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The Sins of the Fathers? How Immigration Policies Promote Child Neglect

A few months ago a mother and father with two children arrived at the door of Casa Juan Diego unexpectedly–distressed, homeless, with very few clothes or possessions. I got the mother and children settled and comfortable in a room at our women’s house and the husband went to our men’s center. I did not see the mother and children again until the next day at lunch.

As I went over to say hello, I noticed the four-year old looked like he had chicken pox, with bright red bumps from chin to forehead. I panicked about a potential outbreak (we had two new infants in the house), but the mother was insistent that it was not contagious. As I persisted, she pulled me over to the corner. With a look of terrible shame on her face, she told me that they had slept in a park until they had found out about Casa Juan Diego. Although she tried to stay awake, she could not prevent the mosquitoes from biting her children.

Both of her children are American citizens, but both parents turned out to be undocumented. They were afraid to ask anyone for help. I was heartbroken for days. This is far from the saddest story I have heard, it is not even the saddest story I heard that day, but I realized that if this person, a good, attentive and loving mother, could not protect her children from this relatively small threat to their welfare, how could she protect them from much greater threats?

As a former child welfare worker, I have seen stomach-turning instances of child abuse, and it is these cases that get the headlines. Yet child neglect is the bigger problem, accounting for well over half of the reported cases of child abuse in this country every year (Antle, et al. 2007). Essentially, neglect is about omission, a failure to meet the critical developmental needs of a child for nutrition, housing, medical care and education (Crosson-Tower, p. 68, 2005). Neglect and other forms of abuse are associated; inadequate super-vision, unstable and unsafe housing, distressed parenting, all create conditions of ongoing risk and vulnerability that lead to the more obvious forms of abuse.

From the perspective of a Catholic Worker, however, the most striking thing about child neglect is its association with poverty. All of us would like to think that we ourselves would never neglect our children, no matter how poor we might become. The reality is that adequate childcare requires resources. Every study on child abuse/neglect shows the relationship: as income goes up, child abuse in all forms goes down, and vice-versa (Lounds, Borkowski & Whitman, 2006; Slack, et al., 2004). The welfare of the child is dependent upon the welfare of the parent.

To improve the welfare of poor parents, however, would require serious changes to our economic and political system, so it is easier to demonize the parent and criticize the social worker when a particularly gruesome case hits our TV screens. So often we talk about the failures of child protection, yet rarely do we talk about the failures of child welfare, something very different.

We know what children need in order to thrive. We know that providing children with what they need is difficult under the best of circumstances and that destitution, uncertainty and hopelessness are not the best of circumstances. Yet we continually are surprised and outraged when a parent, living under conditions that you and I could not endure for a single day, snaps and injures their child, or simply is unable to provide what they need.

The difficulty of raising children under chaotic living conditions is most clear to us when children come to Casa Juan Diego directly from the streets. Most are fleeing violence or reeling from the deportation, detention or disappearance of a parent. All of them are living in a state of confusion and unease about what will happen to their family tomorrow.

Few of the mothers at Casa Juan Diego have ever abused their children. Yet the circumstances of the lives they have led prior to coming to us mean that many of their children are developmentally delayed (Aroian, 2001; Wheeler, 2009). Most are capable of catching up, and sometimes they stay long enough for us to see their progress, but other times they do not.

We manage our grief about the fragility of the lives of these children and the uncertainty of their future by trying to do all we can while we have them. But often what we can do is not enough.

Our difficulties in helping are made much, much worse by the craziness of the immigration laws and procedures. In particular, the deportation of one or both parents is simply devastating to the welfare of the children, even children who are native-born citizens with every right to be in the United States. The University of California, Berkeley, School of Law recently published a study about what happens to children when a legal resident parent is deported (yes, this happens all the time, 87,884 from 1997-2007). The study reports children under these conditions are likely to exhibit behavior problems in school, have poor grades, and experience higher rates of psychological disorders; conditions that create damage far into their futures (Baum, Jones & Barry, 2010). And this is for parents that, at least until their deportation, had the relative security of a Green Card! For the children of undocumented parents, it can only be worse .

An in depth analysis of the children affected by the 2007 major work place raids in Greeley, Colorado, Grand Island, Nebraska, and New Bedford, Massachusetts, where 900 adults were arrested, Capps, et al., (2007) found that the children directly impacted by the deportations experienced a drop in school attendance and academic performance. Also as a result of the trauma, they exhibited increased psycho-logical stress and behavior problems, a particular tragedy as very few children received professional help. In addition to the obvious drop in income for the entire family, the study found high rates of housing instability and food insufficiency following the deportation of a parent. Yet the authors report the greatest impact on children from the deportations was the emotional trauma specific to the actual separation from one or both parents. A major challenge for the parents who were not arrested and deported was how to explain to their children what had happened to their parent, and to manage their emotions and grief. One of the children told her teacher that her daddy had been arrested for working.

This little girl was correct. He was arrested for working. It is a popular conception in our culture that people choose to cross borders without documents because they simply want a better life. But the reality is that most migrants come to the US because they have no other option of survival. They simply would not make a journey that is so perilous, separate from their homes and families, possibly forever, if they did not have to do so.

This is a particularly sad misconception since it is “free trade” that has created the most recent push of peoples off their lands and into destitution. Free trade means just that, all are free to trade. So local farming economies are free to compete with large agribusiness, and without the help of your government to level the playing field (prohibited by free trade agreements, including NAFTA), you will not be able to feed your family and you will not be able to find other work in your poor country (Faux, 2006; Massey, 2005).

Recently we had a group of students visiting the House from Texas A & M University. After a discussion about the work of Casa Juan Diego, one of the students asked about the future of the women and children in the house. A simple question: what will happen to them after they leave, will they be OK?

I stumbled a bit, but I had to admit that I have no reason to think so; quite the contrary. They will remain fragile in a harsh environment. They will remain fearful of the police, of any official. They will remain socially isolated. They will find it very difficult to find work, and will likely be exploited if they do. They will remain illegitimate in a world that requires legitimacy to thrive, and their children will, as a result, continue to suffer.

Even the exceptional children that stay with us, the brightest and most talented, have futures that are problematic at best. My favorite, eight year old “Elizabeth,” was a bit of a genius with electronic devices, always “borrowing” someone’s cell phone to understand its programming. She had already too much responsibility in her family, her mother overwhelmed and her undocumented father in jail awaiting deportation. Most of us cried when she left with her mother and younger brothers to live in a crowded trailer with another family member. We had had her in a safe place, in a good school, but we knew that where she was going would not be the same, not as good. We got her to make all kinds of promises about staying focused on her schoolwork at her new school. She was very brave and she promised to come back someday to be a volunteer.

Maybe she will, but the odds against her are great. Our current immigration laws and policies insure family disruption, poverty and a constant, never-ending fear and uncertainty. They expose our children to conditions that make me cringe.

I hope to see Elizabeth again one day, having fully realized her potential. But without changes to the conditions that keep her parents in the underground economy and vulnerable to criminal sanctions, she will not have a full opportunity to shine as brightly as I know she can.


Antle, B. F., Barbee, A. P., Sullivan, D., Yankeelov, P., Johnson, L. & Cunningham, M.R. (2007). The relationship between domestic violence and child neglect. Brief Treatment and Crisis Intervention, 7 (4), 364-382.

Aroian, K.J. (2001). Immigrant women’s health. Annual Review of Nursing Research, 19 , 179-226.

Baum, J., Jones, R. & Barry, C. (2010). In the child’s best interest? The consequences of losing a lawful immigrant parent to deportation. Retrieved from University of California, Berkeley, School of Law Web site: http://www.law.berkeley.edu/files/Human_Rights_report.pdf

Capps, R., Castaneda, R. M., Chaudry, A. & Santos, R. (2007). Paying the price: The impact of immigration raids on American’s children. The Urban Institute. Retrieved June 9, 2010, from http://www.urban.org/UploadedPDF/411566_immigration_raids.pdf

Crosson-Tower, C. (2005). Understanding Child Abuse and Neglect . Pearson, Allyn & Bacon: Boston.

Lounds, J. J., Borkowski, J. G. & Whitman, L. T. (2006). The potential for child neglect: The case of adolescent mothers and their children. Child Maltreatment, 11 (3), 281-294.

Slack, K. S., Holl, J. L. McDaniel, M., Yoo, J. & Bolger, K. (2004). Understanding the risks of child neglect: An exploration of poverty and parenting characteristics. Child Maltreatment, 9 (4), 395-408.

Wheeler, M. (2009). Children of undocumented parents may be at higher developmental risk. Retrieved from UCLA School of Public Health Web site: http://www.ph.ucla.edu/pr/newsitem071309.html

Houston Catholic Worker , Vol. XXX, No. 4, August-October 2010.