Urban Wire The costs for children when parents are deported
Heather Koball
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Between 2003 and 2013, almost 4 million immigrants were deported from the United States. Many were parents, mostly fathers, of US-citizen children. The absence of a parent, often the main breadwinner for the family, frequently sends the family into a spiral of financial insecurity. For children, the separation can be especially harmful emotionally. Currently, an estimated 4 million US-citizen children have unauthorized parents and could be affected by parental deportation.

Because immigration—including deportation—has become a dominant issue in the 2016 presidential campaign, we should understand what happens to children after their parents are deported. Our recent report shares some of these stories, based on conversations with immigrant parents in detention, families of detained parents, social service providers, lawyers, educators, and law enforcement professionals in five communities in California, Florida, Illinois, South Carolina and Texas.

What happens to children when a parent is deported?

For children, the sudden disappearance of a parent can be devastating. A father may go to work one morning and simply not return. His family may not know what has happened to him, sometimes for days. It can be difficult to locate a parent in the immigration detention system.

Families report that their children withdraw or become extremely anxious after a parent is deported. Children may lash out at family members or at other children or teachers in school. Most commonly, say family members and teachers, children become depressed, which can affect their health and school performance. Some refuse to eat, pull out their hair, or have persistent headaches or stomachaches. As one grandmother from Texas said of her grandson: “He was hardworking, he was doing well in school, but after all that, he would not go to school, he wouldn’t work. He just sleeps during the day and is out at night. He’s on a bad path now. He’s always going to court.” 

With the arrest of the father, the mother must take on the dual responsibilities of providing financial support and taking care of her children. For example, a mother in Florida reported that she had to leave her children alone while she worked double shifts far into the evening to be able to afford basic necessities for her family.

Families who are no longer able to afford their rent often move in search of cheaper housing, which can create instability in community ties or cause children to change schools. The parent who was not deported may split up the family, placing siblings in different homes while searching for stable housing. One detainee in California, whose abusive husband had been previously deported after she reported him to the police, was desperate to find guardians for her four children after her own arrest. With no better option, she called her estranged brother-in-law, and the children went to live with cousins they hardly knew. Because of the strained relationship between the mother and her brother-in-law, he rarely brought her children to see her in detention.

How can communities support children of deported parents?

After a parent is deported, the remaining parent may have a hard time finding assistance because of ineligibility for benefits due to immigration status, language barriers, thin social safety nets in many locations even for those eligible for benefits, and fears of asking the government for help.

In our study, we found that unauthorized immigrant families generally trust public schools, Head Start centers, religious organizations, and immigrant-serving community-based organizations. These trusted organizations hold promise to support children when their parents are deported.

For example, in Florida, a Head Start Center provides mental health services to children and transportation to the center so unauthorized immigrants, who are ineligible for driver’s licenses in many states, don’t have to drive. In Los Angeles, schools have created wellness centers and distribution points for emergency assistance by leveraging parent volunteers and partnerships with community agencies. And in Chicago, high schools have created safe spaces where unauthorized immigrant students can discuss their status and apply for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program—in the process, aiding their academic achievement.

The promotoras model in Texas and South Carolina helps unauthorized immigrant families find health care and other services. Public health professionals train members of the immigrant community to become promotoras, or health education and outreach workers. Because promotoras are trusted, families come to them for help with medical conditions and other needs, such as mental health and material hardship following a parent’s deportation.

Children with unauthorized parents will continue to need protection and assistance

Last November the Obama administration proposed the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) program, which would have protected most unauthorized parents of US-citizen children from deportation. In February, the federal courts blocked DAPA’s implementation in response to a lawsuit brought by 26 states. The lawsuit is still working its way through the courts. Other administration initiatives have narrowed the scope of deportations, emphasizing that parents of US citizens are a low deportation priority. But until DAPA is implemented, many US-citizen children will remain at risk for separation from their unauthorized parents and for the accompanying threats to their well-being.


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The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Co-hosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.


Research Areas Children and youth Immigration
Policy Centers Center on Labor, Human Services, and Population
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