Excerpted From: Joanna Dreby and Eric Macias, The Aftermath of Enforcement Episodes for the Children of Immigrants, 57 Law and Society Review 103 (March, 2023) (References) (Full Document Requested)


dreby MaciasFor 30 years, U.S. immigration policy has increasingly focused on enforcement. This article goes beyond cataloging the harms of such policies to document the processes by which they become more or less salient in the lives of children of immigrants over time. In-depth interviews with 86 young adults raised in New York show that enforcement policies shape children's lives either through lived experiences of enforcement episodes or through diffuse fears arising from indirect threats. Qualitative analysis of narratives of (a) deportations post-incarceration, (b) removals, (c) arrests and detentions (d) direct threats, and (e) diffuse fears identifies characteristics related to each that may affect children even after they age into adulthood.

“Because we were undocumented,” explained Leilani sitting across from Joanna at a midtown coffee shop. It was a Tuesday early evening in mid-May. Together for the past 2 h talking, Joanna had long finished her cappuccino, but Leilani's iced coffee sat in front of her barely touched.

This statement surprises because Leilani, at 22, seemed a quintessential New Yorker, born and raised in Brooklyn, a graduate of a Manhattan performing arts high school and a SUNY 4-year school upstate with a 3.0 GPA. As the child of Mexican immigrants, she is just one of a growing demographic. As of 2018, 26% of children under age 18 in the United States lived in an immigrant household, up from 13% in 1990 (Batalova et al., 2020 Children of immigrants like Leilani have been raised during a period marked by a major shift in U.S. immigration policy to increasingly emphasize enforcement; removals doubled between 2001 and 2009 and peaked at a high of 432,281 in 2013 (Gramlich, 2020 The U.S. government's focus on penalizing immigration violations rather than promoting integration has a series of harmful impacts, prompting some young citizens like Leilani to feel uniquely shaped by their parents' immigration status (Castañeda, 2019; Enriquez, 2015

“It is funny you said we were undocumented; do you do that all the time?” asked Joanna.

“Yeah ‘cause when they can't do something, it does affect all of us. Yeah, friendly reminder that we aren't all ok. Half of the team truly is dying being undocumented.”

Interestingly, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had never arrested, detained, or deported a member of Leilani's family. Yet Leilani felt that the threat of a possible deportation shaped her so significantly that as a young adult she described herself as undocumented. This is because the police had been to her apartment three times, the first time when she was 6, in response to calls related to domestic violence.

I think when she [mother] was pregnant, that's [the time] where the officer mentioned to us, ‘are you documented’ and then like everybody got real quiet ... And I told him, we are not going to answer. We plead the fifth ... I think he asked sincerely. When I told him, ‘we plead the fifth,’ ... they got quiet. And I said we plead the fifth as a family. He said, ‘I don't actually wanna know, you are right, don't tell me, but I want you to know, like, ICE is out there and if you give them the opportunity, they are gonna come and get you.

Although in the re-telling Lelani suggested that the police officer tried to be friendly, the fact that he brought ICE into the conversation with her--a minor at the time interacting with the police on behalf of her family--felt like a direct threat. Growing up Leilani thought about ICE frequently; as an adult, she spoke at length about how deeply U.S. immigration policies had impacted her despite her birthright citizenship.

U.S. immigration enforcement activities, such as deportations and raids, affect a variety of populations. This includes children like Leilani (Dreby et al., 2022; Rabin & Menjívar, 2019; Zayas, 2015), deportees who are primarily Latino men (Brotherton & Barrios, 2011; Golash-Boza & Hondagneu-Sotelo, 2013), their partners and spouses who are primarily women (Dreby, 2015; Lopez et al., 2018), and communities navigating the increase in criminalization (Hagan et al., 2010; Lopez, 2019 Fears related to legal status, what De Genova (2002) terms “deportability,” can be devastating for those living with an insecure status, and for legal migrants and citizens in mixed-status families (Abrego, 2011; Aranda et al., 2014; Castañeda, 2019; Gonzales et al., 2019; Menjívar, 2006 Yet, with some notable exceptions, the monolith of enforcement needs to be more fully unpacked. What about these experiences have the most sustaining impacts? For Leilani, no family separation occurred and yet her fears heightened with time. In this study, others described arrests and, in some cases, deportations as not having impacts. We need to better understand what accounts for such variations.

In this article, we dissect what Aranda et al. (2014) describe as the “widespread spillover effects” of the U.S. immigration enforcement regime by considering from children's perspectives what specifically about experiences with enforcement during childhood affect them as they age into adulthood. To do so we analyze narratives from 86 young adult children of immigrants interviewed about the salience of immigration policies in their lives. None faced risks related to their own legal status, and all were raised in New York State or the metropolitan New York City region. Thirty-three spoke of ways enforcement targeted a parent as minors, while 53 did not, but knew of members of their extended families and communities who were.

Young adults' varying accounts of enforcement targeting different members of their social orbits suggest that four types of what we term enforcement episodes have unique characteristics: (a) deportations post-incarceration, (b) removals, (c) arrests and detentions and (d) direct threats. These differ from (e) diffuse fears of enforcement not connected to episodes. We define episodes as a contact moment with law enforcement entities, whether ICE, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) or another agency that may work in tandem with ICE. By conceptualizing episodes, we do not intend to suggest they are insignificant or episodic; to the contrary, we show that enforcement policies at the structural level become salient due to specific characteristics of children's lived experiences of these policies, which helps to explain disparate experiences over time. Experiences within families related to the nature of parent-child relationships, uncertainty caused by episodes, involvement in episodes and the timing of episodes can intensify their aftermath, whereas events outside of families activate diffuse fears. Additionally, episodes that build on each other have the most enduring consequences, whereas some strategies for support work to protect children. Our bottom-up approach to enforcement research helps better conceptualize the breadth of enforcement practices with spillover effects and the depth with which they unfold over the life course.


Historically, U.S. immigration enforcement efforts focused on what Gonzales and others (2019: 79) describe as both “heavy enforcement measures” and “soft enforcement measures” to prevent the long-term settlement of immigrants who met labor demands in the United States (Molina, 2014; Ngai, 2005 “Soft measures” force communities to self-police, often employing fear tactics that create hostile environments for immigrant members (Goodman, 2020; Johnson, 2011 Fear is not the only soft measure tactic, however. Local ordinances that make it illegal for undocumented immigrants to rent apartments, for example, make it challenging to settle in a given community (Coutin, 2000; Longazel, 2016

Over the past 30 years, enforcement efforts have taken a more directly punitive turn, employing heavy enforcement measures that police and criminalize immigrants' daily lives (Gonzales et al., 2019 For example, changes resulting from the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), and the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IRAIRA) made documented migrants vulnerable to removal. These two immigration legislations targeted for deportation proceedings those who had lived in the country for many years without status. And IRAIRA implemented long-term and permanent bars to readmission as “penalties” for time spent in the country without a legal status (Newton, 2008

Since the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in 2002, heavy enforcement efforts have also drastically extended regulatory activities beyond border enforcement and unauthorized entry, to the removal of immigrants in the country's interior (Lopez, 2019; Rosas, 2016; Wadhia, 2019 The last few administrations prioritized the removal of non-citizens who committed crimes, had been charged with crimes, or had removal orders (Brotherton & Barrios, 2011; Caldwell, 2019; Golash-Boza, 2015; Macías-Rojas, 2016; Wadhia, 2019 These efforts resulted in militarized-style small- and large-scale raids with widespread family and community-level impacts (Golash-Boza, 2019; Lopez, 2019; Sampaio, 2015 Like mass incarceration, enforcement policies devastate an unprecedented and growing number of immigrants and their family members, some who are not the objects of enforcement activities themselves due to their birthright citizenship (Ceciliano-Navarro & Golash-Boza, 2021; Golash-Boza, 2019 Notably, the criminalization of Latinos as disproportional targets of enforcement--what scholars refer to as “crimmigration”--codifies a legal system that racializes immigrants and the undocumented (García, 2019; Menjívar, 2021; Stumpf, 2006

The impacts of enforcement on children

Estimates of the number of children of immigrants, 90% of whom are U.S. citizens, who have been affected by the turn to hard tactics are difficult to determine. One report suggests that more than 500,000 U.S. citizen children experienced the apprehension, detention, and deportation of at least one parent between 2011 and 2013 (Capps et al., 2015 Substantively, research identifies three ways enforcement actions change children's lives: separations related to deportation, instability resulting from raids, and the climate of fear associated with possible enforcement.

Deportations increase the probability that children will live without a parent in the immediate household (Amuedo-Dorantes & Arenas-Arroyo, 2019; Heidbrink, 2019 This can expose children to poverty, as families face major economic challenges in the fallout of a deportation, especially when living with what scholars describe as “suddenly single mothers” (Dreby, 2015, p. 31; see also Caldwell, 2019; Lopez, 2019 Older children in families may become what Golash-Boza (2019, p. 11) describes as “abruptly adults” after a removal, particularly because their deported parents face significant barriers to finding employment, furthering children's likelihood of experiencing poverty post-deportation (Brotherton & Barrios, 2011; Caldwell, 2019; Golash-Boza, 2015 Additionally, separation from parents impacts children's mental health. Children of immigrants targeted by enforcement may develop symptoms of depression, anxiety, and trauma (Allen et al., 2015; Brabeck & Qingwen, 2010; Gulbas et al., 2016 Children of deportees exhibit internalizing and externalizing behavior at a higher rate than those living with their immigrant parents, even those with undocumented parents at risk of deportation (Rojas-Flores et al., 2017; Zayas et al., 2015

Large and small-scale raids, which may or may not result in a final order of deportation or longterm separations, also affect child wellbeing. Following workplace raids, schools may intervene to avoid children being left alone, without caregivers; families struggle economically to recover (Capps et al., 2007 Children and their family members exhibit emotional difficulties that do not dissipate quickly, in some cases evident more than a year after the event (Chaudry et al., 2010 Children absorb community-level stress, experiencing hypervigilance, regressive behaviors, and school absenteeism (Lopez, 2019

More broadly speaking, a culture of fear related to the possibility of an immigration raid or other type of enforcement action has amplified in immigrant communities over the past decade (Asad, 2020; Hing, 2018 Although grounded in immigrants' relative sense of disposability, fears may extend beyond the individual directly at risk and manifest as an aspect of everyday life for those living in mixed-status families, shaping parent-child relationships and parenting practices (Dreby, 2015; Enriquez, 2015 Many parents experience anxiety while driving, or in interactions with police officers, due to the racialized nature of immigration enforcement (Prieto, 2018; Schmalzbauer, 2014; Sun & Yuning, 2018 Parents fear children may be left alone in the country, or worse, that they will go into foster care (Hing, 2018); such fears can be transmitted inter-generationally (Berger Cardoso et al., 2018; Lopez et al., 2018 Fears also affect children with insecure legal statuses, like recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), who straddle inclusion and exclusion even when having spent most of their lives in the United States and when having family members who are U.S. citizens (Abrego, 2011; Gonzales, 2016; Menjívar & Abrego, 2012

Children of immigrants may express enforcement fears even if they themselves--or their family members--are not directly at-risk because they are citizens or legal migrants (Dreby, 2015 Children may face “de facto undocumented status” as policies intended to target their parents extend to their lives (Enriquez, 2015, p. 4 Those in mixed-status families experience legal uncertainty as a point for solidarity and togetherness, but also as a possible source of tension (Abrego, 2016; Castañeda, 2019 Additionally, children's fears of separations spill over into daily activities, particularly in schools (Lopez, 2019 They may have poor educational achievement, attendance rates, and graduation rates due to the stress of parents' legal vulnerability (Ee & Gándara, 2020; Yoshikawa et al., 2017 Children may feel overwhelmed in school due to this underlying stress (Gulbas et al., 2016

Current literature that catalogs the stressors related to family separations, raids and enforcement fears typically posit harms as unfolding and compounding over time. That is, heavy enforcement measures are assumed to have rippling effects on child well-being and on families and communities. But which children are most affected by a raid in their community and why? Similarly, a deportation strains households (Brotherton & Barrios, 2011); yet we know less about nuances in the ways tensions unfold from a distance (for an exception see Andrews & Khayar-Cámara, 2020 How might members of families actively surmount stressors related to enforcement? Scholarship shows legal uncertainty and separations to be consequential. In this article we explore--from children's perspectives--what about enforcement, and the complexities it entails, cause enduring hardships and how children may manage these stressors differently.

Notably, new research shows such contextual variability geographically, in the extent to which immigration status may influence how individuals navigate their daily lives across different communities. Some law enforcement agencies have signed 287 g agreements to deputize officers as immigration agents; other local governments have declared themselves as “sanctuary cities” to limit cooperation with federal immigration officials. That is, locality matters in determining how people manage legal status, the choices they make about where to live and where to attend school, and their interactions with law enforcement (Castañeda, 2019; Conley, 2019; García, 2019 For instance, in some communities, immigrants who drive without licenses create routes and networks to avoid police stops that could involve ICE, while in other locations this is not possible (Prieto, 2018; Schmalzbauer, 2014 Immigrants also may use identity expression differently across space, a strategy of “legal passing” (García, 2019

In this paper, we use retrospective interview accounts with children raised during the era of enforcement to understand the temporal variability in how enforcement experiences during childhood may--or may not--come to shape the lives of the children of immigrants into adulthood. Similar to research on geographic variability related to enforcement, we show that certain characteristics of childhood experiences with enforcement, particularly episodes that involve parents and that build on each other over time, likely have longstanding consequences. We also identify which family-level processes, and events outside of families, amplify or ameliorate impacts on children.

[. . .]

Current characterizations of enforcement often assume that they crescendo from a threat to an arrest, then a detention and finally a removal, or they characterize fears as widespread rather than negotiated at the individual level. In this article, we cast a wider net, similar to the way Drotbohm and Hasselberg (2018) theorize “deportation in its broader sense” (p. 2 Doing so identifies variations in micro-level processes that unfold under a macro-level policy approach to provide a more nuanced account of the multiple ways people live enforcement realities over time. This account maps out the myriad ways “legal violence” (Menjívar & Abrego, 2012) shapes the lives of children of immigrants, becoming more, or less, salient over time.

Although we identify the breadth and depth of types of enforcement in experiences, we cannot identify patterns in episode type by race or country of origin, nor can we identify patterns in episodes across rural, suburban and urban community contexts as the sampling strategy is limited in making estimates about the prevalence of episodes for different populations. Future research should consider types of enforcement episodes as they vary by population and geographically. Yet that study participants grew up in vastly different families and communities and still shared ways diffuse fears, direct threats, arrests and detentions, removals and deportations following incarceration shaped their lives, suggests these patterns may transcend family and community characteristics. Of course, narratives also illustrate the ways local environments textured experiences, even in New York where supportive state laws exist, such as the Green Light Law affording those without social security numbers a pathway to apply for a drivers' licenses. Given the long reach of federal U.S. enforcement policies, our findings suggest key practices that can better protect the rights of children in immigrant households.

First, local communities can curtail anti-immigrant rhetoric which heightens fears and anxieties--and ultimately the well-being--of a large swath of the U.S. population. Local officials, in law enforcement agencies, in schools and in governmental offices, must seek ways to avoid and diffuse such direct threats. Those in this study who grew up in communities declared as sanctuary cities as well as those in areas with both high and low numbers of foreign-born populations reported both diffuse fears and direct threats. Communities in New York State need to do much more to counter this pro-enforcement climate.

Second, community members can mediate on behalf of children in the aftermath of detentions and arrests. Local officials can assign family support advocates in federal immigration court proceedings so that U.S. citizen children are not involved in these cases, but also have a voice. When removals occur, children and their families need even more resources, including access to emergency housing and food support and counseling services, to help reduce levels of uncertainty and the disruptions to their lives. Additionally, interventions--by activists and other providers--can de-escalate enforcement episodes and help avoid the tendency for them to accumulate.

Of course, federal policies also need to be reshaped to protect the rights of children. Short of immigration reform legislation, one pathway to better protect children is to broaden the eligibility for waivers of deportation to cover all parents of minors residing in the United States on the assumption that separation in and of itself causes harm. Currently, the bar to prove hardship is exceptionally high and completely discretionary, requiring children to write letters or attend therapy to support pleas for waivers, practices that heighten their involvement. Lowering the bar so that the removal of a parent is considered an undue hardship will better protect children. Additionally, bars to readmission--implemented in 1996--have proven to be especially harmful, permanently altering children's families, even in cases when parents served time for their crimes. These bars need to be revoked.

Ultimately, when provided the resources, young adults actively navigate the aftermath of episodes, developing strategies to at times overcome, or at the very least to come to terms with them. Those who leveraged social support fared better than those who did not. The most effective social support is a legal pathway to quickly resolve enforcement episodes. Thus, while countering enforcement rhetoric and increasing access to support at the local level is essential, we must also collectively push for federal reform. This requires shifting narratives about immigration to recognize the breadth and depth by which enforcement has become a major social problem undermining the rights of an increasingly larger number of the U.S. child population

Joanna Dreby, Department of Sociology, Arts & Sciences 318, University at Albany, 1400 Washington Ave, Albany NY 12222, USA. Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Eric Macias is a PhD Candidate in the Latin American, Caribbean, Latina/os Studies Department at the University at Albany. His dissertation research focuses on undocumented youth who “drop out” of high school, their navigation of “illegality,” and their negotiation of inclusion and belonging.