Our immigration policies are harming children

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The sobs of a Jose Garcia’s children, Soleil and Jorge, saying goodbye to their father last month in the Detroit Metropolitan airport with ICE officers standing nearby is a visceral reminder that most of the discussions around immigration enforcement ignore the most vulnerable among us — children.

There are over 16 million people living in “mix-status” households (with at least one undocumented family member) in the United States. This includes almost 6 million U.S. citizen children, like Soleil and Jorge, who have at least one undocumented parent, including those with DACA protections.

We have seen reports of parents being detained by ICE while at home, at work and in front of their children. Together with undocumented children, millions of U.S. citizen children are living in daily fear of not knowing if they will be able to continue living with their mom, dad or family members.

{mosads}Separating children from parents with no criminal history is a policy that we would never otherwise justify in this country. For those that defend family separation because of a parent “breaking immigration law,” it should be noted having an undocumented parent or family member is not a crime. Most immigration violations fall under civil administrative law, not criminal law.


Under our child protection system, a child could not be removed from the care of their parents or family members solely because they were undocumented. To do so would violate the child’s best interest, a domestic and international child protection standard.

Research has long shown that family separation has a profound impact on the mental, physical, and educational development of children. It also increases the economic burdens on families with household providers being deported. The non-partisan American Academy of Pediatrics has publicly condemned immigration policies that separate children from families as causing harm and “toxic stress.” Imagine the entire population of the states of Georgia and Maryland living with daily toxic stress, and its impact on those communities.

The administration’s policies also violate both domestic and international laws of a child’s right to not be separated from his or her parents against their will. The Convention on the Rights of the Child, the most universally adopted legal instrument in the world, emphasizes that children, because of their developing bodies and minds, and regardless of “race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national, ethnic or social origin, property, disability, birth or other status” require special protections. Preserving family unity is one of these protections.

Teachers across the country are reporting students missing from classrooms, afraid to leave their home in the wake of reports of increased immigration raids and anti-immigrant rhetoric from the White House. With more states facing foster care shortages, increased deportations of parents will create additional burdens on already overwhelmed state child welfare systems.

In addition to the harm caused to children already living in the U.S., families arriving together at American borders now risk being ripped apart. In December 2017, the Department of Homeland Security introduced a new policy to begin separating parents and children arriving at the border by detaining or deporting parents, and sending their children to governmental facilities across the country.

Advocates and attorneys working with immigrant children and families have filed a complaint in response to recent cases of family separation, including a two year old toddler taken from his father, and a teenager with developmental disabilities separated from his mother and younger siblings at the hands of immigration officials. Statements about “deterrence” and how children will be “treated well” in these locked facilities are a diversion to the greater offense of forcibly separating children from their parents.

If family separation isn’t destructive enough, DHS guidelines implementing Trump’s executive orders take this a punishing step further by imposing criminal sanctions on parents living in the United States who seek to reunite with their arriving children. This disregards the bond between parents and their children, and the desire to keep their children safe.

Children being separated from their parents at the hands of public policies and officials should evoke dark moments in history. Regardless of where one stands on immigration, we should all agree that there is a social value in protecting children, regardless of nationality or immigration status. If you are a proponent for family values, then you cannot support immigration policies that violate fundamental principles of children’s rights and family unity. Instead, we must work together to engage in immigration reform that keeps families together and children safe from harm.

Katherine Kaufka Walts, JD, is the director of the Center for the Human Rights of Children, Loyola University Chicago and a public voices fellow with The OpEd Project.

Tags children Civil law Criminal law DACA Donal dTrump ICE Immigration Immigration and Customs Enforcement Katherine Kaufka Walts Mental health Stress undocumented immigrants

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