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The Impact of Detention and Deportation on
Latino Immigrant Children and Families: A
Kalina M. Brabeck
Rhode Island College, firstname.lastname@example.org
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Brabeck, Kalina M. and Xu, Qingwen, "The Impact of Detention and Deportation on Latino Immigrant Children and Families: A
Quantitative Exploration" (2010). Faculty Publications. Paper 262.
Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences
32(3) 341 –361
© The Author(s) 2010
Reprints and permission: http://www.
The Impact of
Children and Families:
and Qingwen Xu
Children of Latino immigrants, many of whom live in “mixed-status” families,
are a rapidly growing group in the United States. It is widely accepted that
their development is affected by multiple and complex factors, including those
in their distal context (e.g., laws, institutions, policies). Despite the enormity
of the deportation system and its vigorous implementation in recent years,
little research has investigated how this particular component of the distal
context affects Latino immigrant families. The present survey was designed to
statistically explore the impact of detention/deportation on Latino immigrant
parents and children (N = 132). Regression analyses indicated that (1) parents
with higher levels of legal vulnerability report a greater impact of detention/
deportation on the family environment (parent emotional well-being, ability
to provide financially, and relationships with their children) and children’s
well-being (child’s emotional well-being and academic performance) and
(2) parents’ legal vulnerability and the impact of detention/deportation on
the family predict outcomes for children. Implications for practice and policy
Rhode Island College, Providence, RI, USA
Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA, USA
Center for Human Rights & International Justice, Boston College, MA, USA
Kalina Brabeck, Rhode Island College, 600 Mount Pleasant Avenue, Providence, RI 02908, USA
342 Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences 32(3)
detention, deportation, Latino immigrant families, Latino immigrant children,
It is widely accepted that immigrant children’s development is influenced by
proximal context (e.g., peer, family, extended family) as well as distal con-
text (sometimes called “macrosystems”; Brofenbrenner & Morris, 1998),
which include laws, institutions, social structures, and policies. Research has
documented that this distal context contributes to several specific develop-
mental challenges for children from immigrant families in general and from
Latino immigrant families in particular. For example, researchers have dem-
onstrated that poverty affects all children’s development, contributing to, for
example, lower developmental scores on a range of instruments (Aber,
Bennett, Conley, & Li, 1997). In 2005, 28% of all children living in low-
income families in United States were born into immigrant families (across
nationalities; Capps & Fortuny, 2006); currently, 34% of first-generation
Latino children live in poverty, compared with 26% of those in the second
generation (Fry & Passel, 2009). While immigrant parents (across nationali-
ties) are likely to be working, they tend to be employed in low-skilled jobs
with lower wages and no benefits (Hernandez, 2004).
Across nationalities, children of immigrants, particularly when their parents
are undocumented, are less likely to have health insurance (Capps & Fortuny,
2006) and less likely to participate in public programs (e.g., Temporary
Assistance to Needy Families [TANF], Medicaid, food stamps; Capps,
Hagan, & Rodriguez, 2004). Even when the children are U.S. citizens, their
undocumented parent(s) may fail to understand their child’s eligibility and/or
fear that seeking help puts them at risk for deportation (Capps et al., 2004).
Prior research has found that undocumented parents, particularly those from
Latin America, experience higher levels of food insecurity compared with
their U.S.-born parent peers (Kalil & Chen, 2008). Research has also found
that children of immigrants (across nationalities) are at risk for slower cogni-
tive and language development as well as poorer academic performance, in
part because their parents’ limited English language ability complicates their
efforts to read to their children, help with homework, and get involved in
children’s schools (Capps, Fix, Murray, et al., 2005). Finally, research has
documented the potential challenges posed to children of Latino immigrants
by English language learning; discrimination and racism; adjusting to a new
peer group, culture, and society; and negotiating between the norms of their
parents and those of their peer groups (Fry & Passel, 2009; Gil, Wagner, &
Vega, 2000; Guarnaccia & Lopez, 1998).
Brabeck and Xu 343
Parents’ legal status is an understudied, but important, component of
the distal context that affects children of Latino immigrants’ development
(Yoshikawa & Way, 2008). Policies that define who have access to the ben-
efits of citizenship influence children’s development indirectly, through the
family’s economic status and parents’ psychological functioning (Fuligni
& Yoshikawa, 2003). Yoshikawa, Godfrey, and Rivera (2008), for example,
found that Mexican and Dominican immigrant parents who lacked access to
resources that required identification as a legal U.S. resident (i.e., drivers
licenses and financial services) were more likely to experience economic
hardship and psychological distress, which, in turn, predicted lower levels of
cognitive ability in children at 24 months of age on standardized assessment.
While previous research suggests that children in Latino immigrant fami-
lies face a number of developmental challenges specific to their social and
cultural contexts, research has not explored how the shifting policies and atti-
tudes toward immigrants in the United States have affected the children born
into these families. Such research is particularly important in light of recently
increased implementation of policies that restrict the rights and opportunities
of undocumented immigrants (Kremer, Moccio, & Hammell, 2009) and the
growing numbers of children, most of whom are U.S. citizens, with at least
one parent who is undocumented (Capps & Fortuny, 2006).
Children of Undocumented Parents
Most immigrants are not U.S. citizens and many are undocumented. In the
United States, in 2005, 30% of the foreign-born population was estimated to
be undocumented, 28% were legal permanent residents, and 31% were
U.S. citizens by naturalization (Passel, 2006). The majority of undocumented
immigrants come from Mexico and Central American countries (Passel,
2006). The vast majority of the children born into immigrant families, how-
ever, are U.S.-born citizens. In 2005, 80% of children born to immigrant
families were born as U.S. citizens (Capps & Fortuny, 2006). Many of these
children are born into “mixed-status” families, in which at least one parent is
undocumented, while the child is U.S.-born and hence a citizen with all the
rights and privileges that citizenship carries (Capps, Fix, Ost, Anderson, &
Passel, 2005; Capps & Fortuny, 2006). Among children of Latino immi-
grants, about 4 in 10 second-generation immigrant children have at least one
undocumented immigrant parents and hence live in a mixed-status family
(Fry & Passel, 2009).
The mixed-status family faces a difficult dilemma when faced with poli-
cies and practices that threaten the deportation of an undocumented parent:
(1) the entire family may leave the United States, including the children who
344 Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences 32(3)
are U.S. citizens, uprooting all from their familiar cultural, social, and
linguistic environments; (2) the undocumented parent may leave, creating a
single-parent family in the United States or leaving the child with other care-
givers; or (3) the intact family may remain in the United States but with the
chronic risk of being caught and deported (Fix & Zimmerman, 2001).
These dilemmas have become more challenging for mixed-status families in
the wake a changing climate for undocumented immigrants in the United
States, which will be discussed next.
A Changing Climate for Undocumented Latino Parents
Legislation passed in 1996—the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty
Act and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act—
and in 2001—the USA PATRIOT Act—and vigorously implemented in
recent years, has profoundly altered the climate for undocumented immi-
grants living in the United States (Kanstroom, 2008). These laws expanded
the offenses for which a person can be deported from the United States. They
also restricted judicial discretion in deportation cases and limited judicial
review formerly available to those facing deportation. These laws further
made it more difficult for noncitizens to stay in the United States if issued an
order of deportation and made it harder for noncitizens to reenter the United
States (Fix & Zimmerman, 2001; Hagan, Eschbach, & Rodriguez, 2008).
Additionally, some local and state police have been ordered to be involved in
enforcing these laws in their communities (as an example, see Carcieri, State
of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations Executive Order 08-01, 2008).
Largely as a result of the implementation of the aforementioned legisla-
tion, the number of cases before immigration courts increased 30.6%, from
282,396 in 2001 to 368,848 in 2005; the percentage of noncitizens ordered to
be removed from the United States increased from 78% in 2001 to 84% in
2005 (Office of Planning, Analysis, & Technology, 2006). In 2008, Immigra-
tion Customs Enforcement apprehended 792,000 noncitizens, detained more
than 397,000, and deported more than 359,000 of them; this was the sixth
consecutive year with a record high number of deportations (Office of Immi-
gration Statistics, 2008). The majority of deportees migrated from Latin
American countries: Mexican nationals accounted for nearly 89% of those
apprehended in 2008, while the next largest source countries were Honduras,
Guatemala, El Salvador, Cuba, and Brazil (Office of Immigration Statistics,
2008). A 2006 report found that 70% of individuals in formal removal pro-
ceedings had lived in the United States for more than a decade, and the
Brabeck and Xu 345
median length of residence was 14 years (TRAC Immigration, 2006). Many
deportees leave U.S.-born children behind; the U.S. Immigration Customs
Enforcement agency reported that more than 100,000 parents of U.S. citizen
children were deported between 1997 and 2007 (“108,000 people deported,”
2009). A recent report issued by the University of California Berkley and
Davis Schools of Law found that between 1997 and 2007, 88,000 U.S.
citizen children (44,000 of whom were less than the age of 5 years) lost a
legal permanent resident parent to deportation (Baum, Jones, & Barry, 2010).
How the risk and experience of detention and deportation affect Latino immi-
grants and their children is largely understudied.
Impact of Deportation Policies on Children of Immigrants
Scholars (e.g., Capps & Fortuny, 2006; Suarez-Orozco & Carhill, 2008) have
called for research that explores the effects of deportation policies and prac-
tices on immigrant parents, families, and children. The research generated
thus far has either been primarily descriptive, has focused on the impact of
deportation on parents, or has used a simplified definition of legal vulnerabil-
ity (i.e., documented vs. undocumented). The National Council of La Raza
(NCLR; 2007) studied three communities where large-scale workplace raids
occurred, affecting almost exclusively undocumented Latino workers. They
reported that in the immediate aftermath of the raids, a total of 500 children,
mostly U.S.-born citizens, were temporarily or permanently separated from
parent(s). Consequences for children and families included feelings of aban-
donment, symptoms of trauma, fear, isolation, depression, and family
fragmentation (NCLR, 2007). Financial hardship following deportation was
also found to be a harsh consequence for family members left behind (Kremer
et al., 2009). In one quantitative study that focused on legal status, but not
specifically on impact or experience of detention and deportation, Cavazos-
Regh, Zayas, and Spitznagle (2007) surveyed 143 Latino adult immigrants
and found statistically significant relationships between legal status, concern
regarding deportation, and a heightened risk of negative emotional and health
states (particularly anger) as well as increased stress associated with low-
paying jobs and limited opportunities for employment promotion. Hence,
previous research, despite the limitations identified above, has suggested a
link between vulnerability to and experience of deportation, negative finan-
cial consequences, and poor outcomes for parent and child emotional
well-being. The study discussed here expanded on this prior research to sta-
tistically explore the impact of deportation (as a threat and direct experience)
346 Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences 32(3)
on Latino immigrant families and their children, among families with parents
of differing legal statuses.
Purpose of the Current Study
The purpose of the current study was to statistically explore the impact of
parents’ legal vulnerability and threat and experience of detention and depor-
tation on family environment (defined as parents’ perceptions of their own
emotional well-being, ability to provide financially for the family, and
parent-child relationships), and child well-being (defined as parent’s percep-
tions of child’s emotional well-being and of child’s academic performance).
A survey was conducted between March and May 2009, as a part of a larger
community-university collaborative project. The findings presented here
represent a quantitative exploration of themes that arose in a participatory
action research (PAR) project of the Post-Deportation Human Rights Project
(PDHRP), an initiative of the Center for Human Rights and International
Justice at Boston College (for a description of the PDHRP’s PAR project and
previous qualitative research, see Brabeck, Lykes, & Hershberg, in press).
The questions explored in the present survey were informed by the PDHRP’s
PAR activities, including previous qualitative interviews that explored Cen-
tral American immigrants’ experiences related to detention and deportation,
ongoing reflection and dialogue with participants, and action steps identified
and enacted (e.g., participatory community-led Know Your Rights work-
shops). Moreover, this previous and ongoing work of the PDHRP facilitated
the authors’ relationship building with community leaders, who helped the
researchers access a population that is difficult to reach and ask sensitive
questions, for example, regarding legal status.
The present survey aimed to document the impact of the policies of
detention/deportation and the threat they pose on a sample drawn from the
entire Latino immigrant community (not solely undocumented immigrants)
and to compare the different impacts for individuals with varying degrees of
legal vulnerability. Criteria for participation included: (1) immigrants from
a Latin American country, (2) 18 years or older, and (3) parent of at least
one child less than the age of 18 years living currently in the United States.
Participants with more than one child less than the age of 18 years were
asked to consider only one child when answering survey questions that ref-
erenced the participant’s child.
Brabeck and Xu 347
This study tested the following hypotheses:
Hypothesis 1: Parents’ legal vulnerability, while controlling demo-
graphic variables, would predict the impact of detention and/or
deportation on family environment (defined as parents’ perceptions
of emotional well-being, perceived ability to provide financially, and
Hypothesis 2: Parents’ legal vulnerability, while controlling demo-
graphic variables, would predict the impact of detention and
deportation on parents’ perception of child well-being (defined as
parents’ perceptions of child’s emotional well-being and academic
Hypothesis 3: Parents’ legal vulnerability and the impact on family
environment, while controlling demographic variables, would pre-
dict the impact of detention and deportation on child well-being.
Hypothesis 3 is based on the literature (e.g., Gelfand & Teti, 1990), which
indicates that a healthy family environment is critical to child’s psychological,
academic, and social well-being and development.
As previously noted, the present survey was heavily informed by analyses of
previous PDHRP qualitative research and PAR project (see Brabeck et al., in
press). Additionally, the survey was based on a review of other relevant
research literature and consultation with the Latino immigrant community
organization/program leaders who participated in the survey. These leaders
made suggestions to clarify wording, simplify the survey, and reduce dis-
comfort that might arise from answering questions about sensitive topics
such as legal status. After an agreed upon list of survey questions was arrived
at, the survey was translated by a native Spanish speaker and back-translated
by a native English speaker until an adequate translation was accomplished.
Finally, two additional native Spanish speakers from different countries
made minor suggestions to the Spanish language materials to ensure that the
language was comprehensible across nationalities. The survey was pilot
tested with a sample of eight participants before commencement of the study.
Informed consent was explained to participants who, for confidentiality
reasons, were asked to provide only their verbal consent. They were assured
348 Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences 32(3)
of the anonymity and confidentiality of their responses. Bilingual researchers
were present to answer questions or help complete the survey as participants
filled out the questionnaire at the site of the community organization. Each
participant received a $15 gift certificate to a local store for completing the
survey. Survey completion took between 15 and 40 minutes.
Recruitment of participants
Survey participants were recruited through Latino immigrant community orga-
nizations in metropolitan areas in the northeast region of the United States. As
noted, the previous and ongoing PAR work of the PDHRP facilitated the pro-
cess of building relationships with these community organizations. Five
community organizations, including three English as Second Language (ESL)/
Adult Education Programs, which work closely with Latino immigrants,
assisted participant recruitment for the study. All five organizations are
community-based Latino immigrant organizations and offer a variety of pro-
grams and services on site. Ultimately, 132 Latino immigrants completed the
survey. The coauthors met initially with organization/program leaders and
explained the purposes of the project and the procedures for informed consent
and confidentiality. Subsequently, either the coauthors or the organization/
program leader explained the purposes and procedures of the project to potential
participants, who were invited to participate at a later date. The majority of sur-
veys were administered to groups of participants; anyone requesting individual
assistance met with a research assistant individually to complete the survey.
Based on state demographics of the local Latino immigrant population, pre-
vious PHDRP qualitative research (Brabeck et al., in press), discussion with
community leaders about the characteristics of their communities, and pilot
testing, the majority of the participants were expected to be monolingual
Spanish-speaking immigrants working in lower skilled jobs and without
experience in research. Hence, all attempts were made to make the survey as
straightforward, comprehensible, and parsimonious as possible. There are
few valid measures for studies involving Latino immigrants. Because the
survey was based on previous PDHRP PAR work and the available literature,
and was reviewed by community leaders, the survey developed for this study
adds a useful tool for empirical work in this area. In addition to demographic
variables (age, gender, child’s age, years in the United States, marital status,
and participant and partners’ employment), the final survey measured the
Brabeck and Xu 349
Parent legal vulnerability. A series of dichotomously scored “true/false”
questions assessed participants’ legal vulnerability. These questions assessed
whether the participant: (1) was undocumented, (2) has a current deportation
order, (3) had been detained by immigration authorities in the past, (4) was
previously deported, (5) has a family member currently in detention, (6) has
a family member who had been deported (7) is a U.S. citizen; and (8) is a
legal U.S. resident. One variable representing “legal vulnerability” with five
levels was created, with the assumption that people who lack legal documen-
tation, who have experienced the detention/deportation of a family member,
and who have personally been previously detained/deported will experience
greater vulnerability to detention/deportation policies than individuals who
are documented and who have not experienced detention/deportation person-
ally or in their family. The variable “legal vulnerability” contained five levels:
(1) legal U.S. residents or citizens, (2) legal U.S. residents or citizens who
have had a family member detained and/or deported, (3) undocumented par-
ticipants without a personal or family history of detention/deportation,
(4) undocumented participants with family member previously detained and/
or deported, and (5) undocumented with a personal history of detention and/
or deportation and a family member’s history of detention and/or deportation.
(While U.S. citizens and legal residents, e.g., green card holders, face differ-
ent vulnerability under current U.S. immigration laws, these two groups were
collapsed into one group based on a nonsignificant t test between the two
groups on all dependent variables.) Higher numbers indicate greater levels of
Impact of deportation on family environment. Family environment typically
measures the social and environmental characteristics of families and is usu-
ally constructed with several dimensions (e.g., relationships among family
members, family system) and a long list of items (e.g., Moos & Moos, 1983).
Because of the concern regarding participants’ level of education and cultural
context, only three elements of family environment were selected, based on
qualitative themes from prior literature (Brabeck et al., in press; NCLR, 2007):
(1) parents’ emotional well-being in the context of deportation, (2) parents’
perceived ability to provide financially for their children in the context of
deportation, and (3) parents’ perceptions of parent-child relationship in the
context of deportation. These three elements were measured by self-report;
participants were asked to respond to the following statements: “The exis-
tence of deportation affects my ability to provide financially for my children;”
“The existence of deportation affects how I feel;” and “The existence of
deportation affects my relationship with my child.” The wording “existence of
deportation” was chosen after extensive deliberation and consultation with
three community leaders and two additional native Spanish speakers because
350 Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences 32(3)
it encompasses both direct and indirect effects, that is, those participants who
have not personally experienced deportation might still be affected by its exis-
tence in their communities. Participants responded on a 3-point Likert-type
scale where 1 = yes, 2 = somewhat, and 3 = no. (Note that although variability
was reduced by reducing the Likert-type scale options, the items were short-
ened after extensive discussions with community organization leaders and
pilot testing to increase comprehension among this community sample.) The
impact of deportation on family environment was assessed by adding the three
items together; higher numbers indicate lower levels of agreement with
the statements. Cronbach’s alpha was calculated to be .69.
Impact of deportation on child well-being. Measures of immigrant children’s
well-being include cognitive, psychological, academic, and physical devel-
opment (Birman & Chan, 2008). Based on previous descriptive research
(NCLR, 2007) as well as the PDHRP qualitative interviews, experience and
risk of detention and deportation affect children largely in their psychologi-
cal and academic functioning; hence, in the present study, children’s well-
being was composed of two elements: (1) parents’ perceptions of child’s
emotional well-being in the context of deportation and (2) parents’ percep-
tions of child’s academic performance in the context of deportation. These
two elements were measured by parents’ self-report; participants were asked
to respond to the following statements: “The existence of deportation affects
how my child feels” and “The existence of deportation affects how my child
performs in school.” Again, participants responded on a 3-point Likert-type
scale where 1 = yes, 2= somewhat, and 3 = no, and higher numbers indicate
lower levels of agreement with the statements. The impact of deportation on
child well-being was created by adding the two items together; Cronbach’s
alpha was calculated to be .85.
Multiple hierarchical regression models were then used to test the hypotheses
that predicted the impact of detention and deportation on the family environ-
ment and children’s well-being, after controlling the demographic variables.
Among the 132 Latino immigrants, more than two thirds (70.5%) of the par-
ticipants were women, and the mean age was 36.7 years (SD = 8.11). Ages of
Brabeck and Xu 351
target child (i.e., the child considered by the respondent when completing the
survey) were almost equally distributed across age categories: 32% of target
children were less than 6 years old, 31% were ages 6 to 12 years, and 37%
were ages 12 to 18 years. Most participants (60.6%) were employed, working
on average 34.87 hours per week (SD = 10.78). Most participants (80.3%)
had a partner. Among participants’ partners, 81.13% were employed, work-
ing on average 37.32 hours per week (SD = 7.96). Twelve participants (9%)
reported that neither they nor their partners were employed.
The greatest number of participants migrated from Guatemala (37.2%),
followed by Colombia (17.8%), the Dominican Republic (14.0%), El Salva-
dor (10.9%), Mexico (10.1%), and Honduras (3.9%); 6.2% of participants
indicated “other Latin American country.” Slightly more than 21% of partici-
pants were recent immigrants who had been in the United States for less than
5 years, while 48.8% were long-term residents who lived in the United States
for more than 10 years.
Across participants, the vast majority (73.5%) had children who were
born in the United States, while 41.7% had children born in their country of
origin. All participants had at least one child currently living in the United
States (this was one criterion for participation), while 14.4% of partici-
pants also had children currently living in their country of origin. Among
the 50 undocumented participants, 76% reported that they had U.S.-born
children (10% reported no U.S.-born children, while 14% did not answer the
Participants’ Legal Status and Experience With Detention/
A total of 6.8% of the participants reported that they have a current deporta-
tion order, 13.6% have been previously detained, and 4.5% were previously
deported. Nearly 38% (N = 50) of the participants acknowledged being undoc-
umented. Among the 50 undocumented participants, 14% reported a current
deportation order, 26% have been previously detained, and 8% were previ-
ously deported. Almost half (40.2%) of the participants across legal status had
family members who were deported. More specifically, slightly more than
37% of legal residents and 60% of undocumented participants reported a
family member had been detained and/or deported. The average score for par-
ticipants’ legal vulnerability was 2.54 (SD = 1.66; see Table 1 for distribution
of legal vulnerability scores). (Note that six participants [4.5%] were recorded
as missing data because they either endorsed “true” for all statements or did
not endorse any statements as “true” or “false.”) Participants with different
352 Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences 32(3)
levels of legal vulnerability did not differ with regards to gender, marital
status, child’s age, years in United States, country of origin, having a partner,
or self and partner’s employment status; they did, however, differ with regard
to age (p < .01), with younger participants having greater levels of legal
Predictors of Impact on Child and Family
Three multiple regression models were run. The first two models tested
Hypotheses 1 and 2, that is, the parent’s legal vulnerability would predict the
impact of detention and deportation on family environment and on child
well-being, while controlling for demographic variables. (See Table 2 for
distribution of participants’ responses to five Likert-items.) The third model
tested Hypothesis 3, that is, that impact on the family environment and par-
ent’s legal vulnerability would predict impact on the child well-being.
(See Table 3 for results of the analysis.) In the first model, the first hypoth-
esis was supported: Parent’s legal vulnerability significantly predicted impact
on family environment, accounting for 27.1% of the variance. In the second
model, Hypothesis 2 was supported: Parent’s legal vulnerability significantly
predicted the impact on child well-being, accounting for 30.6% of the vari-
ance. The greater the legal vulnerability of the parent, the greater the reported
impact of detention and deportation on family environment (i.e., perceptions
of parent’s emotional well-being, perceived ability to provide financially for the
family, and parent-child relationship) and child well-being (i.e., perceptions
Table 1. Frequency and Percentage of Participants’ Legal Vulnerability
1. Documented participant (citizen or legal
2. Documented participant (citizen or legal
resident) with family member detained and/or
3. Undocumented participant 17 12.9
4. Undocumented participant, with family member
detained and/or deported
5. Undocumented participant, with family member
detained and/or deported and personal history
Missing 6 4.5
Total 132 100.0
Brabeck and Xu 353
of child’s emotional well-being and academic performance). Results of the
third model supported Hypothesis 3: Parent’s legal vulnerability and impact
on family environment were significant predictors of impact on child well-
being. As this model accounted for 64.1% of the variance of the data, it was
a substantial improvement over Models 1 and 2.
This study represented an attempt to statistically examine the impact of
deportation policies and practices on Latino immigrant children and families.
Previous research has documented risk factors specific to immigrant chil-
dren. However, to date, there has been insufficient research that quantitatively
Table 2. Participants’ Responses: Negative Impacts of Deportation
Variable: The Existence of Deportation Affects . . . Yes (%) Somewhat (%) No (%)
How my child feels 48.5 18.9 33.1
How my child performs at school 45.5 17.4 34.1
How I feel 69.7 7.6 21.2
My relationship with my child 39.4 9.8 49.2
My ability to financially provide for my child 53.0 4.5 40.2
Table 3. Regression Models: Predicting the Impact of Deportation on Children
(Beta/SD) Model 2
(Beta/SD) Model 3
Age -.133/.025 -.136/.037 .015/.019
Gender (male) .079/.341 -0.17/.479 .124/.247
Child’s age <6 .087/.436 -.038/.601 .121/.309
Child’s age >12 .079/.368 .127/.518 -.006/.267
Years in the
.007/.131 .033/.185 -.020/.095
Employment .086/.309 .065/.436 .023/.224
Having a partner .004/372 .115/.517 -.076/.267
Legal vulnerability -.521/0.96** -.491/.131** -.192/.078**
Impact on the family .705/.052**
a. Model 1: R
= .271, F(7, 104) = 6.192, p < .01 (Dependent variable: Impact on the child).
b. Model 2: R
= .306, F(7, 104) = 6.558, p < .01 (Dependent variable: Impact on the family).
c. Model 3: R
= .641, F(8, 100) = 22.279, p < .01 (Dependent variable: Impact on the child).
**p < .01.
354 Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences 32(3)
explores the impact of deportation policies and practices on immigrant families
and their children. A number of important findings emerged.
First, a large portion of Latino immigrants, in this convenience sample of
132, were directly affected by detention and deportation. A substantial num-
ber of participants (38%) were undocumented, and almost half of the sample
(including both undocumented and documented parents) experienced the
detention or deportation of a family member. Given the potential risk from
disclosing this information, it is plausible that these numbers, while substan-
tial, are still underestimates of the participants’ direct interactions with the
detention and deportation system. Moreover, more than two thirds of the
participants reported that the existence of deportation policies and practices
affects how they personally feel. More than half reported that these policies
and practices affect their ability to provide financially for their family as well
as how their children feel and perform in school. Hence, a large portion of the
participants in this study reported direct experience with, vulnerability to,
and effects of the deportation system.
Second, the impact of detention and deportation on family environment
and child well-being is associated with the level of legal vulnerability. That
is, immigrant parents with greater levels of legal vulnerability reported
greater impacts of detention and deportation. It may not be surprising to learn
that those who are at more risk of being affected by detention and deportation
(i.e., the undocumented or those themselves or whose family members have
been directly affected) report greater effects of its negative affect. However,
it is notable that most of these parents live in mixed-status households (nearly
three quarters of the undocumented parents), and many children who are
affected by the deportation policies are U.S.-born citizens.
Third, consistent with previous studies (e.g., Gelfand & Teti, 1990; Phares
& Compas, 1992), parents in this study report their children are affected by
parents’ wellbeing. Similar to national data sets that report that 66% of chil-
dren born to undocumented immigrant parents are U.S. citizen children
(Capps & Fortuny, 2006), the majority of children living in families with
undocumented parents in this study are U.S.-born citizens. Hence, when
undocumented Latino parents suffer as a result of detention and deportation,
so too do their U.S.-born children. Parents’ legal vulnerability affects them in
regard to emotional well-being, financial capability, and relationships with
children, which in turn affects outcomes for children. The lack of variability
in the data precluded the use of causal models to analyze the data. However,
results from the regression models indicated that, while controlling demo-
graphic variations, parent legal vulnerability alone is a predictor of the impact
of detention and deportation on child well-being; when both parent legal
Brabeck and Xu 355
vulnerability and impact on family environment were entered as predictors,
they significantly predicted the impact of detention deportation on child
well-being, and the result of R
= .641) suggests a much stronger and
improved model. Similar to the Family Stress Model (Conger et al., 2002),
which posits that parents’ economic stress affects their mental health, intra-
familial relationships, and children’s outcomes, we found that the combina-
tion of the parent’s experience and vulnerability to detention and deportation,
with the impact that had on the parent’s financial, psychological, and rela-
tional well-being, affect children in a statistically significant and practically
Importantly, the participants in this study do not represent a homogenous
group, and their various national origins suggest unique histories, psychoso-
cial stressors, and structural barriers that influence their migration patterns
and experiences of detention and deportation. For example, the majority
(32.2%) of the participants in this study migrated from Guatemala, a country
in which extreme poverty is tied to the longest (36 years) civil war in Central
American history, which included state-sponsored violence and government
repression, particularly against the indigenous population (Black, Jamail, &
Chinchilla, 1984). Hence, many immigrants from Guatemala endure the long
and arduous journeys through Mexico to reach United States as political refu-
gees from the violence of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s or as economic refu-
gees from the aftermath that these decades’ violence had on their communities
(Davy, 2006). Previous PDHRP research has found that Guatemalan families
understand and experience the threats posed to them by the current U.S.
detention and deportation systems as deeply embedded within the context of
these historical forces (Brabeck et al., in press). While the scope of article
does not afford a full discussion of the unique histories and contemporary
challenges that shape the experiences of each national origin group repre-
sented in this survey, readers are advised to consider these distinctive factors
when understanding the impact of detention and deportation policies on
Latino immigrant families. Readers are further directed to research that docu-
ments Latino immigrant subgroups’ unique experiences with migration and
deportation (e.g., for Guatemalan and Salvadoran immigrants, see Brabeck
et al., in press; Menjivar & Abrego 2009; for Dominican immigrants, see
Brotherton & Barrios, 2009; for Honduran immigrants, see Sladkova, 2007).
Implications for Policy and Practice
This study statistically explored what more descriptive and qualitative studies
(e.g., Brabeck et al., in press; NCLR, 2007) have previously found: The
356 Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences 32(3)
existence of deportation policies and practice has negative emotional,
relational, financial, and academic consequences for Latino immigrant par-
ents and their children. Parent’s legal vulnerability is an important component
of the distal context that affects the development of children in immigrant
families. The present findings suggest that practitioners and service providers
working with children in immigrant families would benefit from exploring
how parents’ legal status and history of detention and deportation affect the
emotional and financial well-being of individual members and the family unit
as a whole. Understanding whether and if so, how, parents communicate with
their children about the threat of deportation, make plans for how to respond
in the event that a family member (particularly a caretaker) is detained, and
discuss (or not) these plans with children are important to incorporate into
human-service work. Practitioners might explore how the child understands
detention, deportation, and legal status and provide space to process their
fears, uncertainties, confusion, and anger. When engaging in such dialogues
with parents and children or facilitating parent-child communication, how-
ever, consideration must be given to the potential such conversations have for
inviting significant fear and anxiety. Moreover, parents’ reasons for not com-
municating with their children about legal status and policies that threaten the
family should be understood and respected. Finally, communicating with and
educating teachers about how parents’ legal status affects their children’s aca-
demic performance and emotional well-being are also indicated.
Individual efforts to help children of immigrants may be of limited effec-
tiveness if the policies that threaten their families do not change. These find-
ings lend support to the caution of some scholars (e.g., Kremer, Moccio, &
Hammell, 2009) that policies and practices that threaten undocumented adult
immigrants harm U.S.-born citizen children, who are perhaps unintended,
but nonetheless real, victims in the detentions and deportations—and fear
caused by the threat of these actions—aimed at their parents. It follows, then,
that to act in the best interests of these children, policy makers and practitio-
ners must address the emotional and financial toll that the threat of deporta-
tion exerts on immigrant parents.
Several limitations are notable in the present study. First, the reliance on
self-report measures potentially resulted in distorted data (i.e., we relied on
parent’s perceptions of their ability to provide financially for their families
and of their children’s academic performance rather than on an objective
measure of financial capacity or academic performance). Given the sensitivity
Brabeck and Xu 357
of our questions, particularly with regard to legal status, it is likely that our
data may have been skewed (likely toward underreporting undocumented
status). Second, the lack of appropriately validated instruments for this pop-
ulation limited the possibilities for measuring our dependent variables.
Similarly, the fact that we shortened the Likert-type scales to make the
survey more accessible and comprehensible for our sample reduced the vari-
ability in responses and precluded the use of causal statistical techniques,
for example, path analysis, to analyze the data. In addition, these data were
cross-sectional and hence researchers were unable to suggest any trends
over time. This study was limited by the exclusion of the children of the
parents surveyed; their voices might have provided rich and important per-
spectives on the effects of detention and deportation policies on immigrant
families. Finally, the sample in this study is a convenience sample and
cannot be considered as a representative sample of all Latino immigrants in
the metropolitan areas of northeastern United States. Because the recruit-
ment was done through the collaborations with five Latino immigrant
community organizations, including three ESL and Adult Education pro-
grams, participants in this study were more likely be of the low-income
group and less proficient in English. Given these limitations, caution should
be used when extrapolating the results to the entire Latino immigrant
Future research might replicate the present study with a larger sample and use
causal modeling to statistically explore the relationships among variables. For
example, adaptation of the Family Stress Model (Conger et al., 2002) to
include legal vulnerability as an independent variable might provide a useful
theoretical framework for exploring the direct and indirect relationships
among parents’ legal vulnerability, economic hardship, parent mental health,
family relationships, and outcomes for children. Future research might
employ a longitudinal approach to explore the impact of detention/deportation
on immigrant families over time. Finally, future research should also include
This study is part of a larger research project of the Center for Human Rights and
International Justice at Boston College, codirected by M. Brinton Lykes, PhD, and
Daniel Kanstroom, LLM, JD. The authors gratefully acknowledge the contributions
of M. Brinton Lykes, PhD, to this article as well as the assistance of the community
358 Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences 32(3)
leaders and of Catharine Hellwig, BA, Rhode Island College, and Alfonso Alvarez,
LICSW, Boston College, in collecting data.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no conflicts of interest with respect to the authorship and/or
publication of this article.
The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research and/
or authorship of this article:
The authors acknowledge the financial support of the Dean of the Feinstein School
of Education and Human Development at Rhode Island College and of the Office of
the Provost at Boston College.
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Brabeck and Xu 361
Kalina Brabeck, PhD, is a licensed counseling psychologist and an assistant professor
of counseling at Rhode Island College. She is also an affiliated faculty member of the
Center for Human Rights and International Justice at Boston College. Her research
interests include community trauma, intimate partner violence, feminist and participa-
tory action research, and migration and deportation. She is fluent in Spanish and has
7 years of clinical experience conducting both psychotherapy and forensic evaluations
with immigrants and refugees.
Qingwen Xu, PhD, is a licensed attorney and an assistant professor at the Graduate
School of Social Work, Boston College. She is also an affiliated faculty member of
the Center for Human Rights and International Justice at Boston College. Her
research focuses on the impact of welfare and immigration policies on the well-being
of immigrant children, families, and community. Her research engages immigrant
community-based organizations and social service agencies, using interdisciplinary
approaches to address immigrants’ needs in health and mental health services.