communities. Moreover, regardless of legal status, non-white communities are also impacted by the same policies targeting the undocumented. Despite great advances in multi-disciplinary research with undocumented communities there is a need for more intentional and humanistic approaches when it comes to data collection. 

When engaging with vulnerable populations, there is an immense power gap between researchers and community members under study. The positionality of a researcher immediately differentiates the levels of privilege between the interviewer and interviewee. Even when the researcher is of a similar demographic (i.e. race and age) to the population that they are studying, the disparities in legal statuses means that their life perspectives, experiences, and understandings can be vastly different. While an undocumented researcher may better understand the circumstances of fellow undocumented immigrants, there may still be a power imbalance with respect to educational levels or socioeconomic status, for example. Throw in a global pandemic to the mix and we have a cocktail for potential (and unintentional) abuse of power and privilege. In this post, I will share some of my and other researchers’ mistakes when conducting research on undocumented migration and how to address these weaknesses. I then offer tips for qualitative researchers to strengthen ethical research data collection during a pandemic. 


As a graduate student, I interviewed undocumented activists for my first research project. I recruited respondents without explaining their compensation and whether I  was providing any non-financial support. This was partly because I was new to research and my graduate student stipend was $11,000/year. I babysat during the academic year and subleased my apartment in the summer to make ends meet. I did not receive any funding to conduct my research either. The thought of using my meager stipend to fairly compensate my respondents was out of the question. Lack of compensation to undocumented participants is common practice. For example, I attended a conference panel for a presentation featuring the work of undocumented activists: none of the panelists had showed up. “They couldn’t make it because they didn’t have money for [transportation],” the professor who organized the panel explained. “It’s understandable,” another professor quipped, “It is Saturday morning. I guess we should have paid them.” While I am embarrassed with my mistake, I now strive to avoid similar mishaps. 


The pandemic has thrust undocumented and mixed-status families into further financial instability and precarity. Since the federal government has blocked many immigrant families from sources of federal and state aid, many families are currently facing hunger, eviction, homelessness, and deeper poverty. Issues with childcare and eldercare coupled with many working as essential workers complicate these issues. For these reasons, I strongly advocate for financially compensating respondents for their limited time and energy. Not only should researchers be upfront about financial compensation, but they need to honor their allotted time during data collection. For example, if both parties agreed to an hour interview, the interviewer should not go over the hour. Financial compensation is only one of the ways to acknowledge and value respondents’ time and participation. 

Decreased research funding and the reliance of higher education institutions on underpaid and overworked labor are roadblocks to quality research. I think about adjuncts, graduate students, and even tenure-track faculty who do not have access to grants or fair wages but want to conduct immigration research. If not offering financial compensation, I urge researchers to offer resources and support through other means. For example, researchers can share information about undocumented organizations who provide emergency grants to undocumented families, virtual Know Your Rights workshops, and GoFundMe for relief funds. Researchers can also offer translation help and volunteer to assist first-generation immigrant children with the college application process. Providing a list of local resources to undocumented and mixed-status families such as the local food bank or university organizations is a must. I remind participants before and after the interview about their rights such as refusing to answer sensitive questions. I also emphasize that I am available to answer any questions and concerns that they may have. I utilize my social capital and refer my interviewees to reputable immigration lawyers and my contacts in immigrant and activist organizations. Any published manuscripts and presentations should be shared with respondents. In the face of COVID, I argue that ignoring the communities’ hardship and suffering is inhumane and exploitative. 


I selected in-depth interviews as my methodology for both of my research projects. Interviews in qualitative work are often the standard in sociology. At the time, I did not consider alternatives to collect data. During the interviews, I was extremely conscious of how my questions might trigger my respondents’ most painful memories. I also worried that I would misinterpret the intent in their words. Had I thought about it more, I would have explored other methodologies. 


Researchers should be innovative and flexible with their methodology during these unprecedented times. Pre-COVID, long interviews and ethnographic work were possible. Qualitative researchers need to accept that due to COVID, long stretches of time with their research population may now improbable. I suggest breaking down the interviews into shorter increments. Instead of a two-hour interview, consider breaking it down into two one-hour interviews. This builds rapport and the short length increases incentive to participate. Expecting respondents to sit through a three-hour Zoom interview is, frankly, delusional.

Researchers need to think innovatively about methodologies that do not trigger respondents with pandemic-related stress. While more time-consuming, community-based research is a good start to conducting ethical and collaborative research. This approach entails involving undocumented community members in the research design, data collection, and analysis. This ongoing collaboration can help foster feelings of empowerment and community, as well as values their local expertise and knowledge, and strategically targets policy and social change. Photovoice, where participants take pictures to illustrate their lived experiences and record changes, can also be utilized as it is non-invasive and introspective for the participants. Be open with research parameters beyond the traditional methods of surveys and interviews, and the possibility of changing the research project trajectory for richer data. 


Be conscious of unintended microaggressions. Unless you have directly grown up with a liminal immigration status or closely know someone who has, you do not understand the depths of how legal status affects immigrants’ lives. When I was on an H-4 visa, I explained to friends and acquaintances that my legal status prevented me from leaving the U.S. Well-meaning, they would ask: “Why haven’t you applied for a green card?” A close friend’s boyfriend, newly-arrived U.S. permanent resident from India, asked “Why didn’t you just apply for the family route? It’s so easy, you just wait.” These microaggressions not only decrease rapport and chances of receiving future referrals for the researcher, but also place an emotional burden on community members to process these events on their own. 


I was at a panel when a presenter pointed to their PowerPoint slides. They showed dated, handwritten, and private letters from undocumented high schoolers to a room of conference attendees. What was especially troubling is that proof of undocumented immigrants’ existence in the U.S. such as their signatures is potentially harmful to their immigration cases. As I wrote in my IRB form, “researchers should not want to be in possession of any document that proves their physical presence in the US at a specific date and time.” This data is also at risk through subpoenas and other legal courses of action. In the Q&A, I sought clarification on how the presenter had received consent to publish these letters. “Oh, we don’t need permission”, the presenter confidently responded. I was infuriated at their blasé attitude towards this clear violation of the students’ privacy and unwittingly putting the students in high legal risk. 


The safety and privacy of our respondents should be the researchers’ top priority. Undocumented and mixed-status families take immense risks in sharing their experiences of legality and more so during COVID. For example, under the Trump administration, there have been growing reports where immigration agents have utilized social media outlets to locate undocumented activists to detain and deport them. Thus, as a researcher, it is important to: 

  1. Act as if your data will be subpoenaed at any time. Delete identifying information from your analysis. Password-protect your data and delete relevant files after publishing. Consider submitting a request for a Certificate of Confidentiality through the NIH for an additional layer of protection.
  2. Aim to collect oral consent versus written consent. As mentioned above, written consent forms document an immigrants’ presence in the United States and is potentially legally dangerous to have on-hand. Oral consent is a way to protect your respondents’ privacy.  
  3. Before the interview, emphasize that respondents can leave at any time at their own discretion.

The humanist in me wants to stop all pandemic research on undocumented and mixed-status families. My researcher brain understands the importance of primary data collection and recording the effects of COVID. Given these circumstances, I implore the research community to carefully critique and scrutinize their data collection methodologies. We must all reflect on how these uncertain times deeply impact the immigrant community and the ways research processes can cause additional harm.

DANIELA is a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at the University at Albany SUNY. Her research interests are race and ethnicity, immigration, and legality. In her free time, she takes care of her many houseplants and eating absurd amounts of sushi. 


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