Report: Immigration Laws Put Five Million Children at Risk of Family Separation

Children are the hidden casualties of America’s war on immigrants, and the passage of Arizona’s new racial profiling legislation could open up countless opportunities for local law enforcement to break up families by putting undocumented parents on the fast-track to deportation.

A report from the D.C.-based advocacy group First Focus released in April outlines the possible consequences for children who wind up alone after their immigrant parents are apprehended.

According to the organization’s estimates, “over 5 million children in the United States with at least one undocumented parent are at risk of unnecessarily entering the child welfare system when a parent is detained or deported.” (Of all the children with at least one undocumented parent, a large majority are citizens by birth.)

Once inside the system, children often fall into a massive bureaucracy that can traumatize youth and parents, and when language barriers and poverty enter the mix, separated family members might have only a dim awareness of their children’s fate or the legal process for keeping custody within the family. The result is that on top of the nightmare of permanent separation across national borders, these parents face especially high risk of losing parental rights under domestic law,

When a child enters the child welfare system, immigrant parents face huge obstacles in reuniting with the child. For example, if a parent is detained or deported, they cannot take part in child welfare proceedings like family court or case plan requirements, which creates the risk of permanent, unnecessary separation of the child from their parents.

It’s not just the undocumented who are at risk. First Focus notes that ICE enforcement actions “have resulted in the apprehension of thousands of immigrants for minor non-criminal offenses as well as the deportation of thousands of lawful permanent residents.” According to one government study, over a ten year period, an estimated 108,000 parents with U.S. citizen children were deported.

One of the most disturbing possibilities is a convergence of three huge institutions—immigration, criminal justice and child welfare—where family members are roped into a Kafka-esque bureaucratic limbo where advocating for their families could be punished by deportation. Just as SB1070 could deepen tension between communities of color and police, the collateral consequences in the child welfare system could leave all immigrant families alienated from the social service system:

For example, in one case in February 2009, a social worker operating as a private contractor for the Florida Department of Children and Families filed a cross report to the sheriff’s department on the immigration status of a Guatemalan woman who had two U.S. citizen children in the child welfare system.25 Due to the police department’s 287(g) agreement, the mother was turned over to ICE officials, and subsequently the social worker called in the grandparents of the child who were also turned over to ICE during a visit at the child welfare office. Actions such as these raise serious concerns about the effects on immigrant communities’ trust of the public child welfare system, creating a high risk of immigrant citizens not reporting suspected or severe child maltreatment.

First Focus notes that a common dilemma families faces as deportation looms is whether the children, who may or may not have legal status, will return to the home country in order to remain with the parent.

A rational solution to that dilemma is to pass legislation, such as a humane proposal offered by Rep. Jose Serrano, that would compel the government to respect the need to keep families intact during deportation proceedings. Rep. Duncan Hunter of California has another solution: deport children of the undocumented, too, even if they are citizens. Pointing to the “cost” of unauthorized immigration, Hunter recently argued, “we’re not being mean. We’re just saying it takes more than walking across the border to become an American citizen. It’s what’s in our souls, not just walking across the border.”

When migrants walk across the border, they carry with them the familiar desire to raise their families and build a better life. Those hopes, however, according to the right, have no place in the American “soul,”. Yet the willingness to dehumanize whole families, including the children of your neighbors, is somehow part of our national character. For a growing segment of the population, this is exactly the kind of ideology that renders a nation soulless.