A Sociologist Assesses How Immigration Enforcement Affects Children Over Time
ALBANY, N.Y. (April 28, 2022) — Experiences with immigration enforcement during childhood have long-standing socio-emotional impacts in adulthood, but what is the nature of those experiences that make the difference?
For the first time, a study explores the dynamics of enforcement that shape children's lives over time. Led by Joanna Dreby, professor of Sociology, along with Associate Professor Eunju Lee of Social Welfare and sociology graduate student Florencia Silveira, the research, published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, used Dreby’s in-depth interviews collected between 2019 and 2021 with 84 young adults who were minors in the mid-2000s to draw conclusions and then policy implications.
In the article, “The anatomy of immigration enforcement: Long-standing socio-emotional impacts on children as they age into adulthood,” the authors applied qualitative analytical techniques to explore enforcement as a possible source of traumatic experience outside of the household. Lee contributed to the theoretical framing of the work and Silveira to data analysis.
Dreby wrote: “We found that long-term socio-emotional effects related to enforcement are likely tied to three elements of children's lived experiences:
- the extent of exposure to enforcement episodes,
- the chronicity (persistence) of exposure, and
- the timing of exposure in a child's life course
These three elements unfold within family contexts, said Dreby. “Children with direct and chronic exposure and for whom exposure spans middle childhood describe negative consequences on their well-being in adulthood, particularly when they experience other forms of family adversity.”
The article includes several stories from the young people interviewed, such as a 23-year-old, Nina, who related the relatively mild effect of seeing her father arrested in front of her years before. “I don’t think anything of what happened really resonated with me,” she said. But for Melanie, who at 19 witnessed her uncle being arrested (incorrectly) at JFK airport when he arrived to pick up his children, the “terrifying” aspect of the moment has never fully left her.
The study’s authors concluded from interviews, which detailed how families dealt with the aftermath of immigrant enforcement incidents, that supportive family contexts can help young people develop resilience and mitigate future socio-emotional damage.
The publication discussed four main policy implications for easing future trauma:
- Children who witness events — arrests during traffic stops, raids at home addresses, etc. — are more likely to describe traumatic responses to enforcement. Law enforcement should not arrest parents for immigration violations in front of children, but rather issue tickets to appear in court to resolve these issues.
- Immigration courts should not expect children to be involved in court cases. Waivers for deportation based on extreme hardship often involve children in making the case. Immigration courts should lower the bar to prove extreme hardship and accept that U.S. born children will experience hardship if a parent is deported.
- Immigration court has a long backlog which lengthens the time that a child is exposed to enforcement and its aftermath. Case processing timelines need to be shortened.
- Children translating and interpreting for parents increases their exposure to these incidents. Families need community advocates to take children out of the equation.
The work’s conclusions concerning the anatomy of enforcement, said Dreby, “can improve how we theorize immigration-related trauma and can — in the absence of federal reform — provide local-level policymakers and officials with guidelines to help lessen hardship caused by enforcement practices.”
The study included an invaluable learning experience for graduate and undergraduate students — several from migrant households — who are mainly students from the departments of Sociology, Social Welfare and Latin American, Caribbean, and Latino/a Studies. “To date, 19 undergraduates and 6 graduate students have worked on the project,” said Dreby, who noted that students have created an Immigration Policy Stories website and podcasts distributed to the English Language Learning community for its work with the ELL population.
“Together, not only are we training each other in research methods, but we are also learning from each other in our discussions on how to interpret the narratives of research participants interviewed.”