The Child Left Behind

Studies conducted by the Migration Policy Institute and the Urban Institute show that deportation of a parent has a dramatic effect on the child, similar to when a child’s parent goes to prison. Washington Times reporter, Lydia DePillis, wrote:

The Obama administration has already expelled about 3.7 million people who were living here illegally between 2009 and 2013. While the pace of deportations has slowed dramatically, with a shift in enforcement towards weeding out those who have actually committed crimes in America, the Migration Policy Institute estimates that several hundred thousand children have either one or no parents in America as a result. And 5.3 million children are still living with unauthorized parents, constantly under threat of losing one or both.

We’re just starting to understand the impact that losing a mother — or, much more often, a father — can have on those kids’ development.

A pair of reports issued Monday paint a broad picture of how kids have been affected by deportations in the past several years. Both were funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and conducted by the Migration Policy Institute and the Urban Institute, with help from research and input from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The first, a survey of smaller-scale studies conducted on unauthorized immigrant families, shows that the effects of losing a parent to deportation are basically the same as what happens when a parent goes to prison: Kids can become homeless, bounce around to different family members, lose focus in school, and undergo long-lasting psychological trauma. One study found that family income dropped by 70 percent in the six months following a deportation, and one quarter of families in that situation reported going hungry.

The second, a synthesis of field work at study sites in California, Florida, Texas, South Carolina, and Illinois, found all of those impacts — and also identified gaps in social services that are ill-equipped to handle the special needs of children whose families have been ruptured by immigration rules.

“Study participants reported that children refused to eat, pulled out their hair, or had persistent stomachaches or headaches,” the authors write. “Others turned to more self-destructive outlets such as cutting themselves or abusing substances.”

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Mexican Kids Repatriated Without a Hearing

When children come into the United States without a parent or guardian, the United States has some responsibility to figure out why they came, whether they are in a human-trafficking situation, and whether they would be in danger if they are returned to their native country. As a result, the law treats unaccompanied children differently than adult immigrants. Instead of being immediately sent back to their country, minors are put in deportation proceedings so that a judge will decide. Minors are supposed to be put in the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement within 72 hours, where they are held in child-friendly detention facilities until they can be released to a family member who will take them to their immigration court dates.

All of these rights apply to “unaccompanied minors” who cross the Mexican border UNLESS the minor is Mexican. Why is it any different for Mexican children than children coming from Central America or some other part of the world?

According to the Mexican Foreign Ministry, 13,454 Mexican children were sent back to Mexico last year, most of them without ever going before an immigration judge. Whereas a child from another part of the world has an immigration judge determine his fate, a Mexican child’s fate is determined by a border patrol agency. This is because of an agreement between the United States and Mexico and implemented by local agreements along the border.  According to the Women’s Refugee Commission, only about 10% of Mexican children are ever transferred to the Department of Health and Human Services custody. As a result, the border is a revolving door for Mexican teens that cross and are returned to Mexico multiple times without any understanding of their reasons for fleeing Mexico or their possibilities for staying legally in the United States.

The Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 was supposed to address this issue by providing screenings of the Mexican children who cross the border. The Appleseed report Children of the Border: The Screening, Protection and Repatriation of Unaccompanied Mexican Minors found that the problem was who was doing the screenings, where and how they were being conducted. Uniformed, armed Border Patrol agents conduct screenings of Mexican children. The border patrol agents receive little or no training in how to interview traumatized children. The children are held in cold cells, they are not given much food, and they lack sufficient medical treatment. They are interviewed within sight and hearing of other adults (even the smugglers). It is extremely unlikely this situation will lead to a child disclosing abuse, prostitution, or a trafficking situation.

As a result, screenings are not filtering out Mexican children who might qualify for immigration benefits. Appleseed recommends that these screenings should be conducted instead by social workers, or at least the border patrol agents should have forms and guidance on how to interview children about sensitive issues. Not all Mexican children will or even should qualify to stay in the United States legally. However, every child should be properly screened before they are sent back to a possibly abusive or dangerous situation. All children deserve this protection, no matter what country they are from.