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  • Children in the Aftermath of Immigration Enforcement
  • Ajay Chaudry (bio)

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Jim West Photography, "Detroit, Michigan. Demonstrators march in front of the immigration and naturalization service office to protest INS raids to deport undocumented immigrants. A girl carries a sign asking 'why do you hate me? Porque odias a mi gente?'" [End Page 138]

©Jim West,,

One of the most critical contemporary issues affecting children in the United States today centers on what is happening to many of them in the wake of sharply increased immigration enforcement at the national and state levels. This issue is closely tied to the very contentious immigration issues facing the United States today and particularly the question of how to reform immigration policies to curb or otherwise address unauthorized immigration.1 Debates rage about control of the border, sovereignty and the rule of law, the economic contributions of immigrants to the economy, job competition, wage impacts, tax payments, and fiscal costs of immigrants; however, largely absent from the discussion are the children of immigrants and the ways that they are affected by immigration enforcement activities. As of 2009, there were an estimated 5.1 million children (more than seven percent of all children living in the United States) who had unauthorized immigrant parents, and nearly eighty percent of these children were U.S.-born citizens.2

This article summarizes key findings from a recent report, Facing Our Future: Children in the Aftermath of Immigration Enforcement, published by The Urban Institute, that focuses on families that experienced the arrest of at least one parent in an immigration enforcement action.3 A brief background discussion regarding children of unauthorized immigrants and immigration enforcement is followed by a description of the study. The article then highlights the main findings related to family separation, family well-being, parental mental health, and child behavior from family and community interviews conducted in six study sites in 2008 and 2009. The article concludes with a very brief discussion of the implications of the study findings.


Immigration continues to engender fierce debates at the national and local level in the United States, with much of the attention revolving around unauthorized [End Page 139] immigrants living in the country. The number of unauthorized immigrants rose from fewer than five million in 1990 to an estimated 11.1 million in 2009. They comprise approximately thirty percent of the overall foreign-born population and 3.6 percent of the country's total population. Children of immigrants are often invisible in the portraits of the unauthorized immigrant population. Approximately 1.1 million of the 11.1 million unauthorized immigrants in the country are children. There are an additional four million U.S.-born children of unauthorized immigrant parents who live in what are termed "mixed-status" families, where some members of the family are legal U.S. citizens (most often children) and at least one member is an unauthorized immigrant (most often an adult parent).4

U.S. Immigration Enforcement Activities in Recent Years

From 1996—when President Clinton signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Responsibility Act (IIRRA)5 into law—until 2005, annual removals (or deportations) averaged about 180,000.6 Since 2006, the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has deported a rising number of immigrants, from nearly 230,000 in 2006 to 390,000 in 2009.7 A recent DHS report estimated that over 100,000 parents with U.S. citizen children were deported over a recent ten year period8—likely an underestimate since many parents do not divulge the presence of children after their arrest.

Immigration enforcement takes place primarily along the southwestern border with Mexico, but during the period since 2006 it has also increased across the interior United States.9 During our study period (2006-08), ICE increased worksite raids, arrests by fugitive operations teams (FOTs),10 and removals of immigrants who had been arrested by state and local police officers participating in the federal 287(g) program.11 Although there have been some significant policy changes under the Obama administration, the overall pace of arrests and deportations continues unabated.12

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