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Family Values? U.S. Tears Apart Migrant Families

Some 4.5 million U.S.-citizen children live in families wherein at least one member is an unauthorized migrant. They live under a constant threat that detention and deportation will break up the family.
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Some 4.5 million United States citizen children live in families wherein at least one member is an unauthorized migrant. These families are threatened when parents lack the basic government documents that would allow them to legally drive and secure jobs with benefits and a living wage. They also live under a constant threat that detention and deportation will break up the family.

Consider Mariola Pérez and her 3-year-old son Ernesto. Four years ago, Mariola fled domestic and community violence, racism, and poverty. An indigenous Maya, her personal journey is tied to 36 years of civil war, genocide against the Maya, and ongoing impunity for those accused of gross violations of human rights in her native Guatemala. Mariola was seven months pregnant when she crossed into the U.S. and made her way to the Boston area. Since then she learned English. She is working and preparing for college. Her son, Ernesto, is in preschool and speaks Spanish and English fluently. Born in Massachusetts, he is a U.S. citizen. He is a securely attached child whose mother works hard to ensure that his material, psychosocial and developmental needs are met.

Despite these accomplishments, earlier this month, Mariola was arrested for turning right on a yellow light when returning from her early morning paper route. When she appeared in court, the charge of driving without a license was dismissed but she was turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and ordered to leave the country within 60 days.

Mariola is one of many victims of the 'Secure Communities' (SC) program. Through SC, local police collaborate with ICE, purportedly to deport unauthorized migrants convicted of serious crimes. Despite these intentions, in 2012 alone the program resulted in deportations of nearly 84,000 unauthorized migrants. Half had no criminal conviction or a minor conviction, such as a traffic violation like Mariola's. Thirty-seven percent reported a U.S.-citizen child. SC has fractured these families, forcing parents like Mariola to make Solomonic decisions: Do I leave my U.S.-citizen child in the only country (s)he has ever known, but without my presence and nurturance; or do I uproot her/him to a dangerous environment, jeopardizing my child's health and opportunities, so that we can stay together? Latina mothers are particularly likely to face this dilemma: 93 percent of those arrested through SC are Latino, although Latinos comprise only three quarters of the unauthorized population.

Since 2008, we have collaborated with unauthorized Mayan Guatemalan and Salvadoran parents and their children to better understand their experiences. These families, like Mariola's, are shaped by the legacies of war, genocide, femicide, and extreme poverty. Through participatory and action research we seek to systematize knowledge about the effects of detention and deportation and develop community-based education workshops.

Our findings confirmed two phenomena with which, as psychologists, we are familiar: First, parents' psychological well-being has profound implications on their parenting and on their children's lives. Any parent who has ever felt stressed out by work, finances, childcare challenges, unsafe neighborhoods, or other environmental factors can attest to how these outside stressors impact our ability to be patient, present, and responsive with children. Second, secure attachment -- that is, a child's internalized understanding that a caretaker is dependable, responsive, and consistent -- is essential to a child's development. The unexpected rupture of this attachment relationship contributes to a child's proclivity toward emotional, behavioral, social and cognitive difficulties.

In our research with unauthorized migrants, we found that parents living under the threat of detention described acute anxiety and fear as they left for work each morning, not knowing if they would return to their children at the end of the day. These current responses were exacerbated by histories of war, state-sponsored violence, forced "disappearances" and a resulting culture of silence and mistrust. One mother referred to her experiences during her arrest and subsequent detention as "a second war."

Stressed, anxious, fearful, and vulnerable, parents acknowledged the detrimental effects of their own mental state on their parenting. Again, any parent who has ever been stressed out can relate. Out of desire to protect their children, many parents avoided talking to their children about the threats of deportation, thus leaving children less prepared if the parent was detained. Young children experienced loss of appetite, changes in sleep patterns, anxiety, anger, aggression, withdrawal, and developmental regression in the wake of the parent's sudden and forced removal. One understands why Mariola wants to protect her 3-year-old son from this fate. In the absence of family members to care for him, he might end up in the child welfare system.

On the other hand, if Mariola returns with her U.S.-citizen child to Guatemala, she will uproot him from the only home he has known. They will return to the abusive and dangerous situation she fled four years ago. What "choice" does Mariola really have as a mother trying to provide the best life possible for her son?

While individual children like Ernesto are the primary victims of their parent's detention and/or deportation, entire communities bear the burden. Deportation instills in migrants distrust of anyone assumed to be associated with the government, including police, school personnel, and health and social services professionals. Unauthorized adults who witness or are victims of crimes are reluctant to report these to the police. Unauthorized parents keep their children out of school after hearing reports of arrests. When unauthorized parents are forced to make untenable choices, innocent U.S. citizen children are inadvertently harmed; entire communities live in fear and mistrust of the U.S. government and institutions, and all of our futures are deeply threatened.

M. Brinton Lykes, Ph.D. and Kalina M. Brabeck, Ph.D. are psychologists who teach at the schools of education of Boston College and Rhode Island College, respectively. They collaborate on the Migration and Human Rights Project at Boston College's Center for Human Rights and International Justice.

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