The collateral damage left in the wake of internal immigration enforcement is far too often overlooked in the immigration debate—especially considering that children bear the brunt of such enforcement policies. There are roughly 5.5 million children currently living in the U.S. with at least one unauthorized parent, and at least three-quarters of these children are U.S. born citizens. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) estimates that over the last 10 years, more than 100,000 immigrant parents of U.S. citizen children have been deported from the United States. As DHS continues to increases its enforcement-heavy budget, it’s important to consider the serous risks raids and other ICE actions that separate parents and children pose to children’s immediate safety, economic security, well-being, and long-term development.

A new report by the Urban Institute, Facing Our Future: Children in the Aftermath of Immigration Enforcement, summarized here, examines the consequences of parental arrest, detention, and deportation on 190 children in 85 families in Grand Island NE, New Bedford, MA, Van Nuys, CA, Postville IA, Miami, FL, and Rogers-Springdale, AK. At least 20 families in the study were forced to decide whether children—many of whom are native born U.S. citizens—would leave the country with their deported parent or remain with the other parent or U.S. relatives.

The report found that:

  • When a working parent’s income was lost because they were detained and/or deported, many families experienced housing instability and food insufficiency because of the lost income.
  • Most parents observed significant, adverse changes in their child’s behavior. In the six months following a raid or arrest, approximately two-thirds of children experienced changes in eating and sleeping habits. More than half cried or were afraid more often, and more than a third were more anxious, withdrawn, clingy, angry, or aggressive. The majority of children in the study experienced at least four of these behavior changes.
  • While community-based organizations, churches, non-profit service providers, lawyers, public human services agencies, and child welfare agencies provided aid to families affected by raids or other arrests, the aid was short term and not a viable long term solution.

These children live in a constant fear of separation, exhibit considerable behavioral changes and often lack the financial support necessary to meet their basic needs. One mother related her sons’ fears:

They’re afraid of going outside and even going to school. They missed a week. ‘We don’t want to go, mom. [What if] they take us from the bus?’…‘No,’ I tell them, ‘they won’t do anything to you.’ It’s very difficult…I’ve sent them to study. Their teacher [sent for them] on Tuesday and they’re studying [at school].

So what can we do to ensure that children are protected from the damaging effects of immigration raids? The Urban Institute made a number of policy recommendations, which include:

  • Congress should modify current immigration law so the interests of children, especially U.S. citizen children, are protected during deportation proceedings.
  • ICE should continue its informal moratorium on worksite raids.
  • ICE should continue to develop alternatives to detention so that parents who do not present a danger to the community or a flight risk are not detained.
  • DHS and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) should work together to develop strategies to support state and local governments and non-profit organizations to ensure the well-being of children when their parents are deported.

These solutions, while helpful in the short term, are not viable in the long term. Without comprehensive immigration reform—reform that provides a path to legalization for unauthorized parents of U.S. born children, mixed-status families will continue bear the brunt of bad immigration enforcement policy.