Last week, First Focus released a new report, “The Cost of Inaction: Why Children Can’t Wait for Immigration Reform.” The report highlights the particularly vulnerable position children are placed in within our broken immigration system.
First, children are directly affected by enforcement decisions to detain or deport parents. According to the Applied Research Center cited in the report, an estimated 5,100 children are currently living in foster care due their parents’ detention or deportation. This is the result of a legal system where “judges have limited discretion to consider hardship to minor children when making decisions regarding a parent’s removal or admissibility” and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is required by law to follow mandatory detention policies. These policies mandate the detention of non-citizens convicted of a crime “regardless of the seriousness of the offense or the fact that they have already completed any sentence for the offense.” ICE’s recent policy of “parental interest directive,” begins to tackle this issue but children could be better served with a more comprehensive approach.
Second, the restriction on immigration judges that limits their discretion and ability to use the facts of a case when deciding consequences extends to unaccompanied children. These children “are held to the same standard as adults before immigrant court,” including in deportation proceedings. Unaccompanied children rarely have a child advocate or attorney, and face a legal system described by the Vera Institute of Justice as “complicated and intimidating.” These lack of protections for children become increasingly problematic as the number of unaccompanied children in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement increases, in due part to increased gang violence in their countries of origin. The number of unaccompanied minors in U.S. custody has increased from 6,855 in 2011 to 13,625 in 2012. This vulnerable population has unique needs that are not being effectively addressed by the current immigration system.
Third, even U.S. Citizen children are harmed when their parents cannot access basic services for fear of deportation. According to a study done by the Migration Policy Institute earlier this year mixed status families can be hit hard by immigration enforcement, “children with unauthorized parents constitute nearly one-third of all children with immigrant parents and about 8 percent of all US children.” All children are affected emotionally by a parent being removed from the household, detained and deported. In addition, as the child poverty rate in mixed status families is higher, the American children in the household are at particular risk for the financial distress associated with having an undocumented parent detained and possibly deported. If parents are undocumented and cannot provide adequate records of income or identification, they are frequently unable or fearful of applying for the social services their children are eligible for such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
As the report concludes, “Congress has the opportunity to improve the lives of millions of our nation’s children by passing comprehensive immigration reform that addresses the full range of challenges that kids face.”
With the government now open for business, the first thing on its agenda should be immigration reform. The cost of inaction—for not only children, but families and our economy—is simply too high to ignore.