Who’s Your Mommy and Daddy? For Migrant Children, It Matters

A young girl from Latin America comes to the United States to live with her parents. She learns English, goes to public school and dreams of becoming a math teacher when she grows up.

How welcome she is here in her new country depends on who her parents are and the path she followed to get here.

In one scenario, if she was “DACA-mented” (meaning she benefited from the “prosecutorial discretion to defer removal action against an individual for a certain period of time” made available through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program instituted under President Obama), she could be safe. That is, unless her status expired while she was saving for the $495 renewal fee. That happened to DREAMer Daniela Vargas, who was arrested and detained last month. She was recently released under an order of supervision.

In a second scenario, if the girl in our story was adopted internationally, then she has “immigrated through adoption,” as the US Citizen and Immigration Services puts it. Her adoptive parents had to petition to immigration services so that she would be deemed eligible to immigrate based on adoption. She would have received an IH-3 immigrant visa, and later become eligible for citizenship.

Comparing the different trajectories of child migrants like Daniela Vargas and those who “immigrated through adoption,” reveals some interesting assumptions about what kinds of young migrants are welcomed to the United States.

Children like Vargas, who came to the United States with her parents at the age of seven on a tourist visa and then overstayed, cannot be reasonably said to be responsible for their parents’ immigration choices.

That is the logic behind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which deferred action on childhood arrivals like Vargas and Daniel Ramirez Medina. He is another young immigrant who arrived at age seven and was detained for six weeks, a decision based apparently on a misinterpreted tattoo.

Removing the documents from the equation, other differences separate international adoptees and other child migrants.

In researching my 2013 book, Adoptive Migration, I discovered that the immigration of adopted children is often facilitated and welcomed, while the immigration of workers with children is mostly viewed with suspicion and discipline.

One of the most important differences is how those children’s parents are perceived in US society.

Child migrants like Vargas and Ramirez are legally connected to their birth parents, who are also undocumented immigrants like they are, but as adults lack the protections of DACA.

Vargas came to the attention of authorities when speaking out about the detention of her father and brother, who are awaiting deportation. Ramirez was detained when immigration agents came to his home to arrest his father, who had illegally re-entered the US.

By contrast, “immigrants through adoption” are legally connected to their US citizen parents. Those parents are likely to be middle-class, since parents must demonstrate financial solvency prior to being approved to adopt. According to the US State Department, couples adopting from China must have a net worth of at least $80,000.

Adoptive parents are also likely to be white. A 2007 survey found that 73 percent of adoptive parents in the US are non-Hispanic white; the same survey found that 84 percent of children adopted internationally are in transracial placements.

Comparing “DACA-mented” youth and international adoptees suggests that the degree to which a child’s parents are accepted and welcomed into US society has a big impact on that child’s prospects.

As long as that is true, one way to support “DACA-mented” youth is for US citizens and residents to welcome and support their parents. Organizations working on behalf of these families, such as the Southern Poverty Law Center, Immigration Advocacy Services in New York, or the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, need support.

In the United States, it isn’t supposed to matter who your parents are — that’s one of the tenets of the “American Dream.” Yet it is one that is elusive for millions. It is time for all young people in this country to have access to this dream.