Opinion: The High Price of Immigration Enforcement Without Immigration Reform

Hard-line immigration policies have not only devastated and separated families but have also begun to shape family life for entire communities with immigrants in a very negative way, be they undocumented or not.

Apart from deportations ripping families apart, their looming threat is affecting the way children think about their heritage and whether they could live up to the American Dream. In the end, especially as demographics continue to evolve, the U.S. as a whole will suffer the consequences of immigration policies that do not create a pathway for people to contribute and become productive U.S. citizens.

Today, a total of 16.6 million people live in mixed-status families with at least one undocumented immigrant, and a whopping 45 percent of undocumented immigrants live in a family with a minor child. In the majority of cases, these families contain unauthorized parents and native-born, citizen children.

To see how our recent ramp-up in immigration enforcement is affecting these families, Joanna Dreby, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Albany, conducted a rare ethnographic study of in-depth interviews with 110 children and 91 parents on the very sensitive subject of their immigrant experience in a newly released report by the Center for American Progress.

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Most of the respondents were part of Mexican immigrant households in New Jersey and Ohio. The groundbreaking research found common threads of experiences with wide ramifications. The two locations of study have drastically different contexts, which indicate that the results are likely true in other places across the country.

In both contexts, the study found, children live in constant fear of losing a parent because of immigration enforcement, while parents fear losing their children if they themselves are detained and deported. Immigration enforcement also results in increased rates of single mothers, left behind by their deported partners, who struggle to make ends meet.

Children living in families that have been ripped apart are burdened with the uncertainty of not knowing where their next meal will come from and whether they will ever see their deported parent again. Other children end up in foster care after the detention or deportation of one of their parents.

According to the Applied Research Center's recent "Shattered Families" report, more than 5,000 children around the country currently in foster care have parents who have been detained or deported. That is 1.25 percent of the children in foster care as a whole, but in the next five years, at least 15,000 more children will face these same threats if our heavy-handed immigration enforcement system is not halted.

Moreover, because undocumented immigrants live side by side and in the same communities as authorized immigrants and citizens, the effects of harsh immigration policies reverberate beyond families that directly experience a deportation. Dreby's research finds that the knowledge alone that deportations are occurring in one's community puts children and families — and thus entire communities — on edge.

Children grow up learning to associate police with immigration officials, making them afraid to interact with law enforcement personnel, Dreby finds. 

Bill Flores, a retired San Diego County assistant sheriff described how collaboration between police and Immigration and Customs Enforcement is problematic because, it is "the antithesis to community-oriented policing."¦ It's the kind of relationship that makes this segment of the community reluctant to call or come forward as a witness of a crime."

Children should not be afraid of the police. It's simply a bad association to make at such an early age, and one that will lead to less safe communities in the future.

Also as a result of heavy immigration enforcement, even young children equate "immigrant" with illegal status, Dreby found, and they stigmatize their own immigrant heritage.

The study suggests that our current immigration enforcement policies will hurt the U.S. in the long run. As a result we lose the talent of native-born children who are deported because they avoid family separation. To reform such policies, we must implement more commonsense and comprehensive immigration policies that provide a road map to earned citizenship and can grant security to mixed-status families and their communities.

Other legislative fixes could ameliorate some of the harm until broader reform is enacted--laws such as legislation proposed by Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., and Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., the Humane Enforcement and Legal Protections for Separated Children Act, which would mandate standards for immigration enforcement when children are involved; or the Help Separated Families Act, proposed by Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif.,which would ensure that children are not taken away from relatives due to a parent's status.

In the short term, the Obama administration should continue its efforts to better prioritize enforcement resources and not focus on removing immigrant parents who have not committed crimes and are guilty only of the civil offense of not having documents. They should be permitted to remain in the U.S. to raise their citizen children.

Our nation is one built by immigrants. Family unity is both a cornerstone of our immigration policy and a basic moral tenet of our society. Immigration enforcement will be better accomplished by targeting those who mean us harm rather than those who want to be woven into the complex fabric that is America.

Laura Pereyra is a press associate at the Center for American Progress. 

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