The immigration system has never been known for being family friendly (unless you think parent-child detention helps maintain “family unity”). Yet as immigration enforcement has spilled into local police patrols, anti-drug law enforcement, national security, and the prison industrial complex, it’s perhaps inevitable that its mission would creep into child welfare.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement isn’t really in the social service business, of course. But they are in a sense empowered uphold their “security” mission by splitting families apart with impunity.
A new report by the Urban Institute tracks the experiences of 190 children and 85 families who have been caught up in ICE immigration raids in recent months. The study documents the long term consequences of the trauma of that initial triple-blow of separation—“arrest, detention and deportation.” It covers six locations, including communities involved in large workplace sweeps, as well as the sites of home and neighborhood raids.
The families hailed primarily from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Haiti. Some of the raids were high-profile events, such as the crackdown on the Agriprocessors meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa. Other families were sundered through lower-grade anti-immigrant warfare, such as targeted traffic stops and home invasions.
The Urban Institute found that indefinite separation from one, or in some cases both, parents ruptured the family structure economically and socially. Hardships may endure in families even if they are ultimately reunified or granted immigration relief months down the line. In addition to undermining jobs, income and housing, many families faced the stigma of criminal charges like identity theft. Children sometimes faced the wrenching decision of whether to return to the home country with the deported parent, or remain in the U.S. and possibly never see their mother or father again:
The whole family left to join the deported parent in some of these cases, while in others the parents and siblings were split between countries. Our time frame was not long enough to assess the impacts on children who faced separations following deportation or, in most cases, to know the ultimate outcome regarding deportations and longer-term separations. Finally, in a few cases, parents returned illegally to the United States to be reunited with their children and families. The return journeys were rough, and one parent died the day after he was reunited with his family.
Families paid a steep penalty for exercising their rights to fight deportation, as economic hardships stretched through the long, arduous legal process. In the most severe cases, while parents languished in immigration limbo, the emotional stress was compounded by the threat of hunger:
Families in our study reported food hardship at levels many times greater than those found in nationally representative samples. Nearly three out of five households reported difficulty paying for food “sometimes” or “frequently” in the months following parental arrest…. Nearly two out of three parents reduced the size of their meals, over half ate less than before, and more than a fifth reported having experienced hunger because they did not have enough to eat.
It’s a haunting sign of how the mission of immigration enforcement has been perverted: the federal crackdown on parents who pose no real threat to society has caused children to go hungry. It’s estimated that most of the children of undocumented immigrants have U.S. citizenship—so even the arbitrary label of citizen fails to shield them from this merciless criminalization campaign. Once they are forced to return to their parents homeland, those kids instantly lose all the privileges artificially conferred by legal status. (As many as 100,000 immigrant parents with American-citizen children have been forced out of the country over the past decade.)
The study acknowledges some changes in enforcement policies under the new administration—for instance, an end to the large-scale workplace raids that tarnished ICE’s reputation under Bush. But there remains a deep lack of legal and humanitarian services for the families impacted by immigration raids. Researches cited the need for greater coordination between government agencies and community groups to help families stay intact, and help households cope with the financial and emotional crisis.
Another recent report commissioned by the American Bar Association highlighted major structural problems in the immigration court system, which have subjected countless detainees to judicial incompetency and denied them due process.
For undocumented immigrant parents, the cost of seeking a better life was illegally crossing the border. But when the consequence of redeeming that risk is permanent separation, that’s a price too high for a family to pay. As for Homeland Security, the Department’s proposed multibillion dollar 2011 budget contains no moral accounting for the collateral costs of exclusion.
Image: Children protesting at a Postville immigrant rights rally in 2008. (Lynda Waddington / Iowa Independent)