The invisible 10 million youth in America

When we grapple with the problems of our criminal-legal-immigration system, we think of the children who were taken from their parents at the US border. We consider the 195,000 youth held in juvenile detention centers and jails across our nation, confined for everything from murder to failure to maintain a 2.5 GPA. The overwhelming majority come from oppressed ethnic minorities and are indigenous, Black and non-Black Latinx.

But there is an additional group of 10 million young people across this country who are hidden in plain sight. These are documented and undocumented youth whose parents are incarcerated, detained, or have been deported. These are the faces of parental removal.

These youth are the invisible 10 million.

Parental removal is the act of the state removing parents or primary caregivers from their children because those parents are perceived to have, or have, violated the criminal-legal-immigration system.

Parental removal happens for myriad reasons. It could be that parents overstayed their visas, didn’t pay child support, entered the US illegally, or committed domestic violence. They may be asylum seekers. They may have protested harsh working conditions, talked back to an officer at a routine traffic stop, or are simply unemployed.

It’s paramount to understand that children of incarcerated or deported parents are also sentenced to lives of negative health and life outcomes. They are more likely than their peers to forgo medical care, experience depression or anxiety, use drugs, and engage in risky sexual behavior. The American Immigration Council’s 2020 study found that children experience toxic stress when they are suddenly separated from their parents, and that stress puts them at greater risk of developing chronic health conditions, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicidal ideation, alcoholism, and more.

Research conducted by the American Immigration Council in 2021 found that 4.4 million US citizen children live with at least one undocumented parent. The National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence’s 2016 study found that 1 in 28 school-aged youth has an incarcerated parent. That’s roughly three children per classroom in an average public school that have had parents removed by either incarceration or deportation.

Human rights advocates have referred to parental removal as one of the greatest threats to a child’s well-being, and yet there are no programs within the US Department of Justice or within US Immigration and Customs Enforcement systems to support youth affected by it.

The impacts of parental removal are well documented and it is clear that parental removal perpetuates transgenerational cycles of economic instability, poor mental health, education inequities and criminal-legal system involvement, harming these youth and their communities.

There are organizations and youth groups across the country working to free children and their parents from the criminal-legal system’s detention facilities. Youth Rise Texas, where I work, is one such organization. We work to end the systems that criminalize people of color and those who are undocumented. We help youth heal from past trauma, use their voice and become community leaders who will create a more equitable society for all.

But what else can be done? A presidential executive order by the Biden administration can legalize the status of millions. Congress can extend temporary protected status to 2030. State legislators, mayors, and local city councils can work together to ask Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform. State and local governments can end their contracts with private detention facilities.

We can demand that our lawmakers take action to end immigrant child detention and end minors’ incarceration in adult detention centers. We can demand that they release nonviolent prisoners from detention, and instead create just immigration laws.

These actions are possible now.

We can act to help the invisible 10 million children hidden in plain sight.

Lawson is the co-executive director of Youth Rise Texas.

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