The anatomy of immigration enforcement: Long-standing socio-emotional impacts on children as they age into adulthood

Joanna Dreby, State University of New York at Albany
Florencia Silveira, State University of New York at Albany
Eunju Lee, State University of New York at Albany
Publication Date:
Jun 2022
Project Programs:
Immigration and Immigrant Integration


This article identifies how experiences with immigration enforcement during childhood come to have long-standing socio-emotional impacts in adulthood.


Scholarship shows adverse experiences in childhood to have enduring effects and that enforcement causes a series of hardships, particularly for children. Yet no research to date explains what specifically about enforcement shapes children's lives over time.


Using in-depth interviews collected between 2019 and 2021 from 84 young adults, all who were minors raised during the period of increased immigration enforcement during the mid-2000s, we use qualitative analytical techniques to explore enforcement as a possible source of traumatic experience outside of the household.


We find that long-term socio-emotional effects related to enforcement are likely tied to three elements of children's lived experiences: (a) the extent of exposure to enforcement episodes, (b) the chronicity of exposure, and (c) the timing of exposure in a child's life course and that these three elements unfold within family contexts. Children with direct and chronic exposure and for whom exposure spans middle childhood describe negative consequences on their well-being in adulthood particularly when they experience other forms of family adversity. Supportive family contexts can mitigate exposure, chronicity, and timing of exposure.

Conclusion and Implications

This framework for understanding the anatomy of enforcement can improve how we theorize immigration-related trauma and can—in the absence of federal reform–provide local-level policymakers and officials with guidelines to help lessen hardship caused by enforcement practices.


RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences is a peer-reviewed, open-access journal of original empirical research articles by both established and emerging scholars.


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