The deportation of the undocumented parents of K-12 students from this country to their native ones is an increasingly common — and disturbing — phenomenon in the United States. And the resulting is causing a series of problems including reduced school attendance and completion.
According to The Urban Institute, approximately five million U.S. students who are already integrated into U.S. school systems have at least one undocumented parent.
As Hirokazu Yoshikawa, the academic dean at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and Carola Suárez-Orozco, co-director of immigration studies at New York University, wrote last April in a New York Times op-ed, “Having a parent ripped away permanently, without warning, is one of the most devastating and traumatic experiences in human development."
Andres Mejer, a New Jersey Hispanic attorney who specializes in immigration and deferred action, said in an interview that most of America's laws are "generally focused on keeping families together, but not immigration law.”
Family unity, he says, is not even a consideration most of the time. The upheaval is devastating for students, Mejer said.
Numerous studies point out that children with immigrant parents fare worse on most social indicators than their native-born peers. Mix that with the deportation of a parent and a host of problems begin to arise.
Parents often don’t show up at schools for parent-teacher meetings for fear of deportation. They often don't apply for public benefit programs for the same reason.
According to Nina Rabin of the University of Arizona Southwest Institute for Research on Women, few options exist for children whose parents are deported.
"On the one hand, it is not the job of federal immigration enforcement to arrange for the care of the children who are not in its custody. On the other hand, the states find themselves with children who have no available parent to provide care and support.," Rabin writes.
Often, students are in class when federal agents conduct immigration raids. Therefore, schools can – and should – play a key role in helping these children with the tragic transition.
The Urban Institute studied a handful of schools that realized the importance of dealing with this problem. One such school developed a plan that included a database with information about parents’ employers in case a raid occurred on the site. Then, staff contacted all the children with parents who may have been picked up in a raid. Teachers and counselors also conducted private session with children to ensure they knew what to do and whom to call if a parent or caregiver was arrested. Bus drivers were also told not to drop children off at a house without a parent.
But such plans are few and far between in schools across the United States.
In 2010, a study entitled “In The Child’s Best Interest” noted that “parents contribute to their children’s academic success by reading to them, helping with homework, taking their children to and from school, and providing a stable home environment where children learn and grow.”
The authors of the study wrote that when a parent is deported grades plummet. Often an “A” student begins to flunk because the child is distracted by thoughts of possible deportation. Many students are embarrassed and begin to skip school. A vicious cycle begins.
“There needs to be a more humane approach to deportation,” Mejer says. “There needs to be a recognition that we have a responsibility to consider the interests of the United States Citizens who are also affected. We need a mechanism to bring those who are in the United States out of the shadows. Take them out of the fog of fear that they live in every day. We need to reform our immigration system. We also need a legal mechanism to allow legal immigration and prevent illegal immigration. We are a nation of immigrants and we forget that to our peril.”
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Suzi Parker is an Arkansas-based political and cultural journalist whose work frequently appears in The Washington Post and The Christian Science Monitor. She is the author of two books. @SuziParker | TakePart.com