The Impact of Immigration Enforcement on Children

March 2017

Post Author

By Victoria Crouse

Immigration_and_Customs_Enforcement_(US)_badge_-_Special_AgentI’ll never forget the Saturday afternoon when police officers blocked the three streets surrounding my church, minutes before church service ended at noon. Calls began to stream in from friends who had been the first to leave, frantically warning us about the license checkpoints that had been set up.

I was only thirteen at the time, but I was old enough to understand why fear was spreading around me. My family, along with almost the entire church congregation was trapped at the church; too afraid of being stopped and ticketed for driving without licenses, or even worse, being detained and taken in to be processed. We waited for two hours inside of our church until the police officers left. This wasn’t the first time my Hispanic community was targeted by law enforcement. Today, members of my immigrant community, just like many others across the state, continue to live in the shadows of society due to the fear of detention and separation from our loved ones.

Over the past two decades, North Carolinians have witnessed a substantial growth in the immigrant community. In 1990, immigrants comprised only 1.7 percent of the state’s population; as of 2014, 7.6 percent of North Carolinians are immigrants. Many social workers, public school teachers, medical doctors, and advocates have tried to meet the challenge of integration and support for newcomers by designing culturally appropriate programs and incorporating trauma-informed care into their practices. But the consequences of immigration enforcement remain, and they continue to disrupt the lives and well-being of countless immigrant families in North Carolina.

A recent report from the Migration Policy Institute, highlights the many ways in which immigration enforcement can negatively impact the health and long-term outcomes of immigrant children and communities.

  • Short and Long-Term Outcomes of Family Separation – Among groups studied in the Migration Policy Report, there were several thousand children who were separated from parents due to detention and deportation of the parents. The effects of family separation in this context are severe and can have a long-term impact on children’s health and economic outcomes. Some children, for example, may experience psychological trauma stemming from witnessing a parent be arrested, having unstable caregiving arrangements, and not knowing what happened to a detained parent. Among parents who are detained and deported, more than 90 percent are men – the traditional family breadwinners. Such a loss can mean a host of negative outcomes associated with poverty and single-income homes, for children.
  • A Hardship for Immigrant Communities – Children in immigrant families can also suffer trauma from seeing their friends and neighbors separated from their parents through immigration enforcement activities. This includes all community members (documented immigrants and Hispanic and White citizens) who reside in communities where large-scale immigration enforcement takes place.
  • Challenges Faced by U.S. Citizen Children Who Leave with Parents – In some cases, immigrant parents may choose to take their children with them back to their home countries. Children who return with their parents often face acculturation stressors, such as difficulty learning Spanish language skills and an understanding a new country’s school system. Moreover, children and their parents may be returning to countries troubled by economic downturns, civil war, or community violence; all of which present serious dangers to the child’s well-being.
  • The Permanent Separation of Families – There are several cases in which families are permanently separated as a result of detention or deportation. This occurs when parents lose custody of or contact with their children. In 2011, it was estimated that approximately 5,000 children in foster care had an immigrant parent who was detained or deported. The result of separation is invariably traumatic for the children. Following the initial trauma of losing their parents, their experiences in the child welfare system vary from state to state, and are highly dependent on the local services available to help children of immigrants.

The indiscriminate detention and mass deportation of immigrants is not only inhumane, it also presents a very real danger for the health and well-being of an entire generation of children of immigrants living in the United States.

While the fear of deportation remains in my community today, my community members are resilient and supportive of one another. Networks of communication and protection have been established, and carpooling is occurring more frequently in an effort protect those who cannot obtain valid driver’s licenses. But this won’t solve the problem. Federal, state, and local policymakers must work together to end these enforcement policies, while also working to find ways to keep families together and address the needs of children who have been separated from their loved ones.

Victoria Crouse is an MSW student at UNC Chapel Hill and an intern at the North Carolina Justice Center.