Children in the Crosshairs

Since inauguration day, there hasn’t been a quiet week. DACA, travel bans, raids targeting sanctuary cities, and now ICE has begun arresting immigrant parents whose children flee their home country to join their parent in the U.S. This new tactic is so cruel. At the border, agents question each unaccompanied child with seemingly innocent questions:  Where are you going? What is the address? What are the names of the people who live there? Who paid to bring you to the border? Days or weeks later, ICE agents appear at the family’s home, take the adults (parents, older siblings, or aunts and uncles) into custody, and start the process of deporting them. If the child, or other children, are living in the home, ICE agents may take them into immigration custody, or call child welfare authorities, throwing countless more children into traumatic situations. ICE then threatens to charge the parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles or older siblings with human smuggling, a federal offense that carries a sentence of 10 years in prison. Meanwhile, the child is in immigration custody, facing indefinite detention if there is no one else available to sponsor their release.

By taking this callous approach to immigration enforcement, ICE is violating a principle that is deeply rooted in U.S. law and culture. No state actor can deny a parent’s right to raise his or her child without appearing before a judge—one specially trained in matters of family law and the rights of children—and demonstrating why separation from the parent is needed to protect that child. Why? Because every state in the country recognizes and safeguards the principle of family unity, of keeping children with their parents, where they are loved and feel safe, where they can grow and develop.

For some it is unfathomable that a parent would allow someone else to bring their child from Honduras, through Guatemala and Mexico to the U.S. border. Others wonder how a mother could travel over land for weeks with her 3 year old. But for each family, there is a story.

A father, fearing for his teenager’s life in home country, pays to bring him to the U.S. At the border, the boy is taken into federal custody. In the past, the father could apply to the government for his son’s release. If approved, the father served as the son’s sponsor, allowing the son to live outside government custody while his immigration case is pending. Now, with this new ICE policy, the same father risks being apprehended by ICE and deported if he applies to become his son’s sponsor. He also risks that everyone else in his home—including other children—will come to the government’s attention and end up in immigration detention or with state child welfare officials. Not only that, he also risks criminal prosecution by the federal government for “smuggling” his son into the U.S. The risks are simply too grave. As a consequence, the boy languishes in detention, detention that is unnecessary given there is an able, fit parent who can act as the child’s sponsor.

This policy violates not only the parents’ rights, but the rights of these children to be cared for by their parents. We’ve seen firsthand the trauma caused when children are separated from their parents. We’ve visited children who are unable to sleep, who lose their appetite, who are consistently anxious and afraid, who fall into depression. We’ve seen young children regress developmentally, and have difficulty expressing their sadness, anger and frustration. We’ve even seen children give up their right to ask for protection, and instead ask to be sent back to the danger they fled in order to keep someone else in their family out of harm’s way.

We are appointed as Child Advocate for the most vulnerable children in custody. Our job is to advocate for their best interests. When we are appointed in these cases, we work to get the child released to another family member so that the child doesn’t languish in detention. We work to find an attorney to represent the parent or other relative in the hopes that they can get released from detention to care for their child. Our volunteer Child Advocates meet with the children every week. They make sure the kids don’t give up. If other children have been taken into custody along with the sponsor, we find out where they’ve been placed and assign another Child Advocate. We keep working until they are safe and reunited with family.

This new practice by ICE uses children against their parents. It is unconscionable. ICE is taking advantage of children at their most vulnerable moment. They’re on their own—running from dangerous situations and seeking the safety of family. And this is how the Department of Homeland Security greets them—by extracting information about their parents and then using that information to take their parents into custody, put them in deportation proceedings, and threaten criminal charges for smuggling, all because they sent for their children to join them in the U.S., away from political oppression, rampant gang violence, and/or ethnic conflict. We should try to assist these children, not keep them from their parents. We should make sure they’re in the care of people who love them and value their well-being.


Maria Woltjen
Executive Director and Lecturer at Law
Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights
at the University of Chicago Law School

Jennifer Nagda
Policy Director, Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights
Lecturer, Penn Law