When she was in middle school, Vanessa Delgado checked out library books about George Washington and the U.S. Constitution, then went home to quiz her mom for her U.S. citizenship test. This reversal of the parent-child relationship is commonplace for children of immigrants.

As a first-generation sociology graduate student at UCI, Delgado coined the term “legal brokering” to describe the work that children of immigrants often undertake to help their parents, siblings and other family members navigate their legal status — whether that’s trying to become citizens or avoiding deportation.

“My work reveals many different consequences for families that are trying to navigate this restrictive, exclusionary era in immigration,” Delgado explains.

Delgado recently won a 2019 National Science Foundation (NSF) Doctoral Dissertation Award to support her work exploring how legal status impacts the way children of immigrants help their parents navigate life in the U.S. She was one of just 37 sociology graduate students in the nation to win the award this year.

“Vanessa Delgado is one of the most impressive graduate students in our sociology doctoral program,” says Rubén Rumbaut, Distinguished Professor of sociology and Delgado’s advisor. “Her life experience fundamentally informs, enriches and motivates her research, teaching, mentoring and service to others.”

Path to a Ph.D.

Born to two undocumented Mexican immigrants who worked as farm laborers in rural Washington, Delgado says that education was critically important to her family, even though her parents had only a few years of formal schooling. 

From a young age, Delgado participated in state and federally funded programs aimed at bolstering educational outcomes for low-income children like herself: GearUp, Upward Bound and the College Assistant Migrant Program. As a student at Washington State University, she participated in the McNair Scholars Program, a federal program which aims to put more economically disadvantaged and ethnic minority students on a path to doctoral degrees.

“My exposure to research really early on, and the mentorship and support I got from the McNair program, solidified for me that the Ph.D. was a track I wanted to go on,” says Delgado. She remains in contact with her mentors at The Ohio State University and the University of Arizona, where she completed summer research programs that gave her experience conducting qualitative work and a better understanding of what it would be like as a graduate student in social sciences.

As part of her undergraduate research, Delgado volunteered at domestic abuse shelters in Washington and conducted an ethnography that revealed language and cultural barriers were likely preventing Latinas from getting the help they needed from the shelters. As a result of her research, the shelters took steps to improve their outreach to Latinas.

When it came time to choose a university for graduate studies, UCI’s sociology faculty drew Delgado’s attention.

“One of the reasons I came to UCI is that the sociology department has a strong concentration of faculty who conduct research on children of immigrants,” she says. “It felt like a really great fit in terms of the research I wanted to conduct, the faculty here, the resources they had available, and the opportunity to approach my project in different theoretical ways.”

Unmasking the toll

For her dissertation, Delgado is conducting in-depth interviews with 60 pairs of parents and children, some of whom are citizens and others who are not.

“I want to move away from the romanticized notion of kids helping their parents, and to shine a light on all this unseen labor that children of immigrants do,” she says. “And to unmask the toll it can take on them.”

While sociologists have acknowledged that children of immigrants help their parents navigate language and cultural aspects of life in the U.S. — like when Delgado would translate paperwork or help her parents during parent-teacher conferences — her research focuses on a third area where children help their parents: legal brokering.

“Because the law plays such a salient role in the lives of undocumented immigrants, children of immigrants tend to play the role as legal brokers, but it can cause a lot of strain and pressure on both parents who need the resources and also on the young adults who are in the position to help because of language and other resources,” she says.

Delgado’s paper on legal brokering “‘They think I’m a lawyer:’ Undocumented College Students as Legal Brokers for their Undocumented Parents” has been accepted for publication in the sociolegal journal Law & Policy, and won UCI’s Gilbert G. Gonzalez Graduate Student Paper Prize. She has a forthcoming article in the journal Sociology Compass on the role societal context plays in the brokering patterns of immigrant families. She has also helped author a policy report and research brief on how the University of California can better serve undocumented students.

The exact role a child plays in helping his or her parents cope with legal issues often depends on the child’s own immigration status. Undocumented college students are more likely to be connected to advocacy groups, nonprofits and other resources they can turn to when helping their extended family with immigration issues, Delgado explains. On the other hand, a student who is already a citizen may not be as well connected with these groups and, therefore, take a different approach when helping their undocumented parents. 

“If you think about the broader impact, a lot of first-generation college students are trying to study, work, and get extracurriculars on top of dealing with these huge pressures to broker for their family in legal contexts that they have no control over,” says Delgado. 

She emphasizes how high the stakes are for the children and their families.

“I talk to students who don’t want to share advice with a loved one because they don’t want to feel responsible if someone gets deported,” says Delgado.

Immigrant voices in academia

At UCI, Delgado’s research centers around what children of Latinx, and especially Mexican, immigrants experience in Southern California, which is more urban and suburban than the farming community she calls home. 

“There is such a rich history of Latinx migration here in Southern California and, for me, there’s an opportunity to give back and be able to work with different communities on and off campus,” she says.  

Already Delgado has won a Ford Foundation Pre-Doctoral Fellowship, the Eugene Cota Robles Fellowship, a UC Consortium on Social Science and Law Summer Fellowship, an Economic Self-Sufficiency Policy Research Institute Fellowship, Data Science Initiative Fellowship and two UC MEXUS grants. In addition, she has also been awarded the Outstanding Department Service Award from the Department of Sociology, the Svetlana Bershadsky Graduate Student Community Award, AGS Debbie Davis Graduate Student Award and the Dynamic Womxn of UCI Spotlight Award, and UCI School of Social Sciences Order of Merit Award for Outstanding Service.

Through her work, Delgado hopes to help amplify the voices of immigrants and their children within academia. She won a fellowship in UCI’s Summer Teaching Apprenticeship Program, and aims to hone her teaching skills. This winter, she is teaching an undergraduate Qualitative Methodology in Sociology course to help students learn about how to draw on qualitative methods to tackle social issues that affect them, their families, and communities. 

“I want to make an impact in the classroom. Especially here at UCI, which is a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI), so it’s important to incorporate Latinx voices in the work that we do,” she says. “Students should be able to see themselves reflected in the work that we do, as social scientists.”

When she completes her Ph.D., Delgado hopes to continue her scholarly research and teaching — hopefully closer to her family in Washington.

“Vanessa is an extraordinarily committed, conscientious, creative, ambitious and talented member of our community, always thinking of ways to contribute to the larger whole,” says Rumbaut. “As past is prologue, I foresee a bright career ahead for her.”

-Christine Byrd for UCI Social Sciences


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