Immigration raids lead to hunger

March 9, 2017
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) during a seven-day national enforcement operation. Photo courtesy of ICE via Wikimedia Commons.

By Marlysa D. Gamblin

The Department of Homeland Security recently issued several sets of orders that increase the number of immigration raids. Such raids separate families, and they put the 4.5 million U.S.-born citizen children of undocumented immigrants at risk of losing their working parent and falling into, or deeper into, hunger or poverty.

Defining who is at risk of detention and why can help us estimate how many families are at risk of falling into hunger as a direct result of these spikes in immigration-related detention.

Earlier in the new administration, officials said that “criminals”—such as people who were high-level drug traffickers or had committed violent crimes—were the only ones at risk.

The term “highest priority” has been and is being used to mean the people that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) should treat as priority targets for detention and deportation. In press briefing #13 on February 21, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said that officials will be “prioritizing the people who are here who represent a threat to public safety or have a criminal record.”

In then president-elect Trump’s interview on 60 Minutes, aired soon after the election, he said that he planned to deport 2 to 3 million undocumented immigrants who have “criminal records.” However, of the country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants, about 820,000 people have a criminal record--including those convicted of a misdemeanor and those convicted of a nonviolent felony along with anyone convicted of a violent crime.

Immigrants who have not committed serious crimes—or any crime other than being undocumented—are being targeted. News outlets have reported on the range of undocumented immigrants of all backgrounds who have been detained and deported in the recent raids. People who have been pulled over for minor traffic violations and have a clean record, as well as people who have been accused of other low-level offenses but also do not have a criminal record, have been detained. 

This forces us to ask ourselves: when it comes to immigration, who is a “criminal” who should be detained and deported, who is not, and for what reasons? Who deserves to be targeted by the police and who does not? Should we as a society treat every person here without documentation as a threat to public safety? The Trump administration is apparently broadening the concept of criminality to include everyone who has crossed the border without the correct paperwork.

What does this mean for undocumented families and communities? As we explain in our fact sheet “Hunger and Poverty Among Immigrants,” raids and deportations take much-needed resources from the family unit and the wider community. With the entire undocumented population potentially at risk—11 million people, of whom 8 million are in the workforce—it’s highly likely that hunger and food insecurity will increase among immigrants and their U.S.-born children.

The damage caused by raids pose is, of course, mostly borne by the individuals and families targeted, but employers face costs as well. Farmers have expressed concern about the broadening of the group considered “highest priority.” Some fear losing field workers. There is a widespread belief among the U.S. public that foreign-born farmworkers are taking jobs that would instead be going to Americans. But although a number of efforts have been made to persuade Americans to apply for jobs and work as farm workers, they have not been successful at attracting and retaining people. Only about 3 in 10 farm workers are U.S. citizens—leaving many farmers concerned about their ability to grow crops, pay the mortgage on their land, and meet their other bills.  

Interpreting “highest priority” to mean virtually anyone who is undocumented will cause increases in U.S. hunger, food insecurity, and poverty—and all without any proven benefits to our safety and security. The administration and the country should not treat all undocumented people as dangerous criminals—particularly without a clear, credible rationale for doing so, and without a plan to gather data on the impact on undocumented workers, U.S. businesses, and crime rates. This is essential if the plan is to be evaluated for effectiveness and potential improvements.

Marlysa D. Gamblin is domestic advisor for policy and programs for specific populations at Bread for the World Institute.

Immigrants who have not committed serious crimes—or any crime other than being undocumented—are being targeted. 

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