When we fail our children

Elissa Steglich

Immigration policy has never been easy. Yet I worry about where we are as a society when we cannot even treat immigrant children with the respect and support they deserve. 

Our past and continuing failings are significant – from jailing babies with their mothers, to putting immigrant youth behind bars indefinitely, to separating children from their parents in the name of border security – but our recent protections have also been generous. Since 2001, the broad political spectrum has expressed a desire to make permanent the American identity most Dreamers who were raised in the United States hold. While Congress in its dysfunction could not resolve a way to pass the Dream Act, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program succeeded in providing work authorization and safety from deportation to almost 800,000 members of the next generation. In 2008, Congress increased immigration protections to children migrating to the United States largely on their own and opening new avenues toward permanency for children and youth in whose best interest it is to remain in the United States due to past parental abuse, abandonment or neglect.

Since January, however, the war against children has been constant. Soon after inauguration, immigration raids across the nation, including in Austin, sparked such fear in immigrant communities that children’s school attendance plummeted. In June, the Department of Homeland Security began using child asylum seekers as bait to investigate the parents and relatives in the United States who were coming to their aid. In July, immigration agents targeted Central American teenagers who had come to the United States seeking protection. In September, Attorney General Jeff Sessions called unaccompanied immigrant children “wolves in sheep’s clothing.”

September also brought the cruel end to DACA, throwing the futures of high school, college and graduate students in disarray: It threatened continued employment of DACA holders in their jobs, and it put in jeopardy business plans, home ownership and family unity. This past Monday, the administration released its legislative priorities with the swift deportation of children one of its top priorities.

Congress does not have to join the executive branch in its demonizing and base cruelty to children. Passing legislation to benefit the Dreamers independent of any increased immigration enforcement measures would be one step in the right direction. 

A few years ago, I heard a young migrant from Guatemala reflect that he had learned to dream in the United States. It was a beautiful image — a boy who finally found childhood and allowed himself to picture a future. I can only hope we act before those dreams are erased.

Steglich is a clinical professor at the UT School of Law.