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Should Children Pay the Price for Inhumane U.S. Immigration Policies?

Resource type: News

Gara LaMarche |

Every so often a story serves as a wake-up call that something is very wrong with the way the United States government deals with things. So it was with Saturday’s New York Times article about the actions of federal immigration agents last month in Ohio when they raided Saida Uzanmor’s home to detain and deport her, and removed her nine-month-old breastfeeding daughter, Brittney Bejarano, to the care of social workers. It makes you wonder what line of decency and morality will not be crossed in the anti-immigrant hysteria that is spreading through much of the country.

“Leave no child behind” takes on a cruelly ironic meaning in the wake of the sharply escalated program of raids – mostly in the workplace – by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, according to a report released last month by the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) and the Urban Institute, Paying the Price: The Impact of Immigration Raids on America’s Children. For every two people detained in immigration enforcement operations, one child is left behind. Two-thirds of these children are U.S. citizens and a similar share is younger than ten.

The report, which was made possible through Atlantic’s support of NCLR’s Latino Children’s Advocacy Project, with additional support from The Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Foundation for Child Development and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, details the consequences of immigration enforcement operations on children’s psychological, educational, economic, and social well-being, profiling three communities that experienced large-scale worksite ICE raids within the past year: Greeley, Colorado; Grand Island, Nebraska; and New Bedford, Massachusetts. A total of 912 people were arrested and 506 children were directly affected.

The report not only details the consequences of immigration enforcement operations on children but also the heavy burden that workplace raids are placing on communities, school systems, social service providers, and religious institutions, which must act as first responders for families caught up in immigration raids.

It fell to schools, child care providers, and extended families to meet the needs of children callously neglected by ICE’s actions. On the day of the raids in all three sites, for example, the school districts made sure that children were not dropped off to empty homes or left at school overnight.

ICE’s processing and detention procedures – especially the lack of telephone access and the holding of many detainees outside their home states – made it difficult for detainees to contact their families or other caregivers to arrange for child care. Most children remained with a second parent, but some were without their single parent or both parents following the raid – which in Grand Island, for example, amounted to 17% of children.

The resources of extended families and friends were depleted quickly, and support from the nonprofit sector generally lasted for only three or four months. Yet, some parents remained in detention for up to six months, and it took even longer for some parents to have their immigration cases adjudicated.

Their parents’ sudden absence traumatized children who often personalized the cause of the separation and felt abandoned or fearful that their parents could be abruptly taken away from them. In all three cities, affected families hid in their houses and were reluctant to open the door to visitors offering assistance for weeks after the initial raid. Children’s and parents’ fears and the events surrounding the raids led to depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, separation anxiety, and suicidal thoughts in children.

Miriam Calderon, Associate Director of NCLR’s Policy Analysis Center, points out that the report is the first significant attempt to move beyond anecdotes to the grim facts about the consequences of immigration enforcement for America’s children. “We now understand how children and the social institutions that support them are negatively impacted by raids in the short term,” Calderon asserts. “These findings make clear the pressing need to engage in a thoughtful, reasoned discussion about how our nation can and should establish immigration enforcement priorities that are not counterproductive and do not leave the future of thousands – and potentially millions – of innocent children hanging in the balance.”

The report recommends several steps for policy-makers, local officials and service providers, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement to ensure that children are protected when raids occur:

  • ICE should assume that children will be affected whenever adults are arrested in worksite enforcement operations and should develop a consistent policy for handling detained parents.
  • Congress should consider providing resources to school systems and local agencies that respond to children’s needs.
  • Schools should develop systems to ensure that children have a safe place to go in the event of a school-hours raid.
  • Social services and other public agencies should prepare plans to respond to immigration raids and develop outreach strategies to assure parents and other caregivers that it is safe to seek emergency assistance and support for children under such circumstances.

The overwhelming message I take from this disturbing report is that the political “debate” over immigration has utterly failed to take account of its human dimensions. Every “illegal” immigrant seized and deported is a fellow human being with a family, either here or in their country of origin. Virtually every one is working hard toward a better life. And whatever one thinks of decisions that fathers and mothers have made or have been driven to – coming to the United States, or staying here without proper papers – no child should have to bear the cost of separation and trauma for that.

It’s high time Congress used its oversight authority to hold hearings on the status of children in the aftermath of raids, as NCLR has urged, and to take whatever action is necessary to bring this shameful practice to an end.

Paying the Price: The Impact of Immigration Raids on America’s Children, by the Urban Institute’s Randy Capps, Rosa Maria Castañeda, Ajay Chaudry, and Robert Santos, can be downloaded from NCLR’s website at or from the Urban Institute’s website at

Gara LaMarche