We Are Harming Millions of US Citizen Children in Mixed-Status Families (OPINION)

Apr 18, 2023
5:51 PM

Lucia Ajas, middle, talks about her and her children, Regina Vargas, 7, left, Akemi Vargas, 8, second from left, and Trinidad Vargas, 5, right, being separated from their father during an immigration family separation protest in front of the Sandra Day O’Connor U.S. District Court building, Monday, June 18, 2018, in Phoenix, Arizona. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)


In the U.S., more than 22 million people live in what researchers at FWD.us call “mixed-status households,” where undocumented people live with U.S. citizens, green card holders, or lawful temporary immigrants.

Though almost 90 percent of children in immigrant families are U.S.-born citizens, nearly 40 percent have only noncitizen parents, which includes undocumented parents. In fact, almost  six million children have at least one caregiver who lacks documentation.

In such mixed-status families, there exists a perpetual fear of deportation. Children face a daily reality —a daily threat— of separation from parents and caretakers, fearing their loved ones’ detention and deportation.

Last year, Immigration and Customs Enforcement made 143,000 arrests and deported 72,000 people, an increase from the previous year’s 74,000 arrests and 59,000 deportations, which have an overlooked impact on families living in the U.S., particularly on children. Separation resulting from the apprehension, detention, or deportation of a parent frequently contributes to suffering in children’s mental health, physical health, and psychological well-being.

A 2010 study examined 190 children in 85 immigrant families in which at least one parent was deported and discovered that many of these children endured behavioral shifts in eating and sleeping habits, experienced emotional changes such as sadness, anxiety, anger, aggression, fearfulness, and withdrew socially for a substantial period following the separation. The associated psychological and social trauma, as well as the resulting housing instability and trouble at school, can have life-long impacts.

This sparks questions about the experience of citizenship for so many children in the United States facing government-instigated trauma and pain. In theory, to be a citizen is to enjoy full and equal belonging in your country. Yet, in this as in so many other respects, U.S. citizenship does not protect all children equally.

As it enforces an exclusionary immigration policy through detentions and deportations, the U.S. government is penalizing children for their parents’ non-legal statuses and subjecting these children to deeply damaging changes. This projects an implicit message to citizen children from mixed-status families that, to the U.S. government, they are less worthy of physiological and psychological protections due to their parents’ non-legal statuses.

Further, the impacts of parental detention and deportation inform these American children’s interpretation of the U.S. as exclusionary, violent, and family-rupturing. This experience of the threat of violence against family devalues citizenship as a whole, especially for young people who grow up experiencing constant tension between their birthrights of family and country.

This is an ongoing moral failure on the U.S. government’s part, repeated every time any child is separated from his or her parents. It is a failure of inflicting deep pain on children, whose lives are scarred by our policies and structures.

As we envision much-overdue immigration reform, the government must center its policies on the fundamental protection of children and ensure that children’s health, development, and well-being are prioritized above all. This can and should look like the U.S. government extending permanent legal residency to the parents and caretakers of U.S. citizen children so that parents are shielded from deportation.

We have seen the horrific effects of children being separated from their parents at the Mexican border—and we may again if the Biden administration gets its way. Breaking up families is a horrific crime, not a policy tool that many in Washington have made it out to be.

Whether we are talking about families at the border or mixed-status families in the U.S., no child deserves to suffer because of the violence of our borders and our broken immigration policy.


Raimy Khalife-Hamdan is a Scoville Fellow at Win Without War, an advocacy organization that works to promote and advance a progressive foreign policy agenda.