Author Luis H. Zayas, Ph.D.

The Dean of the School of Social Work at the University of Texas at Austin discusses his new book, Forgotten Citizens: Deportation, Children, and the Making of American Exiles and Orphans.

Dr. Luis Zayas is one of the nation's leading advocates for U.S. citizen children of immigrant parents, and a champion of issues relating to child and adolescent mental health. He was appointed Dean of the School of Social Work at the University of Texas at Austin in January 2012. In a social work career that spans 35 years, he has conducted research in diagnostic processes, suicide attempts of young Latinas, and adapting interventions for Latino children, youth and families. Dr. Zayas' current focus is on the plight of citizen-children whose parents are being deported. He recently authored a book on the subject, titled Forgotten Citizens: Deportation, Children, and the Making of American Exiles and Orphans.


Tavis: Pleased to welcome Dr. Luis Zayas to this program. The Dean of the School of Social Work at the University of Texas at Austin has written a new text examining the effects of deportation on the psychological functioning of the U.S. citizen children of undocumented immigrants.

The text is called “Forgotten Citizens: Deportation, Children, and the Making of American Exiles and Orphans”. Dr. Zayas, good to have you on this program.

Dr. Luis H. Zayas: Thank you very much.

Tavis: That’s a strong, I think, damning indictment that we are creating, that we are making exiles and orphans. Is that what we’re doing?

Zayas: That’s what we’re doing when we deport parents and have them make the agonizing decision, do I take my children with me to another country or do we leave them behind? And when the parents choose to take the children with them to another country, we’re creating exiles by forcing parents to make that agonizing decision.

Tavis: To those who are watching right now, and not even necessarily in a coldhearted way, but just asking intellectually and even emotionally, how that’s our concern, how that is our concern when it is a choice that they made?

Zayas: Because these are citizens. Like you and like me, they’re U.S. citizens and they deserve all the rights that every U.S. citizen gets. And in this case, the children’s rights were abrogated by the fact that the immigration system says get the parents out.

And we don’t have a situation where the child has any say in it. In Family Court, we would have the best interest of the child at heart. In Immigration Court, that doesn’t happen.

So in a sense, it is our problem because you and I will have to, as taxpayers, consider the costs of those children when they come back as adults. We want them to be prepared to enter our economy, our workforce.

Will they be prepared when they come back? And those who are left orphans, what are they going to be thinking about our government and the society that they’re in that says your parents have to go and your parents left you behind? What kind of civic mindedness and civic engagement will those children have as orphans?

Tavis: I’m not naïve in asking this question, but to the point you made a moment ago, Dr. Zayas, that there is one set of rules in Family Court, there is another set of rules in Immigrant Court. Yet it seems to me that it ought not to be that way if we’re talking about U.S. citizens. Why should they be subject to two different sets of rules if they are in fact U.S. citizens? Clearly, they are, so why two different sets of rules?

Zayas: That’s just the nature of the system. You know, we may have one large legal system, but even within them, they clash. The Family Court says best interests of the child comes first. The Immigration Court says no, let’s enforce our immigration laws and get these parents out, and they don’t come together.

Tavis: Illustrate for me how horrible the impacts of these separations are on the kids.

Zayas: Okay. So when a child is left behind as an orphan, in this case, we’re talking about a child who’s lost his or her parents and perhaps has had to move in with someone else, an older brother or sister, an aunt and uncle, maybe in another community.

So they’re giving up their parents, they’re giving up their school, they’re giving up their churches, they’re giving up their communities, and they’re having to be displaced. And all along, they’re without their parents.

And that’s where the real harshness of this policy comes because we’re leaving these children. Oftentimes, they develop mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, social withdrawal, or the opposite which is more the conduct disorders, the acting out, and that is crucial to our nation’s health.

Tavis: Do we know what kind of numbers we’re talking here?

Zayas: Unfortunately, we don’t know. Now we do have an estimate that a couple of million people have been deported in the past decade. And the demographers say that, for every two persons deported, one U.S. citizen child is affected.

Therefore, we’re talking about roughly a million children who are in this situation. Now some of them have gone to other countries and what we know from newspaper reports and scientific studies is that they’re suffering.

They’re living in squalor in places like Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Mexico. They’re not engaging or they don’t have the same kind of health and education that we provide here. But the numbers are astounding just based on the estimates.

Tavis: I know there isn’t the kind of data collection on this that will give you the detailed answer that I’m looking for here, but what types of decisions are parents making? When they’re caught in that quagmire, what decision do we believe that most parents tend to make and why?

Zayas: The older kids, they might say, we’ll leave her or him behind because he’s in high school. He’s already achieving and we’re hoping that he’ll go to college. The little ones can’t be left behind. The 16-year-old can’t take care of the two-year-old. So those children will be going with the parents upon deportation.

Those are the kinds of strains that a family has to deal with and it’s agonizing. If you think you know King Solomon said here’s the child, who’s the real mother? Well, let me split it in half and one mother said no. That’s the kind of choices. I mean, it’s dramatic, if you will.

Or “Sophie’s Choice”, you have one child go get gassed right away or the other one who will go to the work camp. Both of them will die. She had to make an agonizing choice. Again, it’s over the top, I must admit, but in many ways, parents have to make these decisions when they’re deported.

Do I take my child and be able to comfort him and put him to bed every night with a kiss? But I’m not sure where that’s going to be. It could be in some impoverished hamlet in the highlands of Guatemala. Or do I leave him behind? I can’t kiss him goodnight and put him to bed, but somebody else is. The child will be better off with health and education, but they won’t be with the parent.

Tavis: You’re enacted a mission, obviously, so I don’t mean to make you political. But I think this question bears asking anyway. As I’ve discussed it on this program for years now, my view of it is that the Obama administration’s policies on immigration have at best been schizophrenic. I mean, on the one hand, they make a decision that we agree with or many of us do.

On the other hand, we can’t understand why they would do or not do X, Y or Z. I speak now specifically of the fact that, on the one hand, he’s made some moves that I think that accrue a benefit to the hopes and aspirations of these dreamers.

On the other hand, he has deported more people than George Bush deported in his eight years as president. So on this particular issue, how do I read what the administration policy has been and its impact on this?

Zayas: Okay. Well, I think President Obama has tried his best on both sides. I mean, unfortunately, there was a system ahead of him that he had to follow which was the deportation and, indeed, he did…

Tavis: Can we disagree on that? We fundamentally disagree. I want to cut you off right quick, respectfully. We fundamentally disagree and I’ve had this debate so many times because either this is–and I don’t you to be schizophrenic, respectfully–this is either a moral issue or it’s not. If it’s a moral issue, then don’t tell me the president had to do X, Y or Z if it is a moral issue.

Zayas: That’s right. It is a moral issue.

Tavis: Politically, I see why he did it. But if it’s a moral issue, that’s a very different…

Zayas: It’s a moral issue and I think he failed it. In the book, you’ll read that I don’t let President Obama off the hook. It was a moral issue, yes. He said things and did things that were politically expedient, but morally it was incorrect. And it’s for our country to think about what’s going to happen to these children.

How will history judge us with these children who have been sent somewhere else or left behind as orphans when they should have been with their parents in their home country because the 14th Amendment says they have citizenship at birth?

Tavis: Now that we’ve addressed that issue, we’re on the same page here [laugh].

Zayas: Very well [laugh].

Tavis: We’re on the same page about this. Obviously, Barack Obama is not the only politician in Washington, so I got some for everybody else there as well.

Zayas: Yes, we both do.

Tavis: We both do, yeah, which leads to the question of how politically we navigate a moral issue.

Zayas: We navigate it by sheer will. We have to have political will, moral will. We have to stand up and say this is wrong. And there are many good people in this country who say this is wrong, this is morally reprehensible what we’re doing to these children and their families.

And we need to see more of that in the Congress, Senate, the House of Representatives, and certainly in the White House and around all the governors’ mansions too because, you know, that’s been very variable across the country with the governors.

Tavis: Tell me how you think this issue is gaining political traction. I mean, clearly, this is not a new issue. Your book is new and it details quite beautifully, I think, what the struggle here is. But tell me how you think this issue is tracking nationally politically.

Zayas: Unfortunately, it’s not. Citizen children are left on the wayside. With all the immigration debate, they’re not the ones that we’re talking about. We’re talking about their parents, we’re talking about the illegals, we’re talking about all these other things, and the citizen children are being forgotten.

We’re giving more attention these days to the children who have been coming over as refugees in the past year than the children who are already U.S. citizens.

Now I want to say that I fully support the mothers who are bringing their children here trying to protect them from the violence of their Central American countries, but now they’re found in detention. However, we’ve forgotten this group in the process of the media paying so much attention to those refugee children.

Tavis: I guess the question is how then do these children and their concerns get raised higher on the American agenda?

Zayas: Well, it’s by bringing attention to them, such as this, such as being on your show, getting the media to understand what we’re doing. So it’s not just that they deserve more than others. They deserve their time or place under the sun to get the attention that many of our children get.

This particular group has been lacking that attention and we need to put some political will and moral will behind it to save our young citizens.

Tavis: The new book from Luis Zayas is “Forgotten Citizens: Deportation, Children, and the Making of American Exiles and Orphans”. Professor Zayas, good to have you on the program. Thanks for your time.

Zayas: Thank you very much, Tavis.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at

[Walmart Sponsor Ad]

Announcer: The California Endowment. Health happens in neighborhoods. Learn more.

Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: May 7, 2015 at 3:10 pm