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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.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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