By Joanna Dreby, author of Everyday Illegal: When Policies Undermine Immigrant Families
Over the past eight years of the Obama administration, there has been a record high number of deportations, more than under any other President historically. Researchers have recorded the impacts of such a focus on immigration enforcement, my own contribution documented in the book Everyday Illegal. Men, mostly from Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean have been the primary targets of enforcement actions. Yet men live in families; they have wives and girlfriends and children, many of whom are legal residents or U.S. citizens. Immigration enforcement has torn families apart.
When a parent is deported, a child experiences sudden economic hardship along with the emotional trauma of having the state take away a parent one day to the next. These are the immediate impacts. But what of the aftermath? In some cases spouses or children decide to return to their deported spouses’ country of origin, in many cases forfeiting their rights as U.S. citizens to live freely in this country. In other cases, families live through painful separations and the on-going financial and emotional trauma that entails. The deported face many difficulties in finding employment in countries of origin: they rarely can make enough money to support family members living in the United States.
The consequence of a system that increasingly criminalizes immigrants goes beyond that of those who are the target of enforcement. There are rippling effects. One of those unintended impacts is that the young children in the immigrant families I interviewed often reported that they did not feel comfortable with the word “immigrant.” At times they misused it, telling me that immigrants are people who are “illegal” or “not supposed to be here.” I heard the same thing from unauthorized kids, from kids whose parents were legal permanent residents, and from U.S. citizens; the legal status of children’s own family members mattered, but the rhetoric about immigrants impacted children in all types of families.
Under Donald Trump’s presidency, there are a lot of unknowns. How much of the Obama administration’s policies will remain intact? Will Trump make good on his promises to build a wall? Will he revoke DACA or will it simply expire? Will the deportations increase or stay the course? We do not yet know what changes to immigration policy the new administration will bring.
Yet for children I believe that much damage has already been done. Policies that criminalize immigrants and the rhetoric behind them instill fear in children. It is the fear that a loved one will be taken away or those children’s rights to be in the United States will be questioned because they live in a family of immigrants. We saw these policies under the Obama Administration. And yet Trump’s campaign planted even more seeds of fear in children. This past week, children had their fears legitimized in the form of the Presidency. I expect many of the experiences I documented in Everyday Illegal to become ever more common. But perhaps too young children will also become more bold in confronting those fears in days to come, like 6-year-old Sophie Cruz who told the audience of hundreds of thousands at the Women’s March on Washington, in Spanish and English: “Let us fight with love, faith, and courage so that our families will not be destroyed. I also want to tell the children not to be afraid because we are not alone.”