Friday, December 24, 2010

Tearing Apart Immigrant Families

As many of us prepare to reunite with our families over the holidays, the Women's Refugee Commission has released a new report, Torn Apart by Immigration Enforcement: Parental Rights and Immigration Detention, that describes the horrific consequences of the interaction of the immigration enforcement and child welfare systems in the United States.
While hard data are difficult to come by, there are at least three million children living in mixed families in the United States -- that is, families with a US citizen child and an undocumented parent. Between 1998 and 2007, over 100,000 non-citizen parents of US citizen children were deported. For some, this results in painful decisions about whether to leave the child in the US or bring the child with them. But those are the lucky families; many parents do not ever even get this choice. In the worst cases, undocumented immigrants' parental rights are terminated without their knowledge.
The report breaks down the problem into several stages. To start, when U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) apprehend undocumented immigrants, their protocols are insufficient to identify parents and prioritize them for release. Indeed, the guidance for agents who encounter juveniles during fugitive operations directs officers to contact child welfare services, which can complicate parents rights. In any case, there are no procedures to ensure that parents can make care arrangements for their children before they are detained.
Once undocumented parents are detained, it becomes extremely difficult to communicate with their children and the child welfare system due to limitations on telephone access and frequent distant transfers of immigration detainees. Not only does this pose serious obstacles to ensuring safe care for immigrants' children, it may contribute directly to termination of parental rights. For example, the child welfare system's family reunification plan may require regular phone calls and contact visits that are all but impossible for detained parents. Detained parents are also often unable to participate in family court proceedings, either because child welfare services cannot locate them so they do not receive notice of the hearing or because they are unable to be present at the hearing.
Finally, when undocumented parents are deported, the dearth of information provided by ICE about the timing of deportation can make reunification very difficult. Parents are often notified of their deportation at the very last minute -- too late to make travel arrangements for their children -- or ICE changes travel plans after parents have already purchased expensive, nonrefundable tickets for their children to accompany them. This and the other failures of coordination between immigration and child welfare systems described above result in the long-term and in some cases permanent separation of families, inflicting serious psychological trauma on the citizen children of undocumented immigrants.

(Hat tip to my student, Jessica Jones, who worked on the Women's Refugee Commission report this summer and is currently writing a research paper on the interaction of the child welfare and immigration enforcement systems under my supervision.)

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