Originally published by The NY Times
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About a decade ago, thousands of Latino children began quietly dropping out of public schools in 55 counties across the country. One year, the students would be enrolled; the next year, they wouldn’t be. Sometimes they left in the middle of the year.
Over a two-year period, the number of Latino students in these counties fell 10 percent — or by almost 300,000 children. The vast majority of the children who disappeared from the rolls were American citizens. Some moved elsewhere in the United States, while others likely left, returning to the countries where their parents had been born.
Either way, many of the children paid a price. Abrupt moves usually aren’t good for kids, academic research has found. Their education and social lives are disrupted. Their families’ finances can suffer too.
So what was going on in these 55 counties?
An important new study — from Thomas Dee, a Stanford professor, and Mark Murphy, a graduate student there — solves the mystery. Dee and Murphy have uncovered a mass displacement of American children that had previously gone overlooked.
The 55 counties had something in common. They were the counties where local police departments signed up for partnerships with I.C.E., the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. These partnerships trained the local police to act as immigration agents in many situations. In some cases, they could stop people they merely suspected of being illegal immigrants and ask for their papers.
The I.C.E. partnerships are a fairly recent phenomenon. They were part of a law passed in 1996, and the partnerships didn’t really begin to grow until 2007, under the George W. Bush administration. But it was not clear how much of an effect they had.
Dee realized that schools’ enrollment records might offer an answer. They did, and it was a jarring one. In counties with I.C.E. partnerships, the Latino student population plummeted. It did not do so in otherwise similar counties without the partnerships. The student population of other racesalso did not significantly change in the 55 counties.
The only plausible explanation, Dee believes, is immigration enforcement. As the counties cracked down, families with at least one undocumented immigrant fled. So, in some cases, did Latino citizens subjected to harassment or racial profiling. And the children in these families suffered.
“The harm isn’t as severe as caging kids or separating them from their families,” Dee told me, referring to more recent actions by the Trump administration. “But the scale and long-lived nature of this program is really important. We’re immiserating our children on a scale that I don’t think anyone has appreciated.” In fact, the displaced children represented3 percent of all Latino children nationwide.
And there appears to have been scant benefits to the crackdown. The teacher-student ratio in the 55 counties didn’t fall. Crime didn’t fall, either, evidence suggests. If anything, the program likely undercut other aspects of policing, by giving more families reasons to fear the police.
Yet now the I.C.E. program is growing again. The Obama administration had shrunk the program, reducing the number of county partnershipsbelow 40. But the Trump administration has ramped it back up. More than 70 counties now have partnerships.
I understand that some Americans will view the price that these children have paid — and are still paying — as an unavoidable side-effect of proper law enforcement: Someone in their family violated the law, by entering this country illegally. But the scale of the punishment feels wildly disproportionate to me.
As a country, we have taken a lax approach to immigration enforcement for years, much as we do with jaywalking or speeding. (And speeding causes much more damage.) The notion that dozens of counties suddenly changed that approach, and upended the lives of thousands upon thousands of children, is neither fair nor just. It also isn’t smart.
Instead, it is yet another reminder that we need an overhaul of our immigration laws — one that both respects the rule of law and treats people humanely.