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Immigration rights activists take part in a rally in front of the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC on November 12, 2019. (Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

 Immigration rights activists take part in a rally in front of the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC on November 12, 2019. (Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

Dreamers' Children: Up to 200,000 American Kids Could be Left Parentless

In his continued attacks on DACA and TPS beneficiaries, Trump aims to create a dramatic influx of children into the child welfare system.

Robin Valenzuela

In 2013, undocumented immigrant Alicia Chávez (not her real name) was arrested by Border Patrol and deported to Mexico, leaving her four American-born daughters with their father. Shortly after, Alicia received alarming news: her two youngest daughters, aged 10 and 12, had been abused by their father, and Child Protective Services had placed them with a foster family. Though Alicia fought to regain custody of her daughters from Mexico, her lack of money and resources presented insurmountable barriers; reluctantly, she forfeited her parental rights.  Her daughters remained in the U.S. child welfare system.

Alicia’s story exposes a significant yet overlooked consequence of immigrant deportation—the influx of their American children into state care.  As the Trump administration continues its efforts to purge the nation of immigrants, already overburdened Child Protective Service organizations nationwide will feel the strain. In fact, the U.S. government started reopening deportation cases for DACA recipients in ahead of this summer’s official DACA ruling from the Supreme Court. And now, Trump continues to try to shut down the program, flouting the rule of law. 

These decisions affect hundreds of thousands. More than a quarter of the nation’s 660,000 DACA recipients have at least one U.S. citizen child. While today’s surprise decision by the court to protect DACA recipients means that these 200,000 American kids and their families are temporarily protected, no permanent measures are in place to ensure that these children won’t be left parentless in the future. In addition, Honduran, Salvadoran and Haitian immigrants with Temporary Protected Status (TPS) have an estimated 273,000 U.S citizen children. The White House wants TPS holders deported, too.

Once a parent is deported, the odds of family reunification are slim. As a cultural anthropologist, I have worked closely with governmental institutions in Illinois and Mexico that oversee cases like Alicia’s.  Their records indicate that over 130 Mexican and Mexican-American children in state custody in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Northern Indiana between 2005 and 2016 experienced the deportation of a parent or caretaker.  Less than 10 percent of those children were reunified with their deported parent.  A similar situation could play out nationwide if the government finds another way to strip the temporary relief that DACA and TPS protections currently have.

 We know from cases like that of Daniel Ramirez Medina, which drew national attention in 2017, that DACA recipients with no criminal record may be unexpectedly swept up in immigration raids and detained for months at a time. In the absence of a legal guardian, CPS takes custody and places children in a group home or with foster parents, both of which are taxpayer subsidized. Though CPS may attempt to involve parents in their children’s case, doing so can prove impossible.  Parents in detention, like Alicia, are often denied the opportunity to participate in CPS cases.  Given the lack of communication between ICE and CPS agencies, parents may also be difficult to locate, especially following their deportation. Even in the best of circumstances, where CPS formally agrees to collaborate with local consulates to reunify families transnationally, the process is both time-consuming and complicated. 

Even if children do have an appointed legal guardian to care for them, the trauma of parental separation is significant—and costly. Research has shown that kids often experience mental health problems, substance abuse issues, and ongoing socioeconomic instability, all of which frequently prompt further interventions by CPS and other social service agencies. Last summer, for instance, nearly 700 workers were detained following massive ICE raids at seven Mississippi food processing plants.  In their wake, local CPS agencies and school officials scrambled to assist the hundreds of children left parentless.  One local school reported that 25 percent of its students stopped showing up for class overnight.

Though some parents may have time to prepare for their deportation, the process can still be overwhelming.  In addition to securing their children’s dual nationality, travel documents, and school enrollment abroad, parents must also prepare their children psychologically. Children transitioning into new cultures, new schools, new social networks, and possibly a new language commonly experience a range of emotions and setbacks. Not only do parents have to navigate their own complicated “return” to a home country most have never known, they must also manage their children’s distress.    

Crises like this one will only increase should Trump terminate important immigration relief programs. In his continued attacks on DACA and TPS beneficiaries, Trump aims to create a dramatic influx of children into the child welfare system. Not only will this be costly for taxpayers, it will add even more cases to the already overburdened caseloads of CPS workers nationwide. 

This path, which cripples the very institutions designed to protect our country’s most vulnerable members, will never amount to the “bill of love” Trump once promised.  Truly valuing our nation’s children and child welfare institutions means supporting permanent immigration relief for DACA and TPS recipients and their families.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Robin Valenzuela

Robin Valenzuela is a doctoral candidate in cultural anthropology at Indiana University.

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