A newly released study by the law firm of Dorsey and Whitney, LLP for the Urban Institute should be required reading for anyone who thinks that reform of our immigration laws and procedures is something that can be put off indefinitely.

The study, “Severing a Lifeline: The Neglect of Citizen Children in America’s Immigration Enforcement Policy”, whose principal authors are James D. Kremer, Kathleen A. Moccio and Joseph W. Hammell, focuses on the impact of the Bush-initiated wave of factory and home raids on the US citizen children of undocumented immigrants, as well as of documented immigrants subjected to deportation proceedings.

During George W. Bush’s first term, the number of immigration raids was relatively low. But after the big immigrants’ rights of the spring of 2006, Bush, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and I.C.E. chief Julie Myers announced a new crackdown which quickly escalated into a near doubling of deportations over previous years. Starting with a series of raids on operations of the IFCO company in April 2006, the government hit workplaces all over the country, while also organizing around 100 “Fugitive Operations Teams” to go to houses and apartments, supposedly to arrest specific people, but often to pick up anyone they run into who appears to be an undocumented immigrant.

This study examines some of the human results of this new “enforcement only” policy. It also provides much useful contextual material on the overall immigration situation in this country. The authors estimate that the between 11 and 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States today have about 5 million children, 3.1 million of whom are U.S. citizens. They further estimate that in recent years, at least several tens of thousands, and possibly well over a hundred thousand, US citizen children have been directly affected by the arrest and/or deportation of a parent.

The report does not go into the ultimate causes of undocumented immigration, but does make one crucially important point: The idea that undocumented immigrants have “butted in line” ahead of other people who have applied for visas the legal way is completely wrong. In fact, the United States only provides about 5,000 visas per year for people with the kinds of education and skills most undocumented workers typically have. This means that such people have been effectively excluded from any “line”. If they applied for a visa they would either be rejected outright or would have to wait decades to receive it. Since most undocumented immigrants are fleeing from immediate situations of privation or danger, and have an equally immediate need to find jobs so as to support their families, they simply can not come legally. The U.S. government provides no way to do that, no “line” to get into.

The authors examine what happens to children when Immigration and Customs Enforcement (the branch of Homeland Security that carries out immigration actions) either raids a factory or barges into family homes to arrest immigrant workers. They interviewed families, social service people, unions and clergy in a number of places, most specifically New Bedford, Massachusetts, Postville Iowa and several cities affected by raids on Swift Corporation facilities. After the raid against the Swift Plant in Worthington, Minnesota, a local religious leader described the situation:

‘Families have been torn apart. Children were left behind; some of them came back after school to find themselves locked out because both of their parents were detained. The most serious case we saw is the case of a 4-month-old baby who was brought by a desperate babysitter and [sic] asked us to look after her because she feared to be detained. This is a very tough situation for them. Most of them are citizens and now they are helpless. We still don’t know how many of them are out there all by themselves waiting for someone to come help them”.

*Educational damage to children. US citizen children whose parents have been arrested and/or deported, or have been forced to relocate from the United States to Mexico or other countries to whom their parents are deported, seriously lose ground in their education, and in the case that they are forced to accompany their parent or parents into exile, may find themselves unable to complete school and even being forced into what amounts to child labor by economic conditions in the other country. Though most countries to which US citizen children end up being exiled have some sort of compulsory school attendance law, the fact is that millions of their own citizen children drop out of school and even are forced to go to work before even completing the elementary grades. This is the situation into which these US citizen children are sent.

*Damage to children’s mental and physical health. The fact that armed police agents can barge into a family’s home without a warrant, line up mother, father and minor children, sometimes at gun point and while yelling obscenities, and then haul one or both parents away to some unknown destination, is shown by the study to be severely traumatic for the children. Likewise, situations that happened in the last couple of years in New Bedford, Massachusetts; Postville Iowa and numerous other places, in which children returned home for school only to find their parents gone, and in which local churches, schools and social service agencies suddenly found themselves overwhelmed with a large number of parentless children (who did not even know where their parents were or what was going to become of them), are similarly traumatic and cause many children to become anxious, depressed, withdrawn and unable to sleep because of nightmares about losing their parents. A National Council of La Raza report cited in the study elaborates:

“Some children said things to parents, other caregivers or teachers which revealed how they had begun to personalize the cause of the separation. Especially among very young children, who could not understand the concept of parents not having ‘papers’, sudden separation was considered personal abandonment. In some cases, separation triggered sadness; in others, it led to anger toward the parent who left or the one who remained…Psychologists were concerned that [statements made by the children in the aftermath of the raids and family separation] could indicate the onset of depression and other mental health changes..”

*Erosion of due process. Most people in this country do not know that normal constitutional protections of “due process” do not apply in immigration raids, arrests and deportation proceedings. For example, while persons accused of murder are provided a lawyer by the government if they can not afford one themselves, people in immigration proceedings have no such right, leading to situations such as that produced by the Postville raid in which, according to a government interpreter, Dr. Erik Camayd-Frexias, who was outraged by what he saw, the right to any kind of due process is simply steamrollered out of existence.

*No protection for children. Since the passage of the “Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act” of 1996, immigration judges have been stripped of most of their power to take the interests of minor children, including those who are US citizens, into account when determining whether a parent should be deported or not. (Legislation in Congress sponsored by Rep. Jose Serrano, D-NY, HR 182 would correct this). This put the US seriously out of kilter with practices accepted internationally, as well as with US law covering other situations in which children may be harmed by legal action against parents. The norm in other circumstances is to always take into consideration “the best interests of the child” in any judicial decision; but this does not apply to children of immigrants undergoing deportation. This same law created a situation in which undocumented immigrant parents of US citizen children, once deported, can not return to the US even to visit for a period of 3 to 10 years, depending on how long they had resided illegally in the United States. This virtually forces thousands of minor US citizen children to be, effectively, “deported”, the alternative often being to be put in foster or institutional care in the United States. Finally, this law has mandated detention, lasting months or years, for many detained immigrants, which has further endangered their minor children.

There is some positive movement in Washington. President Obama has reiterated his commitment to a reform that would legalize most undocumented immigrants on several occasions. One immigration raid has taken place since Obama took power (Bellingham, Washington, with 28 arrests), but Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has expressed disquiet that she was not informed in advance about it. There is talk about changing the focus away from factory raids.

And perhaps the best news of all, the labor movement (including both the AFL-CIO and Change to Win) has developed a united plan of legislative action that has good chances of success – if we push for it.

But we can not be certain that there will be no more raids, or that the doors of no more families will be broken down in the middle of the night. For this reason, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus has been holding “Family Unity” rallies with immigrant families around the country, in which US citizen relatives of people who have been deported or who face deportation have been giving testimony on the impact of immigration law on their families. Several thousand petition signatures collected at these events were recently delivered to President Obama at a meeting with the Hispanic Caucus.

But very troubling is the fact that new rules on Social Security No-Match letters, created under the Bush administration, are only being held up by a suit filed by the AFL-CIO and others. No Match letters are letters sent to employers by the Social Security Administration when Social Security Numbers submitted by employers for their employees do not match the government’s records. This can be caused by clerical errors, but it is probable that a large number of these numbers belong to undocumented immigrants. Under the new Bush-Chertoff rules, every employer would be forced to fire any employee for which he/she received a No-Match letter if the employee could not clear up the discrepancy in 90 days. The scale of this problem is enormous, involving several million people, and it is to be doubted even that mistakes could be corrected in the time frame given, especially as the government has not hired more workers to deal with this new task. Even more troubling is the fact that the Bush administration had begun to treat the use of a fake or borrowed Social Security number as a felony, resulting in the jailing of hundreds of immigrants after the Postville raid for 5 month terms in a kangaroo court setup in which due process was a cruel joke.

The administration needs to be pressured to WITHDRAW the Bush-Chertoff rule changes rather than letting them go ahead and cause chaos at thousands of workplaces and for millions of workers and their families, as well as to hold off on workplace and neighborhood raids until a comprehensive reform can be passed and implemented.