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Deportation fears among children of undocumented immigrants

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  March 1, 2013 01:00 PM

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It is no doubt hard for people with secure citizenship to understand what life is like in America for undocumented immigrants—there’s just not a lot of overlap between the two kinds of lives. However, a recent study out of the University of Albany translates across the gap by highlighting a universal experience: The fears children have of losing their parents.

Sociologist Joanna Dreby interviewed 91 immigrant parents and 110 children in New Jersey and Ohio. Most of the children were U.S.-born citizens; about one-third were undocumented. Dreby asked all of them to talk about how the specter of deportation affected their everyday lives.

At the beginning of the article, which was published in August in the Journal of Marriage and Family, Dreby points out that as of 2011, “5,100 U.S. children were living in foster care after a parent’s detention or deportation.” This is the most extreme consequence deportation can have for children and it’s relatively uncommon given that there are more than 4 million U.S.-born children with undocumented parents. But, Dreby argues that even when deportation doesn’t have the dramatic effect of breaking up a family, the threat of it still powerfully shapes children’s lives.

Driving features prominently in many deportation stories. In Ohio, Dreby reports that “stories of deportations often started with arrests for minor traffic infractions” (whereas in New Jersey, for unexplained reasons, she says deportation is instigated more often by “severe” offenses like DUI). The children Dreby interviewed were aware of this reality, and one mother told Dreby that she knows her nine-year-old son thinks a lot about his family’s legal status because:

When we are in the van he puts on his seat belt and he checks on the other [4-year-old brother] in his car seat . . . or he sees a police and he says [to his brother], 'Here comes the police, sit good.’

Dreby found that those kinds of fears were pervasive for the kids she interviewed. She tells the story of an 11-year-old girl who reported being afraid for years in school that she’d be asked for her social security number. And when Dreby asked a 6-year-old girl whether she ever felt scared because her parents are immigrants, the girl answered, “[Yes], because if I am here and my mom goes to Mexico I am going to be sad because I would miss her.’’

To some extent, the comments Dreby recorded are not all that surprising. It's not surprising that children of undocumented immigrants would feel skittish around the police, and it's familiar that a six-year-old would feel sad at the thought of her mom having to go away. But maybe the familiarity is the point.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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