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The Dream Deferred

April 26, 2012

The U.S.-born children of immigrants, and newcomers who arrive at an early age, have deep roots in their communities. Regardless of whether their parents “have papers” or not, these children and youth attend U.S. schools, learn English and develop an emerging American identity. But for children from households lacking documentation, their or their parents’ status hangs over their daily lives and future.

The fear of apprehension and deportation, for themselves or their parents, is ever-present and immensely damaging. For a mixed-status family, routine activities like dropping off a child at school, grocery shopping or taking public transportation present a constant danger of confrontation with law enforcement—and the possible separation of children, parents and spouses.

Federal paralysis over the fate of 11 million undocumented immigrants currently residing in the U.S. has given way to a punitive crackdown in several states on these individuals and their families. Nowhere is the story of undocumented immigration more dystopic than for the children who grow up in the shadow of the law.

New Trends, Old Policies

The rhetoric surrounding immigration in the U.S. does not reflect the recent shifts in the flow of immigrants—namely who and how many are coming, how they are coming, and the nature of their experience after they settle. The debate continues to focus on “illegal immigration.” Indeed, during the boom economic years of the past two decades, the unauthorized population grew dramatically from under 1 million in 1980 to a peak of nearly 12 million in 2000. But in just over a decade, the trend has reversed—leaving the political rhetoric on both sides of the spectrum disconnected from reality.

Republican presidential candidates during the primary elections repeatedly warned their base of the increased “illegal immigrant” threat, while President Barack Obama has both intensified the Bush-era mass deportations and stepped up the militarization of the border. In fact, shortly after the 2008 recession, undocumented immigration to the U.S. had come to a virtual standstill and unauthorized crossings reversed: there were more unauthorized immigrants leaving than entering the country.

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Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco is the Courtney Sale Ross University Professor of Globalization and Education at New York University.