Why Immigration Policy Should Matter to Youth-Serving Systems

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Marie WilliamsImmigration policy, once thought of as almost purely a federal government issue has, in the past several years, become one of increasingly local concern. During the 2016 presidential election cycle in particular, the complicated policy issues surrounding the undocumented population became oversimplified and were reduced to sound bites about “criminal aliens,” “sanctuary cities” and fears of imminent terrorist attacks on the “homeland.”

The candidate who became president called for the building of a physical barrier between the United States and its southernmost neighbor, and the creation of a deportation force to swiftly exclude those who made it into the United States without a legal immigration status, stoking fears among some of our most egregiously underserved groups, including noncitizen children and children with undocumented parents.

Throughout this period, the immigration conversation focused largely on adults who might do harm to the United States. Discussions about children were had primarily in the context of their parents’ status, and the threat to youth who benefited from DACA, the Deferred Action for Undocumented Childhood Arrivals program implemented under the Obama administration.

The tenor of the policy debate rarely, if ever, touched on the effect that draconian immigration policy may have on children who are at risk of, or already involved in, the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. These two layered and complex systems become even more so when one adds the specter of adverse immigration actions (detention or deportation) directed at either a noncitizen child, or children who are U.S.-born, but who have an undocumented parent (i.e., mixed-status families).

Who are these children and youth?

During any given calendar year, the majority (well over 65 percent) of undocumented children come from Mexico and Central America, about 10 percent come from East Asia and the Pacific, just over 10 percent come from Europe, eight percent from Africa, eight percent from the Middle East and South Asia, and just over four percent come from Southeast Asia. Most will come with, or develop, deep and ingrained fears about interacting with official agencies. Or, worse yet, they will have been rendered invisible to public systems by adults who seek to exploit them. And if fortunate enough to live with a parent or caring adult, the suspicion or fear of authorities could delay or deny children in these families the services or supports they may need.

Why should child welfare and juvenile justice systems care about immigration policy?

Immigration policy touches a large percentage of young people in the United States. Twenty-three percent of children in the U.S. are either immigrants or children of immigrants. While many of them may have been born in the United States, some have parents who do not have legal immigrant status; and some of the children are themselves without legal status. And immigrant children, whether documented or not, are among the most vulnerable.

Those who are unaccompanied by an adult when they immigrate (“unaccompanied minors”) may be victimized by smugglers who bring them to the United States to work as domestic servants, restaurant or factory workers, or to engage in drug-trafficking or sex work. Government estimates of people trafficked into the United States range widely, from 14,000 to 50,000 each year. The State Department estimates that up to half of trafficking victims are minors.

Since they are often marginalized, or “invisible” to public systems, these young people are particularly high-need. They are more likely to live in poverty, less likely to have health insurance and are more likely to encounter barriers to accessing public benefits and social services. Further, since many are fleeing economic deprivation, political violence or unrest in their home countries, immigrant youth are also more likely to have suffered trauma. And certainly, the immigration process itself, particularly if done illegally, comes with its own stressors and associated trauma.

Additionally, families with one or more adult who are undocumented are no less susceptible to the challenges that lead to child abuse and neglect, domestic violence, mental and behavioral health issues, or delinquency. While these challenges might, under the best of circumstances, lead a family to seek out supports and services, this is less likely to happen in a household where adults or children do not have legal immigrant status. Predictably, the needs could become more acute, and the triggering event that leads to system involvement could be more severe.

There are currently no reliable data about youth in the juvenile justice and child welfare systems. Despite our knowledge about the existence of this population of high-need children and youth, child welfare and juvenile justice systems still have no reliable data about them. This state of ignorance is worsened by the fact that most systems lack the resources to implement this kind of data collection, may not view that information as relevant or simply recognize that in the current highly politicized immigration policy climate, this information could imperil the same families and young people they seek to serve.

Action steps for youth-serving systems

As the immigration debate plays out on the national stage, the needs of undocumented youth and children or youth and children from mixed-status families continues to grow. So, at a minimum, youth-serving systems now have a duty to investigate whether they are adequately serving this population. At a minimum, systems should:

  • Determine the scale and scope of the issue in their communities. Since undocumented children, youth and families are adept at maneuvering through society largely undetected, they may present as yet another child, youth or family in need. Systems may then see a reluctance to accept services, poor follow-up with services offered and general inaccessibility, without comprehending why. If they discover that those challenges are due to fears about immigration actions, systems will be better equipped to provide services to those in need if their fears are allayed.
  • Clarify policy, processes and practices for undocumented and noncitizen youth and their families. The sanctuary city conversation in particular has led to widespread confusion about whether federal law requires local youth-serving systems to enforce federal immigration laws by detaining youth who are without lawful status, absent another lawful justification for that detention. It does not. Further, systems should consider whether the processes and practices they have in place are adequate to ensure access to services by noncitizen youth and their families, and address these deficiencies if they are not.
  • Educate and train relevant staff and stakeholders, including families, on the common forms of immigration relief for noncitizen youth. Noncitizen and undocumented youth have several forms of relief available to them through which they may achieve lawful permanent residence. Child welfare and juvenile justice systems are generally not equipped to pursue these remedies, but should consider actively partnering with organizations that are, and making connections to youth and their families that may need this help.

While the complexities of the intersection between immigration policy may seem daunting to youth-serving systems, one thing is clear: Youth-serving systems can no longer remain willfully ignorant about this area of acute need.

Marie N. Williams, J.D., is senior program officer at the Stoneleigh Foundation. Before that she was immediate past executive director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice and a longtime advocate for social justice causes.