Should I quit my job as a prosecutor for the Department of Homeland Security (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and work for a nonprofit at half the salary? I hate myself for the work I do, but I’m a single mom with three kids. Right now I’m paying one son’s college tuition and am $40K in debt for my other son’s tuition. And I have a 13-year-old coming up.
—Down (or Out) at DHS
Dear Down (or Out),
Don’t hate yourself! Instead, hate the system that forces many of us to do horrible things to support ourselves and our kids.
I do, however, think you can make choices that would be better for you, your children, and the world.
For readers unfamiliar with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, it’s an agency that apprehends immigrants who have usually committed no crime except crossing the border. ICE often sends them to detention centers, where they are treated like criminals and may be held indefinitely under awful conditions. ICE also sends people back to their home countries, often breaking up families. Some of these migrants are children fleeing violence. Michelle Chen wrote recently in The Nation about a teenager who was excelling in his high school in North Carolina, until ICE shipped him to a detention center in Georgia, where his teachers, at one point, were blocked from bringing him his homework. ICE is attempting to send the boy back to Honduras; if he returns, his family believes he will die at the hands of violent gangs—the reason he left that country in the first place.
If you were a prosecutor in a different branch of government, you would, at least now and then, pursue criminals who deserve punishment. But ICE does nothing other than enforce our broken immigration laws and ruin people’s lives.
Not only is your work at ICE harmful, Down (or Out); you don’t even make enough money as a government prosecutor to send all these kids to college. You’re hardly starving, but you make less than $150,000 a year (and possibly less than half that), while private college tuition averages $31,231 a year (and the cost of public college is also climbing rapidly).
So the answer to your question: Yes, you should quit. Your work at a nonprofit will probably be more rewarding for you and better for society. With your lower salary, your youngest (and possibly also your middle child) will be eligible for more financial aid.
Children benefit from seeing their parents satisfied in their work. We risk burdening our kids with guilt—and providing them with an uninspiring model of adulthood—when we make sacrifices for them that we cannot morally justify to ourselves. Your situation is difficult, for sure, but you have more choices than many people do, and you’ve already given up plenty for these kids. Now it’s time to set them a good example by leading a happier and more engaged life.