By Marian Wright Edelman
President of the Children’s Defense Fund
Daniela Gonzalez is a mother of two who lives in Jackson, Mississippi. She graduated from middle and high school in Jackson and is now enrolled in paralegal training classes and pursuing her college degree. Daniela is deeply engaged with the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance (MIRA) fighting for workplace safety and other rights for undocumented immigrants, and her dream is to be an immigration lawyer to continue helping others. But first she needs others to fight for her.
Daniela came to Jackson with her family at age 11 from Mexico City. She was thrilled when the chance came for her to apply for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, allowing her to work, study, and raise her children without constant fear of detention and being forced to leave her five-year-old and one-year-old, who are U.S. citizens, to return to Mexico City where the only relative she remembers is an elderly grandmother. But Daniela is now one of the DACA Dreamers whose lives have been put on hold since September 2017 as they waited to see what would happen before President Trump’s March 5th deadline for ending DACA’s protections. The U.S. Supreme Court’s late February action meant that March deadline has been set aside for now. However, while immigrant youth can continue to renew their DACA status, there won’t be any real relief for DACA recipients and other Dreamers without the certainty of a permanent legislative solution.
By rescinding the DACA program, the President and Attorney General made clear their willingness to cut short the futures of nearly 800,000 young people in America like Daniela and deny DACA benefits to additional Dreamers in line. These young people came to America as children with their parents and are following their dreams. They have grown into energized and productive students, employees, and taxpayers. Many stepped out and said they wanted to serve as teachers, first responders, and members of the military but their service is being cruelly disrespected and devalued. Their dreams have become nightmares as Congress has failed to pass protections for dreamers who put their faith in our government but have been left in peril. I hope we can move forward, not backwards in protecting our present and future generations who make us stronger. The success of young people like Daniela and her children is important to strengthen us as a nation.
Many schools and child care centers already have reported heightened levels of fear among young children afraid their parents will be taken away at any time. Researchers are now finding ways to quantify how children are affected when they live with a constant fear of parental separation. The Stanford Immigration Policy Lab (IPL) recently published a study on the intergenerational impact of DACA. After looking at a sample of immigrant mothers they found that after DACA was introduced in 2012, mothers who were eligible for the program saw immediate improvement in their children’s mental health. Diagnoses of adjustment and anxiety disorders fell more than 50 percent in children whose mothers were protected from being deported compared to children from similar backgrounds whose mothers’ birthdates put them outside the DACA eligibility cutoff. The research team concluded, “Given the estimated 4 million U.S. citizen children with at least one undocumented parent, lawmakers should consider how protecting parents from deportation will protect the mental health and development of America’s children.” Professor of pediatrics Fernando Mendoza added: “Compared to other social determinants of children’s health, this is the only one I know that can be changed by a simple legislative or executive act. All the other social determinants we have been trying to improve in child health have been very difficult to change.”
Two recent reports by the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) – Our Children’s Fear: Immigration Policy’s Effects on Young Children and Immigration Policy’s Harmful Impacts on Early Care and Education – document many of these effects in children from immigrant families. CLASP found “[y]oung children—who are citizens—are getting less access to nutrition, health care, and early care and education programs, because of families’ isolation and fears.” Many parents are hesitant to seek benefits for their children for which they are entitled, out of fear they will be arrested and/or threatened with deportation and separated from their children. CLASP’s stories include a child with special needs being pulled out of recommended treatment, early childhood programs unable to fill their classrooms despite the huge need, and families declining nutrition assistance.
CLASP’s thoughtful examination of the effects of the current immigration climate on young children under eight years of age in six states documented the increased pressure and fear millions of parents and children are facing and its negative impact on child well-being. Their findings were reinforced in interviews with child care and early education teachers, home visitors and social service providers and through focus groups with immigrant parents of young children. “Fear,” the report says, “is keeping families isolated in their homes and increasingly vulnerable to economic instability, housing turmoil, and exploitation. Parents—the most important source of support for young children—are themselves under severe stress . . . The cumulative effect of these experiences is likely harming millions of young children.” Young children and parents are living in fear every day and it is jeopardizing their mental health. DACA gave some parents and their young children a much needed sense of security for a while – but all that has changed.
As Congress fails to act, the futures of multiple generations are jeopardized. Congress must recognize that until DACA protections are incorporated permanently in law and all are assured the right to fulfill their dreams and keep working, studying and attending to their children’s needs, uncertainty and tensions will remain. The threats children and their parents face will cast a cloud on their futures and the future of our nation. Now is the time for us all to demand a peanent and just solution in Congress – immediate passage of the Dream rmAct.