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Posted Jan 17, 2012, 1:31 pm
An upswing in immigrant deportations in 2011 has left thousands of American children living in foster care across the nation, often for years and sometimes longer, according to a report from a racial justice think tank.
“Some of these children will never reunite with their families,” said Laurie Melrood, a Tucson activist and consultant who hosted a news conference Tuesday to discuss the issue.
The Applied Research Center report – Shattered Families: The Perilous Intersection of Immigration Enforcement and the Child Welfare System – highlights the plight of American children whose parents are illegal immigrants. In the first half of 2011 alone, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported about 46,000 immigrants who have American children – some just a few months old – leaving about 5,000 kids to languish in foster care while parents try in vain to get them back, said the report’s author, Seth Freed Wessler.
When parents are arrested, often for minor offenses that would not normally be grounds for removing children from their homes, child welfare agencies are loathe to release kids to other family members who are also illegal immigrants, Wessler said.
“As a result, children are forced into foster care, when they could be placed with their own families,” he said. “Five thousand is a crisis. It’s a growing crisis.”
The study found American kids in 22 states whose parents had been deported or detained. And since child welfare agencies don’t have effective communication channels with ICE, social workers have a hard time even finding the parents, said Nina Rabin, University of Arizona law professor.
Often the parents’ names disappear from jail rosters with no notice to social workers, who then have no contact information for the parents. Then the parents are left with a choice – accept deportation and face years of fighting for custody from outside the U.S., or stay in detention to fight deportation, which can also take years.
“I don’t know what you’re supposed to do in that situation,” said Rabin. “There is no good outcome.”
As an example, Rabin cited the case of a woman who was taken into ICE custody after a traffic stop and placed in detention in Eloy. The woman fought for release for two years, so she could care for her children. Then two months ago, the state permanently terminated her parental rights, because she was unavailable to parent. A review of the woman’s case showed that the offense that led to her detention would not have prompted the state to take her children, Rabin said.
“This has nothing to do with her fitness to be a parent,” she said.
Rabin penned a report – Disappearing Parents: A Report on Immigration Enforcement and the Child Welfare System – examining the issue from a legal perspective. Every person in the legal and social work communities who she contacted for her report had direct experience with separated families. She urges immigration detention training for lawyers, judges and social workers; new early-detection procedures for detainees with children in foster care; and an orientation program to teach detainees about their parental rights.
In addition to destroying families, separating parents and children is costly, said Yali Lincroft, a policy consultant with First Focus, a nonprofit that aims to make children and families part of the nation’s policy and budget decisions. When parents are detained and kids sent to foster care, we are spending money that could be used to enrich families instead, Lincroft said.
“Is this really the way you want to spend your money? Separating families?” she asked at the news conference.
Kat Rodriguez, program director for Coalicion de Derechos Humanos, urged local law enforcement officers—who often call ICE agents to deal with suspected illegal immigrants—to think twice before they simply turn over suspected illegal immigrants.
“These kids of things have ripple effects, and they’re destroying families,” she said.
TucsonSentinel.com's original reporting and curation of border and immigration news is generously supported in part by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.