Debates about immigration policies and reform continue to rage. Consequently, op-ed pieces, books, and reports on this contentious topic appear daily. These materials focus mostly on the legal and ethical battles surrounding raids on immigrant work places and homes, as well as the treatment of immigrants while in custody and during deportation. My limited writing on this topic has treated the xenophobic-inspired murder of Ecuadorian immigrant Marcello Lucero in Suffolk County, New York, and the infamous "illegal alien" costume debacle of this past Halloween. Absent from my writings on immigration (as well as in those of others) is any mention of the children of immigrants.
Thankfully, filling this void is a recent report issued by The Urban Institute titled Facing Our Future: Children in the Aftermath of Immigration Enforcement. The report thoroughly examines the effects of family separation on children due to the arrest, detention, and deportation of their parents. Facing Our Future is invaluable for bringing the plight and resiliency of these children to light.
In the report's Executive Summary, the writers state, "Today there are an estimated 5.5 million children with unauthorized immigrant parents, about three-quarters of whom are U.S.-born citizens." The report also mentions that "the federal government spends billions each year to arrest, detain, and deport immigrants, many of whom are parents. By one estimate, in the last 10 years, more than 100,000 immigrant parents of U.S. citizen children have been deported from the United States." Since the numbers often cloud the personal narratives of those involved, the report closely examines the effects of immigration enforcement on "190 children in 85 families in six locations across the country."
Even before reading the report, I knew that all these broken homes could only result in disaster. One of the six locations the report focuses on is the Little Haiti neighborhood in my hometown of Miami, FL, where "a wave of sweeps by FOTs and other enforcement activities" has occurred, but now "appear to have begun to decline." Since Haitians are not granted asylum or temporary protected status (as are Cubans), unauthorized Haitians residing in Little Haiti could be arrested and deported at any time, even if they have lived and worked in the community for years.
The U.S.-born children of Haitian immigrants constantly live in fear and anxiety at the prospect that authorities could, at any moment, arrest and deport their parents, older siblings, extended family, and friends. The children also live in economic insecurity, for their parents have difficulty finding living wages and/or were deported. Thus, it is no surprise that, according to the report, "Haitians in Miami-Dade County had a poverty rate of 30 percent, and the overall population of Little Haiti had a poverty rate of 44 percent in 2000." Moreover, the report claims that children of immigrants also face housing instability, food shortages, and difficulties in school. On a brighter note, however, the report states, "In several cases students who had struggled at first recovered their academic performance or saw improvements in the long run." Even in the face of seemingly insurmountable adversity, these children demonstrate their resiliency and hope in a better world.
Having worked for two years at a high school in Little Haiti where most of the students are sons and daughters of Haitian immigrants, I witnessed the adverse consequences of poverty and broken homes on my students. Perhaps in an attempt to dull their painful reality or simply to survive on the mean streets, some were attracted to crime, drugs, and alcohol. Many had to work full-time and part-time, forcing their studies to take a back seat. And some even dropped out of school because of financial strains. Others sought to improve their lot by focusing on their studies in the hope of one day strolling the halls of our nation's most prestigious universities.
Facing Our Future: Children in the Aftermath of Immigration Enforcement highlights these economic, psychological, and emotional challenges confronting children of immigrants. The report elicits in the reader both sadness and hope. Above all, it reminds us that in our immigration debates, we can no longer disregard the well-being of children of immigrants. If society is judged by how we treat the most vulnerable, then hopefully we will consider the harmful effects of broken homes on children of immigrants -- and, in fact, on all children.
In sum, life for many children of immigrants is neither easy nor pleasant. It is a constant struggle to balance the many responsibilities that even some adults do not face. Yet several of them do swing and hit life's unfair curve balls and continue their education at the community colleges, technical/vocational schools, and universities. My favorite time of the school year was graduation, when proud family members would share in their children's triumph. In remembering all those who did not make it, it was also the saddest time for me.
César J. Baldelomar is a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School. He is also the executive director of Pax Romana Center for International Study of Catholic Social Teaching. You can visit César at his Web site (www.cesarjb.org) and read his blogs at www.holisticthoughts.com.