The collateral consequences of mass deportation

The US will continue to pay the high human costs of its mass deportation programme for years to come.

Although mass deportation is meant to enhance public safety and national security, the reality is that it is destroying families and forcing hundreds of thousands of families to rely on public aid to survive [Getty Images]

The US Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on March 18 titled, “How Comprehensive Immigration Reform Should Address the Needs of Women and Families”. The hearing focused on how entry visas affected women and families, the Violence against Women Act, family reunification, and comprehensive immigration reform.

The panelists spoke extensively about how immigration policy discriminates against women. They highlighted the tremendous costs to families caused by visa backlogs and extended family separation. 

Senator Hirono – a Democrat from Hawaii – closed the hearing with remarks about the importance of family as a national value and the history of the United States as a nation of immigrants. 

Remarkably, the hearing did not focus on the fact that the US is deporting unprecedented numbers of people and that nearly 90 percent of the 400,000 deportations each year involve men. Precisely because nearly all deportees are men, mass deportation has pernicious consequences for women and families. 

Nearly a quarter of deportees have US citizen children, which means mass deportation is tearing apart families and leaving mothers to fend for themselves. Even if Comprehensive Immigration Reform is enacted, the US will continue to pay the high human costs of its mass deportation programme for years to come.

These costs include providing financial and emotional support for the hundreds of thousands of families that have lost breadwinners, and the unimaginable costs associated with reconciling with the fact that thousands of children have wound up in the foster care system because of the detention or deportation of their parents.

Think for a moment what it will feel like for these children in the foster care system when they realise they are not orphans. The US government has deported their parents without giving them a chance to claim their children. 

The 5,100 children currently in the foster care system represent the tip of the iceberg. Much more common are stories of families who have lost the primary breadwinner. Many of these families were once comfortably middle class. But with the deportation of the main male member in the family, they find themselves reliant on public assistance and barely able to get by. 

Successful businessman deported

When I was in Guatemala in 2009, I met Melvin, a deportee whose family suffered the same fate. Prior to his deportation, Melvin lived in the US for 20 years as a legal permanent resident. He was married to a US citizen and had two US citizen children. 

 Deported dad wins custody of kids

In 1995, Melvin was arrested for leaving the scene of an accident. While driving down the road, he saw a man lying in the street, and backed up to see what had happened. Melvin rolled over the man he had seen lying on the highway. He was scared, and took off. A bad decision, he admitted. 

The next day, the police came to his house. He was charged with a hit and run and involuntary manslaughter. It turned out that the man was already dead when Melvin rolled over him, and the involuntary manslaughter charge was dropped. For the hit and run, he was given a six-year sentence. He served one year and the remaining five years were suspended. 

Once released from prison, Melvin got into the flooring industry. He eventually started his own flooring business. He made $15,000 a week and had several employees. He got married and bought a five-bedroom home for himself, his wife and their two children. 

In June 2005, immigration and customs enforcement (ICE) agents came knocking on his door. Due to a change in laws in the US in 1996 as well as a renewed focus on “criminal aliens”, after 9/11, ICE agents raided Melvin’s residence. Melvin was arrested and deported to Guatemala.

Melvin and his wife spent $15,000 on lawyers, trying everything they could. It turned out that, even though Melvin had already served his sentence, was married to a US citizen, and had two US citizen children, there was no legal recourse.

Melvin’s wife did not know how to keep the business running, and the family wanted to be together. So, Melvin’s wife, along with their two children, decided to move to his father’s half-way constructed home in Guatemala City. She sold their house in Arlington, Virginia. They had $200,000 in savings – enough to get started in Guatemala. 

Unfortunately, the life changes put stress on their marriage. After about a year and a half, they decided to divorce, and Melvin’s wife went back to the US with their children.

Back in Virginia, she now works in a gas station and lives with her mother. Their children’s lives have changed drastically as a result of Melvin’s deportation. 

Consequences of mass deportation 

In the course of interviewing 150 deportees in Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Brazil in 2009 and 2010, I heard many stories of families who experienced economic decline and emotional stress once the primary breadwinner was deported. 

“Nearly 90 percent of deportees are men, and over 97 percent are Latin American or Caribbean.”

Deportees revealed to me that their children were in foster care, that their wives had to seek out food stamps, and that their families were reliant on housing assistance.

Although mass deportation is meant to enhance public safety and national security, the reality is that it is destroying families and forcing hundreds of thousands of families to rely on public aid to survive. 

Nearly 90 percent of deportees are men, and over 97 percent are Latin American or Caribbean. Removing Latino men from their communities is not new – we witnessed the mass repatriation of Mexicans in the 1930s and again in Operation Wetback of 1954.

The current immigration enforcement policies, however, represent a turn from the policies of the past 60 years. Since 2008, immigration enforcement has shifted from border to interior enforcement

This shift towards interior enforcement has implications – deportees who have been living for years in the US leave behind partners and children. There has been an increase in the number of deportees who have family ties in the US.

Between July 1, 2010, and September 30, 2012, nearly a quarter of all deportations – or, 204,810 deportations – involved parents with US citizen children. This is remarkable, as a previous report found that DHS deported about 100,000 people who had US citizen children in the 10 years spanning 1997 to 2006. 

The consequences of today’s deportation crisis continue to unfold and the consequences for family members affected by deportations pose crucial questions for researchers and policymakers.

How does deportation affect not only employment, but also caregiving, stress, health and well-being, mobility, and gender relations in families? What are the short and long-term consequences for Latino children and youth? 

These are questions the US will be grappling with for years to come.

Tanya Golash-Boza is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Merced. She is the author of Yo Soy Negro Blackness in PeruImmigration Nation: Raids, Detentions and Deportations in Post-9/11 America and Due Process Denied: Detentions and Deportations in the United States. She blogs here

Follow her on Twitter: @tanyagolashboza