Fear and insecurity shape the lives of children whose parents are undocumented

Photo by Sophia Nahli Allison

There was a girl in fifth grade I didn’t entirely like, and she didn’t like me, either. Angelina was plucky, full of confidence and certain of her alliances and opinions. I was in fifth grade courtesy of an overcrowded fourth grade, and while academically capable of holding my own, I was socially outclassed by the likes of this Mexico-born, brown-haired girl who knew her own mind.

As Angelina’s laughter and joy filled the space around her, so did her sorrow. One fall morning, she showed up to class in tears. Her grandmother, with whom she lived a block away from where we stood on a playground covered in tiny gray pebbles, had been taken away by immigration authorities.

That was a long time ago. But today, immigrant families increasingly face the same insecurity and vulnerability Angelina did in a United States so polarized we can’t see the humanity in our neighbors. While certain communities of interest grasp the implications of mass incarceration and advocate to punish what’s truly criminal, immigration enforcement has taken on an ominous tone: “Crimmigration” is what a just-released Annie E. Casey Foundation report calls the intersection of criminal and immigration law.

The Race for Results report underscores the stakes for the well-being of children in America, and the fate of immigrant children factors mightily in our progress or lack thereof: “For the estimated five million children whose parents are undocumented, their parents’ immigration status threatens the stability of their families. It also threatens their freedom.”

Those children, like non-immigrant low-income and children of color, need unfettered access to early childhood education, culturally competent K-12 learning opportunities and parents who earn a living wage, say $15 an hour. No child, despite the status of his or her paperwork, should go hungry or fear their parents or guardians could be there one minute, like Angelina’s, and gone the next.

Absent parents who’ve been ensnared by Immigration and Customs Enforcement can send whole families into a financial free fall, as a single parent may be a main income source, the report says. Children often end up in foster care.

While the U.S. government has been consistent in guarding the border and following up on state and local law enforcement requests to apprehend certain individuals, the workaday lives of undocumented immigrants who don’t fit the white default have been turned topsy-turvy by fear of overly harsh criminal justice tactics since President Donald Trump took office.

If humanity matters at all, the goal must be to keep families together, the Casey report suggests. Most children of undocumented immigrants are citizens themselves: Of 18 million children growing up in immigrant families, more than 88 percent are U.S. citizens, and 84 percent are youth of color. In Illinois, 780,000 children live in immigrant families: Latino children comprise 57 percent; 20 percent are white; 16 percent are Asian/Pacific Islander; 4 percent are black, and 3 percent are of two or more races.

And while those concerned with the letter of the law make a strong legalistic point, the truth is U.S. immigration law has always been massaged to accommodate white supremacist notions of who belongs and who doesn’t.

The Chinese Exclusion Acts of the late 1800s aimed to keep Chinese immigrants at bay. And the Casey report also reminds us of how the U.S. Congress in 1964 canceled the Bracero program used to recruit 4.6 million Mexican agricultural guest workers over 20 years, forcing many to return here as undocumented workers. The irony is, much of the Southwest was originally part of Mexico — so how are you going to kick folks out of their ancestral home?

Like every other U.S. policy that works for some, typically the white majority, but not all (think: voting rights, education funding, policing, criminal sentencing, housing segregation, mortgage loans), the rules must be changed to serve the whole. Our country’s immigration problems represent another one of those structural fixes we desperately need right away.

There’s a financial case for doing so because structurally speaking, the United States gets an economic boost from second-generation immigrants, according to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. Admittedly, the first generation creates costs, primarily to local and state governments; but the second generation creates $30.5 billion, and subsequent generations create $223.8 billion for the U.S. economy.

“In the coming years,” the Casey Foundation report states, “immigration will be the primary source of labor force growth in an increasingly aging population.”

The lack of reform action is hurting a generation of children of immigrants, who deserve the right to grow up in a healthy environment like every other child. Families are afraid to go to school, church, work or even drive. And the 800,000 young people previously protected by the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy are being traumatized daily by an unknown future.

“Research by the Urban Institute and Migration Policy Institute suggests that parents tend to leave their older American-citizen children here when they are deported, knowing that life in their native countries can be difficult or even dangerous and that their kids will have better education and economic opportunities by remaining in the United States,” according to the Casey report.

As a girl whose quilt-making and cornbread-baking grandmothers played a starring role in my life, my 9-year-old self was afraid for Angelina’s grandma. That day as we girls stood in a circle, chilled by mid-morning fall air —and fear — the older ones consoled her, cradling her in their arms. Where would Angelina go after school? Are the immigration people at her house waiting to grab her, too?

Soon, we got the answer.

Our principal, Miss Cole, a statuesque woman known for blowing a whistle tattooed with the remnants of milky-pink lipstick, confirmed what Angelina had told us. Then she gingerly held out her perfectly manicured light-brown hand and took Angelina away, too.

We never saw Angelina again.

I never got to match my growing confidence with hers. I’ve often hoped the trauma of being torn from her grandmother, then expelled from a place that clearly gave her joy, didn’t squelch her out-sized confidence. Wherever Angelina landed, I hope she never lost the will to confront the world with an expectation of joy and friendship.