Civil Rights

Breaking families apart: The moral and economic costs to the US

Getty Images

Another passenger left behind a Spanish-language Christian newspaper on the seat beside me on a bus in Providence, R.I. Interspersed with homilies were words of advice to immigrants, “ensure your children have citizenship in your home country.”

This directive illustrates the real effects of a new proposal from Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly who said that adults crossing the U.S. border illegally could be placed in detention, separated immediately from their children, who would be transferred to foster care or to relatives who are legally in the U.S.

{mosads}This is a policy that could affect the U.S. citizen children of 36,000 undocumented parents who enter the country each year. This approach presumes that separating children from mothers at the U.S. border will make the U.S. look strong on illegal immigration.


Yet it would do exactly the opposite. It will weaken the U.S. as a country because of serious– and unconsidered– moral, social and economic costs. 

The spectacle of separating mothers and children is meant to communicate without a doubt the firmness of U.S. immigration enforcement. In theory, it would deter undocumented parents from attempting to cross the border with children in tow.

However, there are several problems with this illusory connection. Perhaps the most basic is that it just doesn’t work as a deterrent.

University of Michigan anthropologist Jason de Leon shows in his 2015 book, The Land of Open Graves, that the prevention through deterrence strategy doesn’t result in a decrease in attempts to cross, but rather, in greater suffering.

In other words, this policy is — at best — a misguided and failed attempt to deter migration, and — at worst — a deliberate strategy of torture.

But the problem isn’t only that it doesn’t work as a deterrent. It’s more serious. Policies like this both weaken the U.S.’s position in the world, and subject it to future drains on resources in foster care and the additional social services that stem from its unnecessary use, thus potentially bankrupting our nation.

Considering the context of America’s position in the world on children and family rights, this only further solidifies an amoral point of view. Twenty-eight years ago, the United Nations issued a Convention on the Rights of the Child. The U.S.— alone among all other countries in the world —has not ratified this convention.

The United Nations (U.N.) document asserts that children have “as far as possible, the right to know and be cared for by his or her parents.”

Decades later, with this new heartbreaking proposal, the Department of Homeland Security suggests that there are limits to that right — that the child’s right to be cared for by his or her parents ends due to an event outside the child’s control. That is namely, when a parent crosses a border without permission.

An example of this misguided priority unfolded tragically in 2007 when a Guatemalan mother and worker, Encarnación Bail Romero, was caught in a poultry plant raid in Missouri and separated from her infant son. 

Judge David C. Dally of the Missouri Circuit Court wrote, “Her lifestyle, that of smuggling herself into the country illegally and committing crimes in this country, is not a lifestyle that can provide stability for a child.” The case moved through the courts, resoundingly terminating the parental rights of Ms. Bail Romero in 2012.

In other words, a child’s right to be raised by his mother was eradicated by the desire to make a border look strong.

To be sure, the U.S. doesn’t always hew to the moral compass set by the U.N. But the Convention on the Rights of the Child is a staggering example of the U.S. as being literally alone in its position.  

Though it may be too soon to measure, we need to consider direct costs of policies like this one on the U.S.’s foreign policy, trade and humanitarian efforts.

As associate professor of anthropology at Brown University studying the impact of both child protection services and immigration on families for over 15 years, I predict that the U.S.’s increasingly authoritarian and inhumane stance against children will lose it allies, partners, and influence in years to come. 

How a country treats children, ‘the least of my brethren,’ is a measure of what its leaders and citizens believe matters.

The blow to our international humanitarian reputation is only half the story.  The economic impact once these children are separated from their parents and moved into foster care in the U.S. is potentially enormous.

In a 2011 white paper for the National Council for Adoption, Nicholas Zill, psychologist and founding director of Child Trends, estimated that annual state and federal expenditures on foster care are substantial. He estimated $9 billion per year in social security costs, in addition to myriad harder to quantify Medicaid, food stamps, welfare, and child care costs.

More than 400,000 children are in state care now, and Zill’s white paper estimates a public cost of $25,782 per child per year.

Costs down the road associated with the negative outcomes of foster care are high in dollars and human costs. In 2005, the Casey National Alumni Study found that children who were in long-term care are over-represented as adults with mental health disorders, low college completion rates, and underemployment.

It costs a lot less to let an undocumented taxpayer raise her own child, than it does to separate mother from child and devote additional tax dollars to an imperfect foster care solution.

At our borders, we have an opportunity to prevent children from entering foster care in the first place.

Proceeding with this policy means that the U.S. values the appearance of strong borders over effective migration policy, financial solvency, international reputation and human rights. That may well be a valid policy, but only if the true economic, social, and moral costs are publicly weighed and deemed worthwhile.

Rather than taking a hard line on immigration that cuts right down the middle of struggling families, we should take a smaller step now that pays impressive dividends down the road.

Instead of putting more children into foster care as an outcome of a misguided border control policy, let’s let those U.S. children citizens be raised by their parents.

It’s something every one of our fellow nations have unanimously agreed to be a child’s right. Our international reputation and financial bottom line will both benefit. 

Jessaca Leinaweaver directs the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at Brown University and is a Public Voices Greenhouse participant with The OpEd Project.

The views of contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

Tags Illegal immigration Immigration

Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video