Deporting Parents Hurts Kids
By HIROKAZU YOSHIKAWA and CAROLA SUÁREZ-OROZCOPublished: April 20, 2012
LAST May, President Obama told an audience in El Paso that deportation of immigrants would focus on “violent offenders and people convicted of crimes; not families, not folks who are just looking to scrape together an income.”
In contrast, in the entire decade between 1998 and 2007, about 100,000 such parents were removed. The extraordinary acceleration in the dismantling of these families, part of the government’s efforts to meet an annual quota of about 400,000 deportations, has had devastating results.
Research by the Urban Institute and others reveals the deep and irreversible harm that parental deportation causes in the lives of their children. Having a parent ripped away permanently, without warning, is one of the most devastating and traumatic experiences in human development.
These children experience immediate household crises, starting with the loss of parental income. The harsh new economic reality causes housing and food insecurity. In response to psychological and economic disruptions, children show increased anxiety, frequent crying, changes in eating and sleeping patterns, withdrawal and anger.
In the long run, the children of deportation face increased odds of lasting economic turmoil, psychic scarring, reduced school attainment, greater difficulty in maintaining relationships, social exclusion and lower earnings. The research also exposes major misconceptions about these parents.
First, statistics about those who were deported in 2011 show that 45 percent were not apprehended for any criminal offense. Those who were, were usually arrested for relatively minor offenses, not violent crimes.
Second, most American-born children of undocumented parents are not “anchor babies”; most of the parents have lived and worked in the United States for years before having their first child. “Birth tourism” is a xenophobic myth.
Finally, our studies in New York City and elsewhere show that these parents are extremely dedicated to their children’s well-being and development. Undocumented parents typically work 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, at the lowest of wages. Deporting them worsens the already precarious lot of their children.
A more humane deportation policy would not, as Mr. Obama pledged last May, target those with strong family ties who posed no public safety threat. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, in fact, began implementing such a “prosecutorial discretion” policy last fall, aimed at considering family ties and other factors in deportation decisions and closing low-priority cases.
But preliminary data from Immigration and Customs Enforcement raise the question of how committed the agency is to identifying and closing those cases. As John Morton, the agency’s director, testified in March, of 150,000 deportation cases the agency has reviewed nationwide, about 1,500 — a mere 1 percent — have been closed.
What does that mean for affected families? Consider Sara Martinez, 47, whose daughter is an American citizen. Since arriving from Ecuador, Ms. Martinez has paid her taxes, learned English and never broken a law, according to the New York Immigration Coalition, which has taken up her case . In January 2011, she was on a bus in Rochester with her daughter when three border patrol agents asked her for identification. She could produce only her Ecuadorean passport, and was arrested.
She has applied to Immigration and Customs Enforcement for prosecutorial discretion three times and been denied, without explanation, even though she meets new criteria for such discretion: she has close ties to the community and is not a threat to public safety.
Ms. Martinez’s six-year-old daughter has suffered from nightmares, had trouble sleeping and eating and expressed fear that the “police” will come again and take away her mother (who is not in detention while the case is pending) for good.
The United States should not be in the business of causing untold hardship by separating children from the love and care of their hard-working parents.
Hirokazu Yoshikawa , the academic dean at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, is the author of “Immigrants Raising Citizens: Undocumented Parents and Their Young Children.” Carola Suárez-Orozco , co-director of immigration studies at New York University, is an author of “Crossroads: The Psychology of Immigration in the New Century.”