February 9, 2011

The Victims of Immigration Policy: Children of Broken Homes and a Broken System

By Melba J.T. Vasquez, PhD, president of APA, and Frank Donaghue, CEO of Physicians for Human Rights

As the rhetoric surrounding U.S. immigration policy continues to heat up, what is often forgotten is the impact our laws have on the most vulnerable, the children. 

Despite the disagreements on immigration policy, all sides of the debate should acknowledge that the children of undocumented immigrants are often the victims of a broken system.

A 2007 report by the Urban Institute highlighted the consequences of Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids in Greeley, Colo., and Grand Island, Neb. The report included narratives about children separated from their families:

“In one case, a youth spent several days alone because both parents were arrested in the raid. In one household, three adolescents were left to fend for themselves after both parents were detained; neighbors provided occasional supervision. The respondents only found out about those cases because the youth subsequently showed up at food banks to ask for assistance.”

There are currently an estimated five million children in our nation who have at least one undocumented parent and are vulnerable to parental deportation proceedings and detentions. In the past decade alone, it is estimated that more than 100,000 parents of U.S. citizen children have been deported.

Decades of research indicate that separation from parents can affect a child’s psychological development, but the mental and behavioral health impact on the children during these immigration proceedings is seldom considered. Children and adolescents whose parents are taken into immigration custody can suffer severe psychological distress, resulting in anxiety, loss of appetite, sleep disturbances, withdrawal, aggressive behavior and decline in educational achievement. Research even suggests that the longer the parent and child are separated, the greater the child’s symptoms of anxiety and depression become.

Simply put, in many cases, our current immigration system does not contain the necessary guidelines that would prevent or minimize these types of harmful separations.

Congress should make the necessary reforms to promote the physical and emotional well-being of children and adolescents and recognize the importance of family unification in the immigration process. Immigration reform efforts must also aim to keep families together throughout the legal proceedings and encourage reunification when there are separations. These types of necessary reforms will help to curb the emotional traumas of the children. 

As a nation, it is imperative that we consider the impact of our immigration policies on children and families. As Nelson Mandela once said, “There can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children.” In short, laws have consequences, and when it comes to immigration policy, children should always be a priority.