Youth Justice


On May 12, 2008, teachers in Postville, Iowa, interrupted their classes, called the names of some of their Latino students and directed them to report to the principal’s office. Usually, this would mean that they were in for punishment for some infraction. But these children had done nothing wrong. In the principal’s office, they were informed that one or, in some cases, both of their parents would not be coming home because they had been taken into custody by federal law enforcement officers.

Earlier that day, hundreds of helmeted Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents in combat gear, toting assault rifles, swooped down on the Agriprocessors kosher meat processing plant in this town of about 3,000. With military precision, nearly 400 of the plant’s alleged undocumented immigrant workers were shackled and marched out of the slaughterhouse in single file and herded onto buses and vans. Those rounded up in the raid, one of the biggest in our nation’s history, were transported to detention facilities miles away.

The raid not only economically devastated the town but also left in its trail hundreds of children wondering when or even if they would see their parents again. Postville was just one of a series of ICE raids in search of undocumented immigrants. According to a report by the National Council of La Raza and the Urban Institute, “Paying the Price: The Impact of Immigration Raids on America’s Children,” there are about five million children in the United States with at least one undocumented parent. The stepped-up ICE raids have put the children of these families at increased risk of separation, psychological distress and economic hardship.

These raids have disrupted communities across the country and separated thousands of parents from their children. The majority of these children are American citizens who are integrated into the schools and communities of the only country they know. After the arrest or disappearance of their parents, children have experienced psychological duress and developed mental health problems including feelings of abandonment, separation anxiety disorder, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The “Paying the Price” report states that the raids affect children, who are “emotionally, financially and developmentally dependent on their parents’ care, protection and earnings.” Children and other family members left behind face serious and immediate economic hardships when the primary breadwinner has been hauled off into custody. The majority of the children affected are under the age of 10—many are infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. Their immediate needs are for food, baby formula, diapers, clothing and other essentials.

One of the great challenges for the communities where raids are carried out is to ensure that no child has been left behind in school, left at home without adult supervision or taken into foster care. Some children have been left in the care of teenagers or even babysitters for weeks and months at a time.

Actions to charge, convict and deport undocumented workers have escalated. In 2006, ICE officials chose December 12, the Our Lady of Guadalupe feast-day, an important religious holiday for the Mexican community, to launch simultaneous raids on Swift & Company meat packing plants in six states. On that one day, ICE agents arrested nearly 1,300 Swift employees. ICE is not only engaged in large-scale raids, but it is also expanding door-to-door operations with deportation orders to arrest immigrants. The knock on the door by an ICE agent can be the beginning of a nightmare for thousands of children.

Undocumented workers are being charged as serious criminals for using false Social Security numbers and being threatened with serious jail time. With little access to court-appointed lawyers, many of them waive their rights without understanding the seriousness of the charges against them. Within two weeks, federal prosecutors extract guilty pleas in a procedure that could eliminate the worker’s prospects of future relief and imposes criminal sentences and removal orders simultaneously—at once sending a breadwinner to prison and thrusting his family into poverty, giving new meaning to what it is to be “railroaded.”

I agree with many of the recommendations in the “Paying the Price” report: Congress should provide oversight of immigration enforcement activities to ensure that children are protected during worksite enforcement and other operations. ICE should assume that there will always be children, generally very young children, affected whenever adults are arrested in worksite enforcement operations and should develop a consistent policy for parents’ release. Social services and economic assistance need to be in place and provided until parents are released from detention and their immigration cases are resolved—often a prolonged period of many months. Longer-term counseling for children and their parents to mitigate psychological impacts may also be necessary.

Those who suffer the greatest harm in ICE raids are children. If our nation is to make any claim for humanity, children deserve to be protected and cared for when their parents are taken away.