GRAND ISLAND, Neb.
Amid thousands of children around the country distraught over a parent arrested in immigration raids, federal officials, school officials and advocates for immigrants argued over who was to blame for leading kids to post-traumatic stress disorder, separation anxiety and depression, as a study released last Wednesday found.
The study by the Urban Institute blamed U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, recommending congressional oversight over the agency’s workplace operations and calling for clear guidelines for releasing arrested parents to minimize harm to their kids.
But a spokesman for ICE said it’s not the agency’s fault that kids’ lives are disrupted.
“This report takes the bizarre position that ICE is somehow responsible for family disruption caused by parents who make poor decisions,” ICE spokesman Tim Counts said. “Law enforcement agencies across the nation arrest people who have children every day. Everyone understands that parents are responsible for their actions and the resulting impact on their families.”
But in Grand Island, the site of a meatpacking plant raid last year, local officials and community members repeatedly said Wednesday that the fallout children experience affects the whole community.
“It’s hundreds of students, not one. You can prepare in a situation, and we have systems set up to respond to a single family situation,” said Kerri Nazarenus, an administrator with Grand Island Public Schools.
“It’s very difficult to get a phone call at 7:30 in the morning not knowing whether it’s going to be 300 kids or two,” she said.
A child is left without at least one parent for every two adults detained in workplace raids, the study said, and most of those children are citizens or legal immigrants.
“Those children were born in America, and we forgot about their rights during the raids, because they were left parentless,” said Steve Joel, the district’s superintendent.
Researchers visited Grand Island and Greeley, Colo., two of six sites where ICE officers conducted a coordinated raid at Swift & Co. meatpacking plants resulting in about 1,300 arrests. Those arrested were mostly from Mexico and Guatemala.
Researchers also visited New Bedford, Mass., where more than 360 workers were arrested at Michael Bianco Inc., a factory that makes equipment and apparel for the U.S. military.
At the three sites studied, officials arrested 900 suspected illegal immigrants and 500 children abruptly lost contact with their mother, father or both parents. That left them with a combination of unstable supervision, stress, emotional trauma and material needs that can lead to mental health disorders, according to the study.
The study was commissioned by The National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic civil rights organization, which officially released the study last week in Washington.
Counts said ICE goes above and beyond other law enforcement agencies to help parents ensure their children are cared for but does not have a rigid rule for releasing parents to do so.
About 100 people were released in the days following the December Swift & Co. raids for humanitarian reasons, primarily to care for children. Many weren’t released the same day because they lied about whether they had children, Counts said. Some parents lie because they’re afraid their kids will be arrested, too.
Researchers with the study talked to about 30 parents, including some who had been arrested, and dozens of caregivers, religious leaders, school officials, lawyers, advocates and others at each site.
While many teachers and mental health professionals who directly talked to children and parents said they showed signs of various mental health problems, researchers heard about only one parent regularly seeing a psychologist and only one child and two parents who were prescribed psychotropic medications, the study said.
That’s because many Hispanic immigrants have low incomes and can’t afford to seek help, or because they don’t realize their children are suffering from mental health disorders, said mental health professionals interviewed for the study.
Among the study’s other findings:
While children in most cases had one parent to care for them, that parent was often less accustomed to making decisions and in many cases, couldn’t access their spouse’s money.
Families with two parents experienced more long-term separation than single-parent families because the arrested parent was less likely to be quickly released.
According to 2006 Pew Hispanic Center estimates, there are 3.1 million children who are U.S. citizens living with at least one illegal immigrant parent. And 1.8 million more children are themselves illegal immigrants.
Parents and others have long complained that procedures used by ICE agents make it hard for parents to arrange care for their children in case they are arrested, an observation affirmed by the study.
“We’re hearing these stories every week, of something happening, an enforcement action, and kids and families being separated, kids being left behind not taken care of,” La Raza spokeswoman Lisa Navarrete said. “Clearly that’s a major issue within this whole enforcement strategy.”
Counts said ICE stands by its arrest procedures, which include letting people make a phone call, asking about family and child care issues and giving a list of free or low-cost legal assistance organizations in the area.
Work site immigration arrests have dramatically increased in the past two years. According to ICE, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, agents arrested more than 4,000 people in workplace raids from October 2006 through September 2007 and 3,700 during the previous year.
That’s up from fewer than 500 arrests in 2002 and 2003, according to the agency.
“There are five million children with at least one undocumented parent,” said Randy Capps, one of the study’s co-authors. “There are a lot more children, if you will, that are at risk of consequences in the future if these work site raids are ongoing.”
— Associated Press
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