An estimated 5.1 million children in the United States live with at least one unauthorized immigrant parent, and nearly 80 percent of those children are U.S. citizens. Though recent changes to immigration policy and enforcement announced by the Trump administration more directly target adults, they threaten these children’s well-being.
Two new implementation memos released by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in February outlined implementation of a pair of executive orders signed by President Trump in January, which called for ramping up immigration enforcement activities. (These policies are different than the proposed travel ban affecting majority-Muslim countries, which have been halted by federal courts.)
The memos and their ensuing implementation have caused fear and confusion throughout immigrant communities. For one, the memos expand categories of people classified as “priorities for removal.” For example, previous guidelines prioritized deporting individuals who had been convicted of serious crimes, whereas the new rules prioritize (among others) any immigrant who has been charged with a crime at all, even a minor crime, such as driving with a burned-out taillight. Experts in child well-being have since grown even more concerned after reports emerged that DHS is considering separating parents and children who are apprehended crossing the border.
For children already in the country with an unauthorized parent, these orders mean they face, more immediately than before, the anticipation and possible reality of losing that parent’s presence in their lives. When parents are detained and/or deported, their children may experience emotional distress, economic instability, fears about their family stability, or even permanent family separation. These adverse childhood experiences can hinder a child’s healthy development. The combination of multiple adverse experiences over time can harm children’s physical and mental health and seriously impact their well-being as adults. Since 2013, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has operated under specific guidelines that provided some protections to parents or legal guardians of minor children, possibly mitigating the harm caused by some of these experiences. However, questions remain as to whether this guidance still applies.
While there have been no large-scale studies on the long-term effects of parental detention and deportation on child well-being, we can draw parallels to the effects of parental incarceration. For young children (ages 6 to 11), having a parent who has been incarcerated is associated with having emotional difficulties, low school engagement, and behavioral and academic problems in school. Older youth (ages 12 to 17) also have a greater likelihood of problems in school. Children of all ages whose parents have been incarcerated are at increased risk of facing a larger number of other adverse childhood experiences. Again, these kinds of experiences, especially when they are cumulative, are associated with the kind of sustained or extreme stress that can lead to dysfunction, disease, and early mortality.
Children with unauthorized immigrant parents face many challenges, and these recent changes will likely add more. As our country strives to come to a consensus on immigration reform, it is critical to keep children’s well-being as our priority.