Deportations punish children most

Mario Vargas-Lopez hugs his daughter, Jersey, who is a anti-deportation activist. March 29 2014. David McNew/REUTERS

Our national identity as a welcoming destination for immigrants is being eroded by our fear of undocumented immigrants – fears that are increasingly impacting children.

The fourth GOP debate again revealed the fault lines in the Republican Party and in the country around immigration. Donald Trump called for mass deportations, while Jeb Bush argued such a policy would tear communities apart.

The fact is: such deportations are already happening, in record numbers. Experts are divided about what the impact of President Obama’s 2014 executive order will be. Will the granting of temporary status be outweighed by the increased enforcement measures?

In the meantime, families continue to live in fear, especially those with children.

When we deport their parents, we reinforce the rhetoric that “anchor babies” are a drain on the system by turning them into public charges. I have been thinking a lot about these left-behind children as my teaching at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and research on immigration intersects with their very real stories.

1.6 million kids

In September, five-year-old Sofía Cruz captured headlines and sympathy when she delivered a letter to Pope Francis pleading for comprehensive immigration reform.

Rewind five years. Then seven-year-old Daisy Cuevas stole hearts by telling Michelle Obama that “Barack Obama is taking away everybody who doesn’t have papers” and “my mom doesn’t have any.” Her family then went into hiding.

Sofía’s and Daisy’s only crime is being born to parents who lack proper papers. That and being brown, or yellow.

In Forgotten Citizens: Deportation, Children, and the Making of American Exiles and Orphans, Luis Zayas, dean of the University of Texas at Austin School of Social Work, underlines the extent of the problem:

In the span of eight years, our nation’s decision to deport 3,165,426 unauthorized immigrants has affected about 1,582,711 citizen-children. … Legislators who promote increased enforcement effectively increase family disruption and separation; citizen-children are collateral damage.“

Potentially as many citizen-children are living abroad in exile, as their parents grapple with taking them to countries where they have never set foot or leaving their children in the US.

Sammy is a teenager I recently met who was born and raised in the Southwest. His parents were living in the US, working and raising their children, until they were stopped for a traffic violation, or audited for taxes, or turned in by a teacher or medical provider, or any of the mundane ways that undocumented status gets uncovered.

Now Sammy is living with foster parents. They are kind and genuinely interested in his well-being. Sammy is doing his best to adjust to a new school and community. His parents communicate with him regularly, but they can’t be here to help him learn to drive, prepare for the SAT or nurse him through his first heartbreak.

In loco parentis

An anti-deportation protester shouts at Obama. Jason Reed/REUTERS

I am glad Sammy has someone in loco parentis – in place of a parent – to help him weather the normal teen dramas, and the exceptional challenges of his situation. But I also think we as a society are "loco” for refusing to fix an immigration system that makes so many parents unable to parent their own children.

The Economic Policy Institute’s Facts About Immigration and the US Economy states:

“Immigrants have an outsized role in US economic output because they are disproportionately likely to be working and are concentrated among prime working ages. Indeed, despite being 13% of the population, immigrants comprise 16% of the labor force.”

In recognition of this reality and to create a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants, Congress introduced the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007, but failed to pass it.

As these studies show, we rely on immigrant labor to care for our children, elders and sick, but do not provide sufficient legal pathways for them to do this work, then vilify them for breaking the law and deport them.

Many people have heard about the massive increase in deportations, but ignore them or convince themselves that they are necessary. The argument goes that these are criminals and potential terrorists, rather than our neighbors and our coworkers.

We are in a moment where we may be able to see these children, and their parents, as people and citizens, but we have had many of these moments and they have passed without action. It’s time now to move away from this crazy loco parentis.

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