Between 2003 and 2013, an estimated 740,000 to 920,000 parents of children who are U.S. citizens were deported from the United States. In 2013, for example, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) reported that it deported 72,410 parents of American children. The pace of parental deportations was slower in 2016, when 28,860 parents were deported. The numbers for 2017 have not yet been reported, but many anticipate an increase given reports that ICE has targeted parents for arrest who are picking up their children at school or attending hearings in children’s courts.
As the country debates the future of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which has extended temporary protection to 800,000 undocumented youth who came to the U.S. as children, it is important to keep in mind that there are far more than 800,000 children and youth who are vulnerable to deportation — or to de facto deportation — under current immigration laws.
The term de facto deportation refers to people who are not technically deported, but who face no choice but to leave the country if they want to continue to live with a family member who has been deported. There are a lot of people in this boat. A 2009 Human Rights Watch report estimated that at least one million spouses or children experienced the deportation of a family member between 1997 and 2007. According to Mexico’s most recent census, more than half a million U.S. citizen children were living in Mexico in 2010.
When parents are deported, children suffer. This is true for children who remain in the United States, separated from their deported parent(s), and for those who leave the country in order to preserve the family’s unity. Many go back and forth, interrupting their educational progress and the development of social attachments.
Luis Zayas, dean and professor of social work at the University of Texas, Austin, has studied the mental health consequences facing children whose parents have been deported. His research has found that children who remain in the United States after a parent is deported experience “depression, possible conduct disorders, and … a constant sense of a diminishing and ambiguous future” because deportation undermines “children’s fundamental attachments to the adults they rely on for love, guidance, support and care.” In addition, Zayas has found that those who leave their homeland to follow a deported parent display signs of depression and “may lose their sense of national identity as Americans, a poignant loss that even maintaining citizenship cannot prevent.”
I have been conducting research in Mexico to explore what happens to American children who move there after a parent’s deportation. Of course, children’s experiences vary depending on where they move and on the financial resources of their families. Adjusting to school in a new country poses major challenges for many — there are different norms, fewer resources and classes are held in a language that is foreign to many.
In some areas, violence poses a very real threat to daily life. And generally, children note a decrease in their standard of living — their access to medical and dental care, and even to food. Many have a hard time fitting in and report being teased and even bullied because they are perceived as different.
In the past, when lawyers have filed legal challenges arguing that a parent’s deportation violates the constitutional rights of their children, courts have said that a parent’s deportation does not violate the child’s right to live in the United States as a citizen because the child could choose to stay behind, essentially choosing to grow up without their parent(s). However, through the child’s eyes, this does not feel like a real choice.
In many cases, it is not. One court explained that the rights of a citizen whose parents faced deportation would not be impeded because she could always return to the United States as an adult. However, missing out on the educational, economic and social resources the U.S. offers children in their formative years puts this population of children at a disadvantage, even if they were to return as adults.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has criticized U.S. immigration policy, concluding that it violates children’s rights to family unity and is inconsistent with protecting the best interests of children. As Congress considers the future of immigration policy, it would do well to focus on the broad population of children and youth whose lives are touched by deportation, and to do a better job of protecting family unity and honoring the best interests of the country’s children.