The increase of deportations is traumatizing children, according to a new study.
In the past year, 400,000 people were deported from the United States, leaving immigrant and US-born children emotionally reeling from the separation of their families, the study found.
“A lot of the U.S. children [interviewed] have undocumented parents, but a ton of them didn’t," said Dr. Joanna Dreby, a sociologist at the SUNY University at Albany. "There are more mixed status families now than there have ever have before.”
Dreby's study specifically looked at the impact immigration policies and enforcement of immigration laws has on the children of Mexican families.
The affected children showed an increase in crying, loss of appetite, sleeplessness, clingy behavior, an increase in fear and anxiety, and generic fears of law enforcement officials, Dreby reported. In her research, she interviewed 91 parents and 110 children.
An estimated 340,000 of the 4.3 million babies born in the United States in 2008 were the offspring of at least one undocumented parent, according to 2010 analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data by the Pew Hispanic Center.
The life changes children go through when a parent is deported or detained, on top of the looming threat of their own deportation, creates a sense of fear and distrust toward the police and other government agents, Dreby said.
“The children know what’s going on, the fear of deportation is very real,” she added.
The fear does not only strike undocumented children.
U.S.-born children, even those who have not had relatives deported,or who may not have undocumented relatives, feel afraid and vulnerable, fearing that despite being of legal status, they too could be arrested or detained.
In many cases children are confused about their legal status, the study found, and develop misunderstandings about immigration from media coverage of the issue.
"[It's] sad," said a 9-year-old girl to Dreby when asked what she thought it’d be like to be an immigrant.
“I saw a video of people and they are immigrants and one time they were going back to Mexico and the policeman caught them and they took them," the little girl said, "and they had a daughter and they left the daughter in the car.”
In November, another report by the Applied Research Center found that the increased deportations have left some 5,100 children languishing in foster homes in the United States.
The report, titled “Shattered Families,” said that these children often have a difficult time getting back together with their parents, despite the fact that laws make child-parent reunification a priority. The report said that guidelines on dealing with foster kids whose parents are deported are haphazard.
Many times, agencies just move to terminate the biological parents’ rights, despite an absence of neglect or mistreatment.
"One of the most common responses from the hundreds of caseworkers and child welfare attorneys that we interviewed all over the country ... was something like, 'When a parent is detained or deported, they basically fall off the face of the earth when it comes to the child welfare system,” Seth Freed Wessler, the report's chief investigator and author, told reporters.
Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR, which favors strict immigration enforcement policies, said that “the reality is that if the children are minors, then Mom and Dad retain custody. So the [children] can move back with their parents and if they so choose to when they’re old enough they have the right to come back.”
“It’s pretty shocking that a parent would abandon their child,” he added. “Parents have a responsibility to raise their children, regardless of any given economic condition.”
In the most drastic of cases, family dissolution occurs when one parent is deported and, in turn, the entire family unit is shattered, Dreby said.
Studies have shown that men are most commonly deported, leaving their families not only in tatters, but without the main breadwinner.
“The parents [who have come undocumented] have been working here a long time but there are no pathways for them to grow,” explained Dreby.
She emphasizes that many Latino families want to come to the United States documented, take advantage of good opportunities and provide a better life for their children.
"They want to be legal, they want to work, but their pathways are blocked." Dreby added. "There are no ways for them to do so."
Most intriguing is the report’s finding of a misconception the majority of the children have about what it is to be an immigrant. Many believe being an immigrant is synonymous with being undocumented.
“They grow up thinking that immigrant is a ‘dirty word,’ it’s bad and it’s negative,” Dreby said. “There is a sense of pride in our nation where [people talk about] their grandparents coming to America and making a life, and now it’s completely different.”
Dr. Dreby interviewed 10-year-old Andrea. When asked if she knew what an immigrant was she responded, “Yeah it is when, someone is illegal in this country and the 'police-ICE' come to look for them to send them back to their country.”
You can reach Viveka Garza-Gómez via Twitter: @ekita_2