Recent news suggests the House may fail to act this year on comprehensive immigration reform. As advocates for children, we urge House members on both sides of the aisle not to miss this opportunity to change a system that harms children every day.
Today’s immigration law “devalues” children, as Michigan State Law School Professor David Thronson wrote this year. It treats children as objects, instead of people with rights and a say in their own lives. Not surprisingly, when children interact with the system, the outcomes are often not good.
For example, when children enter the United States alone, these “unaccompanied” children must face the same consequences as adults before an immigration court, often without legal representation. And a person inadmissible to the U.S. can qualify for relief by showing hardship to a U.S. citizen spouse or other close adult relative, but the law systematically ignores the same hardship to a U.S. citizen child.
Similar double standards for deportation routinely subject kids to harm by ignoring the common-sense reality that children experience traumatic separation in more damaging and lasting ways than adults.
The consequences of this disregard for our children are devastating. Recently, during slightly more than two years, the federal government issued removal orders for more than 200,000 parents of U.S. citizen children — that’s 250 parents every day. Each deportation means children’s lives are overturned, as they are forced to either move to a country they’ve never known or face the trauma of losing a parent.
Research also shows that a parent’s detention or deportation harms a child’s mental and physical health, education, economic security and access to food. And these fears are a constant companion for 5.5 million children in mixed immigration status families, 4.5 million of whom are U.S. citizens.
An estimated 5,000 children with a detained or deported parent are currently living in our states’ overworked, under-resourced foster care systems. A new Immigration and Customs Enforcement policy, known as the Parental Interest Directive, has the potential to mitigate the harm they suffer. But only immigration reform can stop the needless deportations and provide the stability and security children need to grow and thrive.
About 1 million unauthorized immigrant children, known as DREAMers, are also growing up in our schools and communities. The Homeland Security Department’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals process has provided hundreds of thousands of DREAMers with a temporary means to finally come out of the shadows and pursue their dreams. But only immigration reform can deliver a chance for them and their families to become citizens of the country they call home.
Children, citizen and noncitizen alike, need immigration reform that addresses the full range of challenges they face. Reform that works for kids must include a path to citizenship that ends children’s fear of a parent’s deportation, as well as a strong DREAM Act. It must include systemic improvements that avoid unnecessary foster care placements and reforms — as basic as making a phone call to arrange child care — that would help kids affected by immigration enforcement stay with their family. And it must offer improved protections for unaccompanied children who arrive in the United States without a parent to care for them, as well as policy changes that would give kids the same standing as adults in waiver cases based on hardship to a family member.
The Senate bill delivers on all of these fronts and more. The House may well, to quote Speaker John A. Boehner, “work its will” in a different way, and that way may also deliver what children need.
Lacking the will to do the work now, while the opportunity is before the House, is unacceptable. Reform is an urgent priority for kids, because every day we delay means more denials, more deportations, more foster care placements and more families torn apart.
We urge members of both parties in the House to commit to finishing the job. Confront the tragedies children experience every day under current law, and contribute to a debate that has the potential to reflect our nation’s family values and advance our national interest in the success of every child.
Wendy Cervantes is the director of the First Focus Center for the Children of Immigrants.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.