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Enforcement-Only Immigration Approach Harms Children

According to demographic estimates, for every two undocumented immigrants deported, one U.S.-citizen child is directly affected.[I]

Mixed-status families — those with at least one undocumented family member — face a chronic threat of separation because of detention and deportation. Familial separation leads to economic instability and emotional hardship for parents as well as their children. As a nation of compassion, we understand that family unity promotes the well-being of children.  When updating immigration policies, Congress must take into account the challenges immigrant families face and implement policies that support the American values of freedom and family.

Congress’ current focus on immigration enforcement, including targeting sanctuary city policies, ignores the negative impacts of detention and deportation on otherwise law-abiding families and children. Immigration enforcement policies that create partnerships between local law enforcement agencies and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have led to record numbers of detainments and deportations of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. In localities with such ICE partnerships, families are more likely to be involuntarily separated for weeks, months or longer.[ii]

Familial separation is detrimental for the emotional well-being of children. The sudden shock of detention or deportation causes deep insecurity and anxiety in children, demonstrated by increased frequency of crying, clingy behavior, sleeplessness and loss of appetite.[iii] Children who witness the arrest of their parents show an even greater change in sleeping and eating patterns and higher levels of anxiety.[iv]  In the long run, the sadness and emotional distress caused by prolonged separation and complicated by uncertainty of when a parent will return jeopardize children’s attachment to their parents.[v] Even when parents have not been arrested, children of undocumented immigrants exhibit fear that a parent will be detained or deported.[vi]

At times younger children (under 6 years) display changes in development and speech patterns. One study notes the story of a 3-year-old with normal development who witnessed the arrest of his undocumented mother and afterward refused to use the training toilet independently and reverted to drinking from a bottle.[vii] Similarly, school-age children experience declines in academic performance and exhibit increased behavior problems in the classroom.[viii]

A staggering number of the impacted children are U.S. citizens; of the 5.5 million children of undocumented immigrants, 4.5 million are U.S. citizens.[ix] As a nation that prioritizes protecting our most vulnerable, we should not stand for the emotional and developmental suffering of our children because of forced separation from their parents.

In some instances, detainment and deportation force parents to leave children with unfamiliar caretakers and sometimes in the child welfare system. In 2011, an estimated 5,100 children of detained or deported parents were living in foster care.[x] Moreover, the detainment or deportation of one undocumented parent forcibly creates a single-parent household, even though we know that children thrive most when they have the support of two parents. Also that single parent is left to support his or her family with a drastically reduced household income. This type of economic instability can place the children of undocumented parents in poverty, which itself is associated with negative social conditions such as housing insecurity, food insufficiency, inadequate education and delayed cognitive development.[xi]

It is morally unacceptable that the U.S. government separates millions of hardworking, otherwise law-abiding immigrant families, especially because studies show that familial separation has a detrimental impact on our nation’s children. As the debate over immigration enforcement policy continues at the national and local levels, we must prioritize immigration reform with an opportunity for earned legal status and citizenship in order to preserve the integrity of mixed-status families and ensure that parents are able to care for their children.


[i] Zayas, L.H. & Bradlee, M.H. (2014). Exiling children, creating orphans: When immigration policies hurt citizens. Social Work, 59(2), 167-175.

[ii] Applied Research Center. (2011). Shattered families: The perilous intersection of immigration enforcement and the child welfare system. New York: Wessler, S.F. et al.

[iii] Dreby, J. (2015). U.S. immigration policy and family separation: The Consequences for children’s well-being. Social Science & Medicine, 132, 245-251.

[iv] The Urban Institute. (2010). Facing our future: Children in the aftermath of immigration enforcement.Washington, DC: Chaudry, A. et al.

[v] Zayas & Bradlee, 2014

[vi] Dreby, 2015

[vii] The Urban Institute, 2010

[viii] Ibid

[ix] Ibid

[x] Applied Research Center. (2011). Shattered families: The perilous intersection of immigration enforcement and the child welfare system. New York: Wessler, S.F. et al.

[xi] Zayas & Bradlee, 2014


Kelly Harrington, National Immigration Forum Policy Intern

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