By Kirsten Bokenkamp
Imagine that you have been living the constant nightmare of being physically abused by your spouse. Fearful of being deported, you have never called to report this crime, but finally the day comes when you can’t take it anymore, and you make that fateful 911 call. The local police come to your aid – until they realize that you are living in the country without sufficient documentation. At that point, some communities require local police to detain you and turn you over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Your kids? They are picked up by Child Protective Services (CPS) and put into the foster care system. If you’re lucky, you might see them again.
A new report by the Applied Research Center shows that this practice happens altogether too often. According to the report, SHATTERED FAMILIES: The Perilous Intersection of Immigration Enforcement and the Child Welfare System, in the first six months of 2011 the federal government removed more than 46,000 mothers and fathers of US-citizen children. In the best case, once the legal proceedings are finished (which can take many months), the families are reunited. But, due to barriers to reunification, many parents experience the worst case: They are indefinitely detained or deported to their home country and may lose contact with their children. How does this happen?
As the report details, a parent, while detained in an immigration detention facility, may be prevented from complying with a CPS’ child welfare case plan for various reasons. In some instances, court-ordered attorneys may not be able to find them, so they miss their dependency court hearings. In other cases, ICE may refuse to transport them to a hearing. Often it is completely out of the immigrant parents’ control what happens to their children during their detention and a parent’s worst nightmare: They have no idea where her children are, and if they are okay.
If a parent is deported, CPS often has a hard time locating and contacting the mothers and fathers to apprise them of their children’s’ whereabouts. Assuming mothers and father are finally able to contact CPS from their home countries, they are told CPS will not consider reunification unless they can arrange for a home study, complete parenting classes, and find a job within a certain federal deadline – often difficult in many developing countries. If the parents fail to complete this plan, or if the child is out of their custody for 15 months out of any 22 month period, federal law requires CPS to petition the court to terminate parental rights.
Immigration policies and laws are based on the assumption that families should be united, but in practice this is not always the case. The report estimates that there are at least 5,100 children currently living in foster care whose parents have been detained or deported, and this number is projected to increase by 15,000 more children in the next five years.
Not surprisingly, the report found that areas where local law enforcement is more involved in immigration enforcement have a higher incidence of families being torn apart. Victims of domestic or gender-based violence face the unconscionable choice of continuing to live in an abusive relationship or risk losing their children. This is a decision no parent should ever have to make.
Breaking up families is detrimental to society and is not consistent with American values. According to the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, children in foster care are more likely to wind up in the juvenile justice system, become pregnant as teenagers, and are less likely to hold a job. Tearing children away from their parents whose only crime is not having the right papers is a cruel practice, destroys families, serves no benefit to society, and underscores yet another reason why local enforcement of federal immigration law is the wrong policy.