The Society for the
Study of Social Issues

SPSSI Policy News RSS Feed - November 9, 2009

By Jutta Tobias

New Materials

The human dimension of immigration policies

Call for expertise in immigration research
Immigration in the United States continues to be a salient topic, relevant for policy-makers as well as for society in general. The children of both legal and illegal immigrants account for nearly 25% of all minors, and the number of immigrant children is increasing more rapidly than any other group of children in the nation. This trend is set to dramatically change America’s racial and ethnic landscape in the future. Hence immigration policies are becoming ever more important for all U.S. citizens. However, current immigration legislation, as well as current immigration and customs enforcement (ICE) policies, are fragmented, and do not provide comprehensive protections of the health and well-being of immigrant family members, especially of undocumented immigrant families. A more comprehensive approach to immigration legislation, as well as a new version of the 2007 legislation on Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR), is likely to be debated during spring 2010.

We are currently exploring SPSSI’s contribution to the immigration policy debate, and would like to hear from you if you are engaged in research relating to immigration policy, or have recently completed such a research cycle. We would also be grateful if you would point us towards other SPSSI members with recent or ongoing research efforts in this area. Our goal in this is to bring relevant social science to the current policy debate on immigration, and inform future policy reform efforts.

More information on current immigration policy and its effect on immigrant families
Immigration and customs enforcement (ICE) has rapidly increased in recent years, with detrimental psychological and human rights consequences for the families of those arriving in the United States for the first time, and of those immigrants whose legal status is being investigated. Since 1994, the United States has spent $35 billion on border enforcement, designed to shield the nation from illegal immigration. However, this has not resulted in a reduction of illegal immigration. During the same period, the estimated number of illegal immigrants living in the U.S. has increased from 5 million to 12 million people.

The adverse human consequences of stricter border enforcement policies since the early 1990s are considerable; more than 5,000 people have died since 1998 while attempting to illegally cross the Mexican/U.S. border via the Arizona desert. Each year, over 400,000 immigrants and their families, as well as asylum seekers and more than 8,000 unaccompanied immigrant children are held in prison-like immigration detention facilities, until their status is decided. Many of those held in these facilities are traumatized and have escaped violence and abuse. Some of them are detained for days, others for months or even years, without access to adequate food, medical care, and education or recreation resources. An alarming number of families are separated during these immigration proceedings. Due to the lack of coordination between immigration and family and child welfare services, and federal and state laws, women are often detained for weeks or months without knowing where their children are after they have been taken away from them. Several cases have been reported where women have permanently lost custody of their children because they were not able to have a say in their children’s family court proceedings.

Overview of recent immigration policy events in D.C.
Two recent events on this important issue took place recently in Washington, D.C. Georgetown University hosted a day-long conference focused on border awareness on October 29, 2009. The conference, “Crisis at our borders: The human reality behind the immigration debate” was co-sponsored by the Jesuit Refugee Service, Georgetown’s Center for Social Justice Research, Teaching and Service, the Institute for the Study of International Migration, and the Woodstock Theological Center. Speakers at the event included Donald M. Kerwin from the Migration Policy Institute, who explained the fragmentation of policies governing the legalization of immigrants. When an immigrant obtains legal status, for example, this does not automatically include his or her children, which leads to an increased risk of the immigrant family being broken up as a consequence of immigration enforcement policies. Since 1998, about 100,000 families have been separated because of ICE raids. Another presenter at the event was Jessica Owens, Immigration Counsel Congressional Fellow with the office of Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), who provided a high-level overview of Sen. Schumer’s current efforts in preparing a new Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR) bill, to be introduced over the course of the next few months. The principles of this legislation include curtailing further illegal immigration, a clearly outlined path to citizenship for undocumented workers, as well as more creative ways to match the United States’ employment needs with incoming immigrant flows.

On November 5th, 2009, First Focus, the Women’s Refugee Commission, Legal Momentum, and the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service co-hosted a Congressional Briefing on Capitol Hill, entitled “The Impact of Immigration Policy on Children”. The event was co-sponsored by Representatives Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) and Lucille Royball-Allard (D-CA), who outlined legislation they had created recently. Rep. Royball-Allard explained the high-level provisions of H.R. 1215, the Immigration Oversight and Fairness Act, designed to reform immigration detention procedures, create legally enforceable detention standards, and provide more humane alternatives to detention for non-criminal asylum seekers and immigrants. Rep. Woolsey gave an overview of H.R. 3531, the Humane Enforcement and Legal Protections for Separated Children Act, which would provide protection for children affected by the immigration laws of the United States, a bill that has been endorsed by over 130 children’s and immigrant groups nationwide. Expert speakers on immigration issues impacting children outlined to the audience the dire consequences of current immigration enforcement policies. University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Law Professor David Thronson explained that one in ten children in the U.S. live in mixed-status families, i.e. those where at least one parent may be an undocumented immigrant. The Department of Homeland Security currently does not keep statistical data on parental deportation and separation of children from their parental custodian. H.R. 1215 would prescribe that such statistics are collected and analyzed. APA member Dr. J. Manuel Casas, Professor at University of California, Santa Barbara, drew attention to the considerable detrimental social and psychological effects on children if their families are broken up because of harsh immigration enforcement procedures. Consequences of this include that these children are more susceptible to dropping out of school early, with society as a whole losing a large proportion of human capital for the future.

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Research that produces nothing but books will not suffice.
                                                                                                                    - Kurt Lewin