Honoring Our Children


Immigration reform has recently become a priority for our nation’s leaders, and there are many diverse voices weighing in on the potential impact for the country. As an advocate for children and a daughter of immigrants, I firmly believe that immigration reform can have a profoundly positive impact on our nation’s children and families. But in order for that to be the case, our policymakers will need to deliberately consider the interests of children in the decisions that lay ahead. Done right, immigration reform has the potential to improve the economic security and overall well-being of millions of children in the United States. And when our children do well, we all do well.

The fact is that children of immigrants, the majority of whom are Latino and U.S- born citizens, now comprise one quarter of the U.S. child population. Thus, they will make up a significant portion of our future workforce, and it is critical that they are able to access the education and services they need to grow into healthy, successful adults. In response to the rapid growth of children in immigrant families, First Focus, a national children’s advocacy organization, developed a policy portfolio specifically dedicated to improving outcomes for this increasingly important segment of the child population. Through our work, we’ve learned that children in immigrant families possess unique strengths, such as greater instances of living in two-parent, working families and high rates of bilingualism, as well as very unique challenges.

For example, even those children that are U.S. citizens or have legally present immigrant parents continue to face barriers to accessing health care and other important services due to confusing immigrant eligibility rules as well as language and cultural-competency related issues. Children are also uniquely impacted by U.S. immigration enforcement policies. Approximately 5.5 million children live in mixed-legal status families with at least one undocumented parent, putting them at risk of being separated from a parent at any time due to a parent’s possible detention or deportation by immigration authorities. In fact, we know that the U.S. government deported over 200,000 parents of U.S. citizen children during the two-year period between July 1, 2010 and September 30, 2012, and it is estimated that over 5,000 children are currently in the U.S. child welfare system due to a parent’s detention or deportation. Furthermore, an estimated 1 million children are currently growing up in the U.S. without legal status themselves, meaning that they face significant challenges to accessing a higher education and have no direct means to apply for U.S. citizenship. These are the young people we have come to know as “DREAMers” because of the legislation that would enable them to earn their citizenship.

There is no question that the passage of a child-focused and family-friendly immigration reform can greatly improve the lives of children. First Focus recently co-led an effort to develop a set of children’s principles for immigration reform that received endorsements from a diverse array of over 200 organizations around the country. First and foremost, the principles call for a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented individuals currently residing in the United States, including a distinct pathway for undocumented young people who were brought here as children and call this country home. Citizenship is the only way to ensure that families will no longer be torn apart at record-setting numbers and that parents will have the ability to come out of the shadows, work legally, and adequately provide for their families. Second, it is necessary to revise our immigration policies to keep families together by fixing the backlogs that have kept families separated for years, sometimes decades at a time, and update our immigration system so that it can adequately meet our country’s future migration needs and prioritize family unity. This includes reforming U.S. immigration enforcement policies so that when a parent is detained or deported he or she will still have the ability to make decisions about his or her child’s care. Finally, immigration reform must promote the fundamental rights of all children, including equal access to critical public services, programs, and economic supports.

One of the things I love most about my job is the ability to learn firsthand from children themselves. From Alabama to California to New Jersey, I’ve listened to proud children and youth share their own and their family’s immigration stories. I’ve had the honor of working with many inspiring leaders of the undocumented youth movement who have fought tirelessly on behalf of the DREAM Act for the past ten years. The past two Decembers, through First Focus’ partnership with a national letter-writing campaign known as “A Wish for the Holidays,” I’ve even met activists as young as seven-years-old who have written letters and walked the halls of Congress asking our nation’s leaders to keep their families safe from deportation so that they no longer have to live in fear.

Our children know that the time has come for a solution, and their asks are simple. It is up to our entire community to hold our policymakers accountable to ensure that immigration reform honors our future generation by keeping families together and enabling every child in America to achieve his or her full potential.

Wendy Cervantes is the Vice President of Immigration and Child Rights Policy for First Focus, a bipartisan advocacy organization dedicated to making children and families a priority in federal policy and budget decisions.