by Raúl Reyes
Earlier this year, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents burst into a factory in New Bedford, Mass., and rounded up more than 300 undocumented immigrants for detention and deportation. In the ensuing chaos, many parents were afraid to give information about their children, fearing that they would be arrested too.
Some children were literally left behind, including a breast-feeding baby who refused a bottle and had to be hospitalized for dehydration. Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick termed the aftermath of the raid “a humanitarian crisis.”
ICE statistics show such roundups are on the rise. The number of workplace arrests rose from less than 500 in 2002 to over 3600 in 2006. By a huge margin, these were mostly administrative arrests, aimed at people lacking proper documentation, as opposed to those who had committed a crime.
Now a study by the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan research center, has documented the raids’ negative impact on children. It found that the number of children separated from their parents was significant. For every two undocumented workers arrested, one child was left behind. In the wake of ICE raids, children were found to suffer from health disorders, psychological trauma and economic instability, The Urban Institute noted that most were in fact U.S. citizens or legal residents.
According to the Pew Center, there are 5 million children with at least one undocumented parent. In 2005, two-thirds of these (64 percent) were U.S. citizens, 37 percent were five and younger, and 65 percent were ten and younger. So it follows that the immigration raids are directly affecting some of the youngest and most vulnerable.
The ICE raids seem especially harsh considering that the public favors a path to legalization for the 12 million undocumented workers already here. In separate polls taken this year by ABC, CBS, Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg, FOX, and Pew, a majority have consistently supported the idea of allowing undocumented workers to obtain citizenship.
To be sure, undocumented parents put their own children at risk by bringing them here illegally, or by remaining here themselves. But children should not be punished for the sins of their parents, nor should the immigration status of parents doom a child’s future. Safeguarding all children — regardless of their immigration status — should be a paramount goal of our society.
The Urban Institute recommended the government adopt clear guidelines for releasing arrested parents to their kids, and that Congress hold hearings on the conse quences of the ICE raids. However, I fi nd the notion of armed offi cers breaking down doors and making mass arrests to be consistent with a police state.
We are never going to deport the millions of undocumented workers currently in the country. What is the point of arresting a few hundred here and there if it is causing long-term harm to our children? ICE should stop the raids. And if they must continue them, they should concentrate on criminal arrests.
While it’s a fact that the U.S. immigration system is broken, these roundups only make the problem worse by creating a climate of fear among immigrants and driving them further into the shadows. Our country has to move beyond our “enforcement only” approach if we are ever going to solve this crisis. It’s time to demand 21st century solutions to our ongoing problem, not more zealous arrests that put children at risk.
(Raúl Reyes is an attorney in New York City. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org). ©2007