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Anyone who has spent time with children knows that even the youngest kids are quick to absorb all that is being said around them. Thus, it is no surprise that children have caught on to the use of the term “illegal immigrant” when adults talk about immigration, and for children of immigrants, this has increasingly caused a great deal of confusion and fear.

A new report by the Center for American Progress (CAP) takes a comprehensive look at the detrimental impact of federal and state immigration enforcement policies on children and families.  The report, written by Joanna Dreby of the State University of New York, lifts up the voices of children themselves—those whose families have been torn apart and those that live in fear of that threat every day. In addition to highlighting the economic and emotional impacts, Dreby also identifies emerging trends such as children entering the child welfare system due to immigration enforcement measures as well as the increase in “sudden single motherhood” among immigrant families due to the high rate of fathers being deported.

Yet perhaps one of the report’s most troubling findings is that many of the children interviewed understood the term “immigrant” to be something negative and equivalent to “illegal.” As a daughter of Mexican immigrants, I find the growing trend of shame and fear among children in immigrant families very upsetting. I know the power of words all too well. When I was growing up I also struggled with fitting in and feeling accepted, and I recall wishing that my family was just “normal.” I grew up in a Midwestern city with very few immigrants, and I was the only kid in class whose parents spoke Spanish at home and whose father had something called a “resident alien card.” I can vividly remember how distressed I was at the age of five to think that my father was an alien and how my poor mother spent several hours trying to explain that the term simply meant that they were from another country not another planet. So while I did at one point worry whether or not my family was completely human, I never once thought that we were “illegal” or had reason to be afraid of the police.

I am now not only incredibly proud of my immigrant heritage and my identity as a Latina, but I have also dedicated my career to promoting policies and programs that empower children of immigrants. It is clear that the messages our children are getting from the media, the broader community, and loud anti-immigrant activists are having a potentially long-term impact on how they view themselves, and this negative self-perception could transcend generations. It is simply unacceptable to have our children questioning their own self-worth or the legality of their existence because of the widespread use of hateful language that dehumanizes and criminalizes the very children who are going to be the driving force behind our country’s future.

Children of immigrants are the fastest growing segment of the U.S. child population representing one quarter of all children in the U.S., and while the vast majority are U.S. citizens and others are undocumented, each and every single one will play a role in our future. We as a nation will only be a successful if our children believe in their own value and potential.  Policies that ensure access to a high quality education, healthcare coverage, and income supports for low-income families are essential to accomplish this goal. The CAP report also points to the need for a legalization process for immigrant parents of U.S. citizen children as well as modifications to immigration enforcement and child welfare policies to ensure family unity and parents' ability to make decisions regarding their child’s care.

But changing policy is only part of the solution. We also need to change the way we talk about our immigrant community so that all our children can have the confidence and motivation to realize their dreams. Thus, we must hold reporters, policymakers, and our own friends accountable for the words they use by helping them understand why the term “illegal immigrant” is so offensive. Changing the conversation will take time and may be uncomfortable at times, but there is simply too much at stake not to. For so many years, undocumented youth were terrified of revealing their status, but because of their courage and the recognition of their own power, they over time built a national movement behind being “undocumented and unafraid.” And today, those same undocumented youth are now lining up to apply for deferred action for childhood arrivals (DACA), a policy change that they helped bring about by refusing to let the rest of the world label them.

Thus, I do indeed have hope for an America where we truly see each other and respect each other for who we are, where we came from, and where we are going together. And that means an America where we recognize that no human being —and certainly no child—is “illegal.”

 


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