illustration of child

COVID-19, ICE, and the Betrayal of Latino Children

The acronyms COVID-19 and ICE will forever be etched in the psyche of poor, Latino children.

At the height of immigration enforcement, when an eight-year-old told me that ICE is “another word for la policía,” I didn’t need to be a psychologist to figure out that this confabulation between immigration enforcement and police law enforcement was a recipe for disaster. During this pandemic, Latino children are also experiencing the ruthless devastation COVID-19 is causing in their communities. Data is emerging daily to support the notion that ICE (Immigration Customs Enforcement) and COVID-19 are colluding to decimate the Latino immigrant community in the US.

For Latino children in the US, the words ICE and COVID have become metaphors that embody physical and emotional threat, loss, grief, and a deep sense of betrayal by a nation that claims to care for immigrants and children.

Immigration, Race, and Social Control

Latinos are the largest immigrant group in the US. They are also the largest population locked up in about 200 immigration detention centers spread across the country. Currently under immigration custody are nearly 40,000 detainees, about 90 percent of which are Latino men, mostly from Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Cuba. Unfortunately, many of these adult detainees are parents of US citizen children.1

In times such as these, citizen children of undocumented Latino parents who are currently detained face a double tragedy—they may lose their parents to either deportation or death by COVID-19. Documented COVID-19 outbreaks in immigration detention centers throughout the nation are plentiful. COVID-19 has already wreaked havoc in detention centers and prisons, where physical distancing is impossible. The overcrowded conditions of immigrant detention centers pose a massive public health threat as they are ripe for coronavirus spread. Optimistic estimates indicate that 72 percent of individuals housed in immigration detention centers could be infected within 90 days of an outbreak. Our nation needs a new way forward that takes seriously the well-being and interests of children whose parents are incarcerated or detained during this pandemic.

The high COVID-19 fatality rate data clearly indicates that people of color—particularly African Americans and Latinos—are dying in disproportionate numbers in the US. Racial health inequities of this magnitude always point to pernicious social problems in our nation. For Latino immigrants, detention and deportation are fueled by similar inflammatory rhetoric used with their Black brothers and sisters. Under the arguments that they are “criminals,” African Americans and Latinos have experienced exorbitant amounts of incarceration and detention (which, for Latinos, is another form of imprisonment). Mass detention and mass incarceration are both modern forms of social control rooted in racism, discrimination, and the criminalization of the other. The US operates the most extensive incarceration system and the largest immigration detention system in the world.

The Plight of Immigrant Families during COVID-19

The collateral damage of immigration enforcement affects all children of immigrants,2 regardless of their parents’ legal status. And this negative impact is now exponentially magnified during the pandemic. At the onset of the pandemic, a family friend—a naturalized US citizen from Central America who has lived in the US for over 35 years—had to make a heart-wrenching decision. Should he report to work in a factory where no masks, no gloves, and no social distancing were enforced and risk getting COVID-19? Or should he relinquish his family’s only form of steady income to weather this hard season and quit his job? He was lucky. Someone blew the whistle, and the factory was shut down. It was a textile company and not considered an essential business. Yet many states and many companies that are not as immigrant-friendly are playing the “essential worker yet disposable migrant” game, putting thousands of immigrants at risk of death by COVID-19. Children of immigrant parents who have legal status, in the form of US residency or even citizenship, are more protected than their peers who have parents with precarious legal status. But they, too, pay the price in a society that undervalues and exploits immigrants.

Many “essential workers” are undocumented immigrants working in the food industry, from poultry and meat-processing plants to farmworkers to cooks and food deliverers. Most are working in essential supply-chain businesses and corporations, yet with no access to health insurance. A common belief is that immigrants drain the US economy. However, plenty of data proves the contrary.3 Undocumented immigrants contribute to the US economy in substantial and undeniable ways.

A not-so-lucky Mexican-American woman, a mother of citizen children, who works in the food industry—deemed an essential worker—has to report to work every day and leave her special needs child and struggling teenagers home alone. She and her family are paying our country a double tax. Her husband is currently locked up in detention (he’s been there over three months) with little hope of being released due to a backlog in immigration courts. She has to figure out a way to pay for immigration lawyers and expensive evaluations to demonstrate extreme hardship in a crowded immigration court. And if she wants to get her husband out of the for-profit managed detention center he is in, she has to produce the money to bail him out. Immigration detention bail bonds run an average of $8,000. This woman has to oversee matters of life or death while reporting to work to bring food to our tables—at the expense of her health and that of her citizen children. This immigrant family’s predicament is a tragedy and an outrage. 

The Betrayal of Children of Immigrants

Children in immigrant families, without social security numbers, do not receive the government’s highly awaited stimulus checks. And the protections they are eligible for as citizens are often sabotaged by other policies, such as the Public Charge Rule, that can instill a paralyzing fear in undocumented parents, preventing them from accessing services for their citizen children.4 Despite tax contributions to our nation paid by their immigrant parents, citizen children of undocumented parents are at higher risk—beyond poverty—due to the undocumented status of their parents. By being part of “mixed-status families” (immigrant families with varying legal status among members), citizen children end up on the receiving end of severe government backlash against their parents.

ICE continues to raid immigrant homes and to separate parents from their children during our current national health crisis. Parent-child separation continues throughout our 50 states as we all hunker down to try to flatten the curve. Yet from biblical times (Exod 2), to world war accounts, to contemporary stories of children being ripped away from their parents at the US border, we know that forcibly separating a parent from a child is detrimental to their well-being. But in times of great need like we are living during this pandemic, we often forget. It is hard to see beyond our own needs; indeed, it is a normal human condition to avoid pain and emotional flooding. When faced with troubling images, we tend to cope by burying our heads in the sand and pretending nothing is happening. It is called denial. But COVID-19 and ICE do not stop for wishful thinking or quick prayers. We no longer have the luxury of pretending there is no problem. The devastation ICE and COVID-19 are causing is fueled by the societal structures and processes we have so long fertilized while turning a blind eye to the ever-growing weeds of inequalities and health disparities among children of immigrants.

Research shows that US citizen children of detained or deported parents suffer tremendously during and following a forced parent separation. Many children left behind experience extreme psychological distress in the form of debilitating anxiety and depression, and some experience trauma.5 Now, trauma is very different from just having a hard time. Childhood trauma experts, like Jack P. Shonkoff from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, warn us about the immediate and lifelong physical and mental health negative impacts children of immigrants may experience when forcibly and abruptly separated from their parents.6 Children whose parents are in prolonged detention must also contend with an additional host of other stressors—food and housing insecurity, poverty, and significant disruptions in schooling and everyday family life—a cascade effect that happens when the primary breadwinner parent is taken away.

Kids are resilient, but the accumulation of adversity—without a support system—often breaks a child down. Indeed, we all are experiencing some form of stress during this pandemic. But this is “tolerable stress,” which, with connection and support from others, we will transcend. What our Latino US citizen children of detained and deported parents are currently experiencing is a form of “toxic stress.”7 They have little to no social support to weather the pandemic storm. To make matters worse, many do not even have a reliable internet connection to connect with the outside world or attend school. Often the parent left behind is emotionally overwhelmed and absorbed by many economic, immigration process, and day-to-day demands to salvage their family. And during the pandemic, the emotional demands on the caregiver left behind exponentially worsen. In times when we all have to shelter in place and physical distancing is enforced, there are often not enough supporting adults (e.g., teachers, mentors) to help children maneuver through such excruciating and disorienting loss and stress. Children of immigrants are the fastest-growing population in the US, and our short-sighted efforts to get rid of their parents—against all scientific evidence—are creating even more looming and deep social problems for years to come.

A Time for Change

During this pandemic, just about every sector of our society was forced to come to a halt. Yet immigration enforcement inside the US did not stop. ICE continued to raid homes and communities, using scarce N-95 masks and putting many at risk. Many detainees with no criminal histories and high health vulnerabilities are dying in detention centers, not to mention the guards. Active immigration enforcement in the form of raids and detention are adding insult to injury during these unprecedented difficult times. The detention of undocumented parents of children and youth is an inhumane and ill-judged vicious attack against some of the most vulnerable members of our society.

Every generation of Christians has to reclaim Jesus for the sociopolitical context of their time. The plight of children of immigrants in the US is a vast social problem that is an opportunity for the church today. Amid a rapidly changing world, COVID-19 conspiracy theories, and longstanding social exclusion of vulnerable groups in our nation, Christians must remain grounded in, and let our actions be guided by, “kingdom values.” God-ordained values deem all human beings as having a God-given worth, regardless of immigration status, age, race, ethnicity, or social status. As Christ-followers, we all have a moral mandate to care for the least of these (Matt 25:31–46). Those who care for and influence children must follow God’s high standards (Luke 18:15–17) that embody righteousness and justice (Isa 5:16).8 The Scriptures also command us to welcome the stranger (Matt 25), question morally indefensible policies and unjust laws, and prioritize care for children and families. As a community that roots itself in the Bible, our Christian and social responsibility for the next generation must grow fiercer during this pandemic.

Many countries are implementing more humane alternatives to prolonged immigration detention. Ankle monitor bracelets and release until formal court proceedings are viable options to reduce exposure to highly infectious facilities such as detention centers. If not for moral and ethical reasons, the release of immigrant detainees on parole will reduce COVID-19 outbreaks inside immigration detention centers. Releasing detained parents of children could be a first step toward reducing harsh detention practices that put citizen children’s psychological well-being at risk. The unintended damage of having a detainee who is a parent of citizen children locked up, in times such as this, is too high to pay in both the short and long term. Our children’s future is at stake in the choices and decisions we make today. But what do Christians have to say?  Are we willing to challenge oppressive laws and systems, fight for justice, and advocate for vulnerable children made in the image of our triune God?

Although painful, times of crisis often afford us a great opportunity for change. In these challenging times, it is difficult to imagine moving forward. Yet all institutions in our society are being forced to change, to pivot. Our immigration system has to change. Yes, COVID-19 has changed the world; let’s not squander this opportunity to make our nation a better place for all children, regardless of their parents’ immigration status. By 2050, our nation’s population will be primarily non-White. Moving forward, we will have to rebuild our country, a nation of immigrants, with the child’s best interest in mind—for they are the present and the future of America.

Written By

Lisseth Rojas-Flores is associate professor of clinical psychology at the School of Psychology and Marriage & Family Therapy at Fuller Seminary. A bilingual/bicultural licensed clinical psychologist, she works to address the interrelationships between family, mental health, and social justice issues. Her primary research interests focus on trauma, youth violence prevention, and the quality of parent-child relationships and overall well-being of children and parents living in low-income immigrant families in the United States. She also engages in research examining the impact of community violence on parents, teachers, and adolescents living in El Salvador.

The acronyms COVID-19 and ICE will forever be etched in the psyche of poor, Latino children.

At the height of immigration enforcement, when an eight-year-old told me that ICE is “another word for la policía,” I didn’t need to be a psychologist to figure out that this confabulation between immigration enforcement and police law enforcement was a recipe for disaster. During this pandemic, Latino children are also experiencing the ruthless devastation COVID-19 is causing in their communities. Data is emerging daily to support the notion that ICE (Immigration Customs Enforcement) and COVID-19 are colluding to decimate the Latino immigrant community in the US.

For Latino children in the US, the words ICE and COVID have become metaphors that embody physical and emotional threat, loss, grief, and a deep sense of betrayal by a nation that claims to care for immigrants and children.

Immigration, Race, and Social Control

Latinos are the largest immigrant group in the US. They are also the largest population locked up in about 200 immigration detention centers spread across the country. Currently under immigration custody are nearly 40,000 detainees, about 90 percent of which are Latino men, mostly from Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Cuba. Unfortunately, many of these adult detainees are parents of US citizen children.1

In times such as these, citizen children of undocumented Latino parents who are currently detained face a double tragedy—they may lose their parents to either deportation or death by COVID-19. Documented COVID-19 outbreaks in immigration detention centers throughout the nation are plentiful. COVID-19 has already wreaked havoc in detention centers and prisons, where physical distancing is impossible. The overcrowded conditions of immigrant detention centers pose a massive public health threat as they are ripe for coronavirus spread. Optimistic estimates indicate that 72 percent of individuals housed in immigration detention centers could be infected within 90 days of an outbreak. Our nation needs a new way forward that takes seriously the well-being and interests of children whose parents are incarcerated or detained during this pandemic.

The high COVID-19 fatality rate data clearly indicates that people of color—particularly African Americans and Latinos—are dying in disproportionate numbers in the US. Racial health inequities of this magnitude always point to pernicious social problems in our nation. For Latino immigrants, detention and deportation are fueled by similar inflammatory rhetoric used with their Black brothers and sisters. Under the arguments that they are “criminals,” African Americans and Latinos have experienced exorbitant amounts of incarceration and detention (which, for Latinos, is another form of imprisonment). Mass detention and mass incarceration are both modern forms of social control rooted in racism, discrimination, and the criminalization of the other. The US operates the most extensive incarceration system and the largest immigration detention system in the world.

The Plight of Immigrant Families during COVID-19

The collateral damage of immigration enforcement affects all children of immigrants,2 regardless of their parents’ legal status. And this negative impact is now exponentially magnified during the pandemic. At the onset of the pandemic, a family friend—a naturalized US citizen from Central America who has lived in the US for over 35 years—had to make a heart-wrenching decision. Should he report to work in a factory where no masks, no gloves, and no social distancing were enforced and risk getting COVID-19? Or should he relinquish his family’s only form of steady income to weather this hard season and quit his job? He was lucky. Someone blew the whistle, and the factory was shut down. It was a textile company and not considered an essential business. Yet many states and many companies that are not as immigrant-friendly are playing the “essential worker yet disposable migrant” game, putting thousands of immigrants at risk of death by COVID-19. Children of immigrant parents who have legal status, in the form of US residency or even citizenship, are more protected than their peers who have parents with precarious legal status. But they, too, pay the price in a society that undervalues and exploits immigrants.

Many “essential workers” are undocumented immigrants working in the food industry, from poultry and meat-processing plants to farmworkers to cooks and food deliverers. Most are working in essential supply-chain businesses and corporations, yet with no access to health insurance. A common belief is that immigrants drain the US economy. However, plenty of data proves the contrary.3 Undocumented immigrants contribute to the US economy in substantial and undeniable ways.

A not-so-lucky Mexican-American woman, a mother of citizen children, who works in the food industry—deemed an essential worker—has to report to work every day and leave her special needs child and struggling teenagers home alone. She and her family are paying our country a double tax. Her husband is currently locked up in detention (he’s been there over three months) with little hope of being released due to a backlog in immigration courts. She has to figure out a way to pay for immigration lawyers and expensive evaluations to demonstrate extreme hardship in a crowded immigration court. And if she wants to get her husband out of the for-profit managed detention center he is in, she has to produce the money to bail him out. Immigration detention bail bonds run an average of $8,000. This woman has to oversee matters of life or death while reporting to work to bring food to our tables—at the expense of her health and that of her citizen children. This immigrant family’s predicament is a tragedy and an outrage. 

The Betrayal of Children of Immigrants

Children in immigrant families, without social security numbers, do not receive the government’s highly awaited stimulus checks. And the protections they are eligible for as citizens are often sabotaged by other policies, such as the Public Charge Rule, that can instill a paralyzing fear in undocumented parents, preventing them from accessing services for their citizen children.4 Despite tax contributions to our nation paid by their immigrant parents, citizen children of undocumented parents are at higher risk—beyond poverty—due to the undocumented status of their parents. By being part of “mixed-status families” (immigrant families with varying legal status among members), citizen children end up on the receiving end of severe government backlash against their parents.

ICE continues to raid immigrant homes and to separate parents from their children during our current national health crisis. Parent-child separation continues throughout our 50 states as we all hunker down to try to flatten the curve. Yet from biblical times (Exod 2), to world war accounts, to contemporary stories of children being ripped away from their parents at the US border, we know that forcibly separating a parent from a child is detrimental to their well-being. But in times of great need like we are living during this pandemic, we often forget. It is hard to see beyond our own needs; indeed, it is a normal human condition to avoid pain and emotional flooding. When faced with troubling images, we tend to cope by burying our heads in the sand and pretending nothing is happening. It is called denial. But COVID-19 and ICE do not stop for wishful thinking or quick prayers. We no longer have the luxury of pretending there is no problem. The devastation ICE and COVID-19 are causing is fueled by the societal structures and processes we have so long fertilized while turning a blind eye to the ever-growing weeds of inequalities and health disparities among children of immigrants.

Research shows that US citizen children of detained or deported parents suffer tremendously during and following a forced parent separation. Many children left behind experience extreme psychological distress in the form of debilitating anxiety and depression, and some experience trauma.5 Now, trauma is very different from just having a hard time. Childhood trauma experts, like Jack P. Shonkoff from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, warn us about the immediate and lifelong physical and mental health negative impacts children of immigrants may experience when forcibly and abruptly separated from their parents.6 Children whose parents are in prolonged detention must also contend with an additional host of other stressors—food and housing insecurity, poverty, and significant disruptions in schooling and everyday family life—a cascade effect that happens when the primary breadwinner parent is taken away.

Kids are resilient, but the accumulation of adversity—without a support system—often breaks a child down. Indeed, we all are experiencing some form of stress during this pandemic. But this is “tolerable stress,” which, with connection and support from others, we will transcend. What our Latino US citizen children of detained and deported parents are currently experiencing is a form of “toxic stress.”7 They have little to no social support to weather the pandemic storm. To make matters worse, many do not even have a reliable internet connection to connect with the outside world or attend school. Often the parent left behind is emotionally overwhelmed and absorbed by many economic, immigration process, and day-to-day demands to salvage their family. And during the pandemic, the emotional demands on the caregiver left behind exponentially worsen. In times when we all have to shelter in place and physical distancing is enforced, there are often not enough supporting adults (e.g., teachers, mentors) to help children maneuver through such excruciating and disorienting loss and stress. Children of immigrants are the fastest-growing population in the US, and our short-sighted efforts to get rid of their parents—against all scientific evidence—are creating even more looming and deep social problems for years to come.

A Time for Change

During this pandemic, just about every sector of our society was forced to come to a halt. Yet immigration enforcement inside the US did not stop. ICE continued to raid homes and communities, using scarce N-95 masks and putting many at risk. Many detainees with no criminal histories and high health vulnerabilities are dying in detention centers, not to mention the guards. Active immigration enforcement in the form of raids and detention are adding insult to injury during these unprecedented difficult times. The detention of undocumented parents of children and youth is an inhumane and ill-judged vicious attack against some of the most vulnerable members of our society.

Every generation of Christians has to reclaim Jesus for the sociopolitical context of their time. The plight of children of immigrants in the US is a vast social problem that is an opportunity for the church today. Amid a rapidly changing world, COVID-19 conspiracy theories, and longstanding social exclusion of vulnerable groups in our nation, Christians must remain grounded in, and let our actions be guided by, “kingdom values.” God-ordained values deem all human beings as having a God-given worth, regardless of immigration status, age, race, ethnicity, or social status. As Christ-followers, we all have a moral mandate to care for the least of these (Matt 25:31–46). Those who care for and influence children must follow God’s high standards (Luke 18:15–17) that embody righteousness and justice (Isa 5:16).8 The Scriptures also command us to welcome the stranger (Matt 25), question morally indefensible policies and unjust laws, and prioritize care for children and families. As a community that roots itself in the Bible, our Christian and social responsibility for the next generation must grow fiercer during this pandemic.

Many countries are implementing more humane alternatives to prolonged immigration detention. Ankle monitor bracelets and release until formal court proceedings are viable options to reduce exposure to highly infectious facilities such as detention centers. If not for moral and ethical reasons, the release of immigrant detainees on parole will reduce COVID-19 outbreaks inside immigration detention centers. Releasing detained parents of children could be a first step toward reducing harsh detention practices that put citizen children’s psychological well-being at risk. The unintended damage of having a detainee who is a parent of citizen children locked up, in times such as this, is too high to pay in both the short and long term. Our children’s future is at stake in the choices and decisions we make today. But what do Christians have to say?  Are we willing to challenge oppressive laws and systems, fight for justice, and advocate for vulnerable children made in the image of our triune God?

Although painful, times of crisis often afford us a great opportunity for change. In these challenging times, it is difficult to imagine moving forward. Yet all institutions in our society are being forced to change, to pivot. Our immigration system has to change. Yes, COVID-19 has changed the world; let’s not squander this opportunity to make our nation a better place for all children, regardless of their parents’ immigration status. By 2050, our nation’s population will be primarily non-White. Moving forward, we will have to rebuild our country, a nation of immigrants, with the child’s best interest in mind—for they are the present and the future of America.

Lisseth Rojas-Flores (headshot)

Lisseth Rojas-Flores is associate professor of clinical psychology at the School of Psychology and Marriage & Family Therapy at Fuller Seminary. A bilingual/bicultural licensed clinical psychologist, she works to address the interrelationships between family, mental health, and social justice issues. Her primary research interests focus on trauma, youth violence prevention, and the quality of parent-child relationships and overall well-being of children and parents living in low-income immigrant families in the United States. She also engages in research examining the impact of community violence on parents, teachers, and adolescents living in El Salvador.

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