Skip to main content









Donation Heart Ribbon

Students Suffer When Deportation Tears Families Apart


Research shows there are approximately five million U.S. children with at least one undocumented parent. Many of those children live in California and go to local public schools and colleges. Teachers say these students usually keep their family's identity a secret until a loved one is deported.

— Three teenage boys hang out after a long day at school. They're getting ready for dinner at a friend's house. The conversation revolves around girls and the upcoming weekend.

The three friends go to the same high school in San Diego. They have something else in common – their family members are undocumented immigrants.

“It's my mom, my dad, and myself,” said Jonathon, an 18-year-old who asked his family name not be revealed for fear of getting caught.

His black hair compliments his light green eyes. Jonathon's parents crossed the border from Mexico when he was just a small boy. He's lived in San Diego most of his life.

Now that Jonathon's a teenager, his parents warn him not to tell his friends or teachers about his status. His family and relatives have become pseudo-informants for one another, helping each other avoid certain areas and places where authorities might be.

Even so, Jonathon says many of his aunts, uncles and cousins have been deported more than once.

“Like always, they come back because its harder for them to get a job (in Mexico), to have work for their families, to have food for their families. It's been rough,” Jonathon said.

Jonathan has to comfort his baby nieces, nephews and cousins as they deal with the trauma of losing their parents. He says he constantly worries about his own parents getting deported. He gets anxious any time they're late from work.

“I think about what am I going to do? What about my sisters? What about my little niece? How do we get support? Sometimes it's really chaotic.”

Jonathon's fear is real. The Urban Institute did a report on the number of children separated from one or both parents as a result of immigration enforcement. Researchers found that for every two immigrants apprehended, one child was left behind.

They say that suggests potentially thousands of children have been separated from their parents as a result of immigration enforcement activities.

Despite the numbers, there isn't a lot of research about the academic, social and emotional toll that deportation has on the children of immigrant families.

Eduardo Ochoa is a ninth grade teacher at Lincoln High School in San Diego. He says he knows about it all too well.

“They're invisible. They're everywhere but they're nowhere. They have to hide their identity,” said Ochoa.

Ochoa says the issue hits close to home because his family crossed the border when he was just a year old. Ochoa says in his class almost every month another student's life is turned upside down.

He recalls one teenage girl who was crying in class. She revealed her family's status after he spoke with her outside of the classroom.

“She told me that her dad was taken. She was mad, angry, sad, disappointed, and didn't understand. Now her whole family was torn apart,” Ochoa recalled.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials say most immigrant parents who are deported make the hard decision to keep their U.S. born children here. Ochoa says that's because many parents want their kids to get a good education.

He says those kids are often left to find a new home. Many of them turn to their relatives, like an aunt or grandmother.

Other students become the primary caretakers, in charge of raising their younger sisters or brothers. And still others have no other family to turn to and enter the foster care system.

Ochoa says going to school and doing well in class becomes an afterthought.

“Their grades plummet. They don't want to do work. There is no way you're going to expect a 13 or 14-year-old to concentrate on math, history or English when there are all these things going on in their head,” Ochoa said.

Guermillo Gomez is Ochoa’s colleague at Lincoln High School. He is also a ninth grade teacher.

Gomez says students open up to him and Ochoa because they can relate to their backgrounds and experiences. Gomez came to California as a refugee from El Salvador.

Gomez says he gets frustrated the school district hasn't done more to help these kids when a parent is taken away.

“It's a dehumanizing feeling,” Gomez said. “Some of our students feel shame of being immigrants. They feel shame for being Mexican. Students carry that with them and some students don't bounce back.”

Ochoa and Gomez believes the trauma that these students' experience might help to explain the Latino dropout rate in high school.

They both have a new mission. Ochoa and Gomez want to get kids talking more about their cultural identity and help students develop support systems so they don’t have to struggle alone.

Want more KPBS news?
Find us on Twitter and Facebook, or subscribe to our newsletters.

To view PDF documents, Download Acrobat Reader.