Muslim Travel Ban! Bad Hombres! Criminals! America First! Illegal Aliens! We are getting the bad ones out of here! This is a military operation! We are going to build a great great wall! This divisive rhetoric surrounding immigration in the current administration sends a clear message that immigrant youth and families are not welcome.

All too common we bear witness to children crying in churches or schools out of fear of deportation or being separated from their parents.  The reason, according to President Trump, is to “strengthen our borders!” However, the unintended consequences of not striking a healthy balance between national security and inclusivity disrupts our fundamental values as citizens of our country, and leaves many immigrant youth and families targets for unjustifiable racial hate, discrimination, and violence.

For over ten years, I (Antonio) have worked with and advocated for at-risk youth and families of color, many of whom were involved in the foster care system. To this day, I am still dedicated to reducing the over-representation of children of color in the foster care system. In the current political climate, we are both deeply concerned about how the current administration’s immigration policies will impact safety, permanency, and well-being among youth in the U.S. who are separated from their parents due to deportation. This fear resonates with child welfare and immigration reform advocates, citing that Trump’s policies will ultimately increase the number of children in foster care (Cortez-Neavel, 2016). The lack of balance between national security and inclusivity will likely wreak havoc on maintaining family connections, promoting healthy child development, and embracing diversity.

Immigration Policies: Obama Versus Trump

To provide some context: it is imperative to take a moment to briefly compare whether and how immigration policies under the Obama versus the Trump administration balanced security and inclusivity.

Obama: In 2014, the Obama administration provided guidelines for deporting immigrants that placed the highest priority on gang members, felons and those who posed security threats. The goal was to concentrate limited resources on the most serious cases (Kulish, Yee, Dickerson, et. al., 2017). People caught crossing the border illegally, however, were often released into the U.S. while requests for asylum were placed on hold until an immigration judge could weigh in on a decision. In the meantime, many remained in the U.S., and were later never located following the rendered verdict. Despite these circumstances and the overriding public perceptions that Obama did not respond to protecting our borders, over 2.5 million undocumented immigrants were deported during his time in office, more than any other president before his time (Marshall, 2016). Wendy Cervantes, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy, explains that in response to the influx of asylum seekers from Central America in 2014, Obama made recent border crossers priorities for removal, and significantly expanded the controversial use of family detention for mothers and children, including constructing the largest family detention center in U.S. history in Dilley, Texas.

How Do Immigration Policies Impact Children in Foster Care?

Do Trump’s policies disproportionately lean towards devaluing inclusivity? We are in the midst of living in a divided country, where people argue for inclusivity or against it to further enforce national security. Regardless of where you fall on this continuum, it is imperative that we as citizens consider how children are impacted by the stringent immigration policies set forth by the Trump administration.  Even under Obama, immigration policies had a detrimental impact on the number of children who ended up in foster care. “During the 2015 fiscal year, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deported 235,413 undocumented immigrants. More than a third of undocumented immigrants within the country report having U.S.-citizen children under the age of 18 for whom they are responsible, according to the Migration Policy Institute” (Cortez-Neavel, 2016). The children may either end up leaving the county with their parents, being placed with relatives, or end up in foster care. “A conservative estimate from Race Forward’s Shattered Families report found that approximately 5,100 children ‘were’ in the foster care system who had a parent deported” [or detained] in 2011 (Cortez-Neavel, 2016). Many of the child welfare caseworkers I spoke to during that time period recalled cases in which parents with undocumented statuses were pulled over by law enforcement for traffic violations (Garcia et al., 2012). After police officials learned of their undocumented status, they were deported and their children were placed in the foster care system.

Cervantes, however, underscores that fewer parents of U.S. children were deported during the last few years of the Obama Administration. While there were more than 72,000 removals nationwide in 2013, these numbers dwindled to 39,300 the following year (Trevizo, 2016). This trend, she adds, is largely due to the parental interest directive that allowed for ICE to grant prosecutorial discretion in some cases for parents. The directive states that if an immigrant is a parent or legal guardian of a United States citizen or lawful permanent resident minor child, or a primary caregiver of a child regardless of child’s immigration status (and they are otherwise not a priority for removal) an ICE officer may consider granting prosecutorial discretion in their case. The directive also provides protocols for parents whose children were in foster care.

Cervantes is deeply concerned because “everybody with undocumented status is now a priority for deportation” under Trump’s new orders. Unfortunately, many of the rules set forth by ICE under Obama no longer apply, causing the children in this population to be at a higher risk of entering the foster care system. In the media, we have heard reports of children witnessing their parents being hauled off in hand-cuffs for minor violations or when checking in with ICE officials. To make matters worse, there are no laws that forbid the placement of a child in foster care solely because of parental deportation (Cortez-Neavel, 2016). The consequences – children are not only traumatized by witnessing these actions, but are further prone to the ill effects of caseworkers who often have limited means to locate parents and work towards reunification. Due to the current political climate, Cervantes is advising local governments, schools and service providers to urge parents to create a safety plan for themselves and their children. Cervantes is receiving many requests from agencies regarding how to create powers of attorney or guardianship arrangements to enable parents at risk of deportation to designate a caregiver for their children.

With a tentative budget plan to increase military funding and decrease already scarce funding for social service programs, child welfare caseworkers and leaders will struggle even more to ensure child safety, permanency, and well-being. Less funding is often equated with hiring freezes, increased caseloads, and staff turnover (Day & Peterson, 2008; Self, 2014). The uptick in caseloads due to Trump’s immigration policies is likely to place additional hardship on already over-worked and underpaid workers.

Impact of Aggressive Immigration Policies on Child Well-being

Regardless of a child’s documentation status, children that reside in a mixed status household – where a parent is undocumented and at least one child is born in the U.S. – are at risk of being impacted by Trump’s immigration policies (Rubio-Hernandez & Ayón, 2016). Their security, safety, and permanency are virtually in jeopardy (Garcia, 2009; Salas, Ayón, & Gurrola, 2013). Evidenced by research, children with a deported parent are more likely to suffer from poor health and elevated levels of internalizing and externalizing behaviors than their peers (Allen, Cisneros, & Tellez, 2013). The threat of deportation and family separation alone can increase anxiety, chronic stress, and depression (Chaudry, 2011; Potochnick & Perreira, 2010). The rhetoric by President Trump increases social isolation among families, as they refrain from leaving their homes to avoid deportation. In turn, the parentification of children often ensues, as they experience an increased sense of responsibility with the knowledge of their mixed documentation status (Rubio-Hernandez & Ayón, 2016). Separation or fear of deportation are also known to decrease children’s ability to develop and maintain a secure attachment to an adult (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2012).

Chronic anxiety and unhealthy attachment patterns that stem from fear and separation are likely to deter learning and educational attainment (Courtois & Ford, 2009). In schools, children who experience this form of emotional trauma are often mislabeled as disruptive, aggressive, behaviorally unmanageable, and problematic in classrooms. Furthermore, children in this population experience discrimination and racial prejudice from their teachers, peers, and individuals in their own identifying group (Cordova & Cervantes, 2010). Anti-immigration policies and oppressive rhetoric, as exemplified by the current administration, intensifies negative stereotypes and racial profiling behaviors (Androff, Ayón, Becerra & Gurrola, 2011), and further solidifies xenophobic perceptions that immigrants contribute to greater social problems (Casas & Cabrera, 2011). In turn, these experiences have a profound negative impact on their physical and mental health outcomes (Umana-Taylor & Updegraff, 2007).

What do we do now?

Given the gravity of the issues at hand, many of you may wonder what we can do to advocate for immigrant youth and families. Listed below are ways you can take action:

  1. Caseworkers and child welfare leaders must recognize the positive link between aggressive immigration policy and trauma among immigrant youth and families. Cervantes encourages them to use their voice to convey that the immigration policies set forth by the Trump administration will increase caseloads and harm child well-being.
  2. Implement a local task force and strategize how to protect immigrant communities within your own community.
  3. Encourage faith-based organizations and nonprofits to continue to offer their sites as places of sanctuary.
  4. Cortez-Neavel (2016) reports that the Women’s Refugee Commission has a toolkit available for immigrant families to help them plan for their potential deportation and ensure that they keep their parental rights. An updated rendition of the toolkit, which will begin to roll out in April, will include information on: (a) making childcare arrangements, (b) helping to determine whether a child ended up in the foster care system, (c) how to participate in the child welfare system processes, (d) how to reunify with their children, and (d) contact information for all state child welfare agencies.
  5. Hire a parental rights coordinator and/or immigration specialist in all child welfare agencies. They can play a pivotal role in handling cases in which children of immigrant parents are placed in foster care. 

We believe it is imperative to take action — implement these action steps to preserve the parent-child bond, and reduce the risk of traumatizing children. We are hopeful that as citizens we can mobilize our will and capacity to protect children from harm and familial disruption, regardless of citizenship status. 


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Androff, D.; Ayon, C.; Becerra, D.; Gurrola, M. (2011). U.S. Immigration Policy and Immigrant Children’s Well-Being: The Impact of Policy Shifts. Journal of Sociology Social Welfare 38(1), 77-98.

Casas, J. M., & Cabrera, A. P. (2011). Latino/a immigration: Actions and outcomes based on perceptions and emotions or facts? Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences, 33(3), 283-303.

Chaudry, A. (2011). Children in the Aftermath of Immigration Enforcement. The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth 4(1), 137-154. The Johns Hopkins University Press,  Project MUSE.

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Day, P., & Peterson, C. (2008). Caseload reduction efforts in selected States. Unpublished manuscript, Casey Family Programs and ICF International.

Garcia, A. (2009). Contextual pathways to Latino child welfare involvement: A theoretical model located in the intersections of place, culture, and socio-structural factors. Children and Youth Service Review, 31(12), 1240-1250.

Garcia, A., Aisenberg, A., & Harachi, T. (2012). Pathways to service inequities among Latinos in the child welfare system. Children and Youth Services Review, 34(5), 1060–1071.

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Potochnick, S. R., & Perreira, K. M. (2010). Depression and anxiety among first-generation immigrant latino youth: Key correlates and implications for future research. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 198(7), 470; 470.

Rubio-Hernandez, S. P., & Ayón, C. (2016). Pobrecitos los niños: The emotional impact of anti-immigration policies on latino children. Children and Youth Services Review, 60, 20-26.

Salas, L. M, Ayón, C., & Gurrola, M. (2013). Estamos traumados: The effect of anti‐immigrant sentiment and policies on the mental health of mexican immigrant families. Journal of Community Psychology, 41(8), 1005; 1005-1020.

Self, J. (2014). 40% of SC child-welfare workers bear heavy caseloads. The Buzz. Retrieved from

Trevizo, P. (2016). Fewer Parents of US-citizen Kids Being Deported. Retrieved from–citizen-kids-being-deported/article_e45be3ba-b66e-5017-ab9c-9e0905b35c87.html.

Umaña-Taylor, A. J., & Updegraff, K. A. (2007). Latino adolescents’ mental health: Exploring the interrelations among discrimination, ethnic identity, cultural orientation, self-esteem, and depressive symptoms. Journal of Adolescence, 30(4), 549-567.

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