Children are collateral damage in battle against illegal immigration

Children are collateral damage in battle against illegal immigration
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“Unconstitutional.” This is what a federal district court judge said last week of efforts by Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsCongress is going to make marijuana moves Trump throws support behind criminal justice bill Bill to protect Mueller blocked in Senate MORE to penalize “sanctuary cities” in the United States for failure to fully cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Still, states like Tennessee are rolling out their own laws that require local authorities to cooperate with ICE in detaining and removing undocumented immigrants.

In the ongoing wrangling across different levels of government over control of immigration policy, we typically hear very little about the collateral damage experienced by children. Regardless of how you feel about the unauthorized parents, you should care about the children living with them, 80 percent of whom are American citizens.

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Let me make the devastating consequences vivid with the example of an immigrant mother in Tennessee who has been detained in another southern state for months since being turned over to ICE. Left behind are her four citizen children and one older child, a recipient of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). They have not seen their mother since she was moved nearly a 1,000 miles away.

If you knew him, you would be proud of her oldest son. He came to the United States with his parents at about age two from Central America. He graduated as the valedictorian of his high school class in Tennessee and dreams of becoming a doctor. But it has not been easy. He received a scholarship to college in recognition of his academic excellence, but soon learned that DACA students must pay out of state tuition in Tennessee. He thought he could reduce his course load to afford the tuition but was forced to forfeit his scholarship as a result. Still, he is working hard to balance two jobs with his studies and stay on track toward his goals.

Moreover, he has new responsibilities trying to help his family navigate the legal and financial morass of the pending deportation of his mother. His teenage brother and father alternate working to continue supporting the family and caring for the younger children. One elementary age sibling has a disability that usually requires full time care from the mother. Another sibling is preschool age. Most distressing, the youngest was just eight months old and nursing when the mother was ripped away. As a mother who nursed all three of my children past age one, I cannot fathom the pain this has inflicted. It is keeping me awake at night.

In fact, neuroscientists and child psychologists have provided clear evidence that separation like this leads to major trauma for both mother and infant. It could even mean lasting damage to child development. Then there are the extreme financial burdens. The family must try to provide the legal support required to help their mother stay here. Most of their income has gone to hiring an attorney and meeting the demands of the grinding legal process. The loss of the primary care provider for the children also means other adults in the family are not able to work as much. All of this derails the education and career plans of the teenage son.

These children are either citizens or are here legally. They are as deserving of opportunities to pursue their dreams and contribute to society as any of us. Their success is our success. But we are stomping on their dreams and impeding their potential. We will ultimately be responsible for the consequences. Just take a look at what the eldest son of this family has accomplished, despite the obstacles thrown down on his path. This is just one measure of the costs of harsh treatment of immigrants in our country. There is no number that could adequately capture the human costs to this family. I hope this also keeps you up tonight after reading this.

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