No need to feel hopeless in fight to end harm to children at the border

No need to feel hopeless in fight to end harm to children at the border
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Many of you may feel helpless like me, as another deadline passes and the government fails miserably in its obligation to reunite parents and children separated at the border. It is heart wrenching to know that with hundreds of parents already deported, some mothers and fathers may face years, if not a lifetime, apart from their children.

Amidst the many accounts of children caustically and inhumanely detained by our government, a story emerged of a father and his toddler son, both U.S. citizens, who could have been mistakenly separated for more than a year in the enforcement of “zero tolerance.” The ACLU pointed out that “mistakes” like these by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency happen more often than we realize.

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The shocking incompetence of the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Health and Human Services, along with ICE, have led to loud calls across the country to abolish ICE. But if you care about how our policies terrorize immigrant families, you may need to look no further than your own state or local government.

The federal government has traditionally been responsible for immigration policy. In the last decade, however, states have also become more assertive and increased restrictions on unauthorized immigrants. The number of state level laws and resolutions related to immigration spiked tenfold in the last decade with an average of 300 laws and resolutions enacted each year between 2006 and 2015. Children who are U.S. citizens are caught up in the consequences of these policies. Of the 17 million children in the United States with one or more foreign born parents, nearly 87 percent are citizens.

Intensifying immigration enforcement contributes to fear and mistrust, leading many immigrants to avoid interactions with government programs and services. This “chilling effect” has deterred immigrant parents from obtaining basic nutrition and medical benefits for their eligible children, including many children who are citizens. Many of these children are not getting early medical care and vaccinations that reduce childhood and infant mortality. Research definitively shows the harms of impeding these early supports to childhood development, including worse test scores and increased grade repetition, school dropout, and incarceration.

There are also more direct harms. One egregious policy has kept citizen children from accessing a fundamental Fourteenth Amendment right to their birth certificates. Starting in 2010, Texas enforced a policy through its department of health services that made access to the birth certificate of a citizen child contingent on the type of document an immigrant parent could present to confirm their relationship. Those born in the United States are citizens with the constitutional right to a birth certificate.

My research shows how this policy was targeted disproportionately at border counties, and how denying this basic civil right for citizen children kept them from accessing early child nutrition benefits, health care, child care, and school enrollment. Heartbreakingly, one mother I spoke with, who had no official proof of her relationship to her citizen child, was afraid to travel with her ill infant daughter to get her a life saving surgery.

Thankfully, in October 2015, the Texas Civil Rights Project asked a federal court to force the state to stop enforcing this policy. The state of Texas agreed to settle the lawsuit in July 2016 and thereafter expanded the types of documents parents can use to get birth certificates for their children born in the United States.

But since then, other states have proposed or adopted similar legislation, including Tennessee where I reside, to ban forms of identification that immigrants commonly use. When I offered to testify based on my research to the potentially serious harms this bill could have for citizen children, I was advised not to because “some of the more hateful members of the House committee would see the negatives I pointed out as positives.”

As witnesses to the horrors of “zero tolerance” policies, we do not have to feel powerless to stop lasting harms to families. It is now time to pour the same outrage and scrutiny into other public policies that are harming children of immigrants, including citizen children, in our own backyards.

Carolyn J. Heinrich, Ph.D., is the Patricia and Rodes Hart professor at Vanderbilt University and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network.