By Donna R. Gabaccia, Director, Immigration History Research Center
Aliens can be deported; citizens cannot. In a â€śnation of immigrants,â€? families routinely include both aliens and citizens. Thatâ€™s why deportation so often raises troubling issues.
Take the case, reported last week, of â€śA Mother Torn from Her Baby.â€? A breast-feeding mother from Honduras was detained by immigration officials. She had been living illegally in the U.S. with her three children and with a sister and brother-in-law who were both workers and parents. In their household of 9, three were foreign-born adults without papers, and six were children, four of them young citizens of the United States.
The case is not an unusual one. Recent raids have revealed that about two-thirds of unauthorized immigrant workers are parents. About two-thirds of those children are citizens who cannot be deported with them. Experts estimate that three million American children have deportable parents. Unlike other citizens, furthermore, these children cannot sponsor their parentsâ€™ applications for family reunification visas: only adults can do that.
Deporting large numbers of â€śillegalsâ€? sounds easy but it isnâ€™t. When deported parents cannot support their American-based children from abroad, as many cannot, (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wpdyn/content/article/2007/11/18/AR2007111800871.html), the children inevitably become dependent on social services.
Angry commentators who insist â€śillegal immigrantsâ€? are using their children as â€śhuman shieldsâ€? must either accept American responsibility for the long-term care of the citizen children of deported parents or insist that children inherit their parentsâ€™ guilt.
Few Americans will easily accept the punishment of children for parental errors, especially when most evidence suggests children of foreign-born parents are meeting or exceeding the integration of earlier generations into the American mainstream. The vast majority possesses strong English language skills. Immigrantsâ€™ children do as well in school as other low-income American children. Recent reports note immigrant childrenâ€™s involvement even in mainstream groups like the Boys Scouts and Girl Scouts.
In fact, the angriest few are willing to punish children. To date, however, the 14th Amendment to the Constitutionâ€”passed to guarantee birthright citizenship to emancipated slavesâ€”has been upheld by the courts for the children of even hated and excluded foreigners. Denying or revoking the citizenship of the children of unauthorized immigrants would require constitutional amendment. Itâ€™s unlikely that many Americans would support this kind of tinkering with the 14th Amendment.