by Olivia Pasquarelli

The negative effects that immigration enforcement has on those being detained or deported, their families, and their communities are unimaginably expansive. Like a stone in water, the impact of ICE enforcement ripples out to the family of the person targeted. Children are the most vulnerable to the negative effects of immigration enforcement on a parent, guardian, or family member, even if that child is a U.S. citizen.

A fact sheet from the American Immigration Council shares data and insights about the impact that immigration enforcement has on their lives, health, education, and outlook.


There are 4.1 million children in the United States with at least one unauthorized parent and 5.9 million who live with at least one unauthorized family member. That is over 5 million children who are affected daily by the fear and uncertainty that comes with being undocumented in the US today.

“A child’s risk of experiencing mental health problems like depression, anxiety, and severe psychological distress increases following the detention and/or deportation of a parent.” (page 1) The trauma caused by a child being separated from their parent creates a lifelong challenge. The effect is immediate and will put these children at a lifelong disadvantage.

The toxic stress caused by parental separation can impact and delay neurological development.  This puts children at risk for chronic mental illnesses such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as physical illnesses like cancer, stroke, and diabetes. In 2010, a study found that within six months after a traumatic immigration enforcement incident, children affected began to display at least four “adverse behavioral changes”, including increased crying, sleeping issues, anxiety, clinginess, and anger.

Studies show that the stress of detention and deportation can begin to affect a child before they are born. Stress hormones impact pregnancy and lead to premature and underweight births. Babies impacted by this stress were more likely to develop long term health problems.


“Children who reside in communities that partner with ICE or are the focus of ICE raids experience negative educational outcomes.” (page 2)

The emotional damage caused by immigration enforcement is sadly just one of the negative outcomes for children. ICE raids can significantly impact school attendance for the children affected. In 2017 and 2018, teachers who were surveyed acknowledged greater absences, declining academic performance, and reduced involvement from parents by students affected by immigration enforcement.

“Eighty-four percent of educators said students from immigrant families expressed concerns about enforcement while at school.” (page 2) These concerns keep children from learning and growing while in school. This puts them at a greater disadvantage and keeps them from reaching their fullest potential.

Financial Security

Aside from the emotional trauma, impact on health, and detriment to the education of children involved in immigration enforcement, it also puts children at risk for economic insecurity.  Families impacted by detainment and/or deportation are linked to higher rates of poverty. In many cases, the primary provider is removed, which can have financial detriments in both the short and long term.

The data shows that on average, a family’s income decreases by 50% after the removal of a family member due to deportation. This directly causes the loss of the home and in turn, frequent relocations causing additional stress on children.

Welfare and Foster Systems

Many children with a detained or deported end up in the child welfare system, which directly causes more stress, trauma, and disadvantage for the child. The report states, “While the child welfare system generally recognizes that it is in a child’s best interest to remain with a parent or family member, the intersection with immigration enforcement can negatively impact parental rights and thus a child’s well-being.”

ICE’s failure to coordinate with welfare systems may cause the increased length of separation or in the worst cases, termination of parental rights. The Parental Interests Directive was put in place by ICE in 2013 in an attempt to protect families and keep them together. In 2017, this directive was replaced by policy 11064.2, addressing the “Detention and Removal of Alien Parents or Legal Guardians”.  The stated purpose of this new policy is to provide “guidance regarding the detention and removal of alien parents and legal guardians of a minor child(ren), to include those who have a direct interest in family court or child welfare proceedings in the United States. It is intended to complement the detention standards and policies that govern the intake, detention, and removal of alien parents or legal guardians.”

This new policy shifts the priority of keeping families together to a secondary notion. Many times, if the detained parent cannot coordinate care fast enough, the children end up in CPS, which may lead them to group homes or foster homes.  

“There are limited mechanisms to safeguard parental rights, which are incredibly difficult for parents to regain following detention or deportation.” (page 4)

Custody law gets complicated when it comes to the detention and deportation of a parent. Federal law states that if a parent has been out of a child’s life for the past 15 out of 22 months, that parent’s custody rights are subject to termination. Detained parents face impossible barriers to this regulation, with their only hope being coordinated visitation with their child. ICE often makes coordination or regular visitation difficult or impossible. ICE is not regulated or required to disclose any information to CPS, even when there is a child custody case open.

“Parents with a final deportation order must make the difficult decision of whether to bring their children—including U.S. citizen children—with them.” (page 4)

Between 2010 and 2012, ICE issued more than 200,000 deportation orders to parents with US citizen children. This presents a heartbreaking choice for the parent. If the parent decides to leave without the child and they still have an open custody case, it becomes increasingly difficult to remain in the custody of their child.

In most cases, “it can be difficult for deported parents to prove that they can provide for their children in a stable and safe environment in the country of deportation, based on many of the same conditions that may have triggered the parent’s migration to the United States in the first place.” (page 5)

Olivia Pasquarelli is a freelance writer. She resides in Rhode Island and writes fiction and poetry. She also writes for Ranker in their Weird History column and for her own blog about small business entrepreneurship:  She is a child of an immigrant and a passionate advocate for immigration reform.