Imagine being separated from your children one day. You're put in a detention center hundreds of miles away with absolutely no right to see your kids for months, sometimes years, and the possibility of never seeing them again.
The heartbreaking stories are revealed in a new report by the Applied Research Center called Shattered Families: The Perilous Intersection of Immigration Enforcement and the Child Welfare System.
The opening paragraphs of the report's executive summary tell a grueling tale:
"Josephina's baby was just nine months old and Clara's children were one and six when they were placed in foster homes with strangers. Clara and Josephina, sisters in their early 30s who lived together in a small New Mexico town, had done nothing to harm their children or to elicit the attention of the child welfare department."
In the summer of 2010 federal immigration agents arrived at the door of the two mothers' trailer home, based on a tip that the sisters, who were undocumented, had drugs in their home. Though the ICE agents found nothing incriminating and even though the women had no criminal record, the officials called Child Protective Services to take custody of the children and the mothers were detained based on their immigration status.
The report continues, "For the four months that ICE detained them Josephina and Clara had no idea where their children were. In December, the sisters were deported, and their children remained in foster care."
Talking by phone from Mexico a year after she was deported, Josephina said, "I have no contact with my baby. I didn't do anything wrong to have my children taken away from me."
With the help of the Mexican consulate in New Mexico and after 14 months apart, Josephina and Clara were finally reunited with their children this September.
Others may not be so lucky.
"Immigration enforcement greatly increases the chances that families will never see each other again," ARC President Rinku Sen said in a statement. "Detaining and deporting parents shatter families and endanger the children left behind. It's unacceptable, un-American, and a clear sign that we need to revisit our immigration policies."
Seth Freed Wessler, the report's author and principal investigator, notes thousands of families are being left out of the decision-making process when it comes to the care and custody of their children. As a result, he says, children of detained and deported parents are likely to remain in foster care when they could be with their own family.
Wessler adds there are more than 5,000 children currently living in foster care whose parents have been either detained or deported. Families are facing formidable barriers to reunification, and in many cases will be permanently separated. If the numbers based on the report's findings remain the same, he projects at least 15,000 more children will face similar threats to reunification in the next five years.
In fiscal year 2011, the U.S. deported nearly 400,000 people, a record-breaking number, and detained nearly that many. In the first six months of 2011, the Obama administration removed more than 46,000 mothers and fathers of U.S.-citizen children.
Sound policies ensuring the reunification of parents with their children are clearly lacking in the child welfare system, says Wessler. The trauma for these families is great, he said, adding that it is universally agreed that children are better off when they are with their families.
A major problem is that once parents are put into detention centers hundreds of miles away from their children, they are physically removed from the process. In many cases because the parents are not present during court proceedings their parental rights are terminated and the children are placed in the foster care system.
The child welfare system moves forward without the parents, mostly because the detention centers do not cooperate. And attorneys for the parents say they have little information about where their clients, the parents, are being detained.
Wessler calls this a "systemic bias" and says the child welfare departments lack proactive policies to reunify children with their detained and deported parents.
"These detention policies need to change and we need community-based alternatives so families can stay united," he said.
Controversial programs such as Secure Communities and 287(g), which are anti-immigrant policies, enforced by state and local law enforcement, need to be suspended, says Wessler. States, counties and municipalities that enforce them are one of the major causes of separated families and children being put in the foster care system, he said.
"Families undergoing distressing situations where in some cases parents could be separated from their children forever is a terrible consequence and is not acceptable," said Wessler. "And as we grapple with what kind of immigration policies we need, it's important to fully understand the irreparable repercussions taking place based on the current failed system. As immigration enforcement spreads across the country and more parents of U.S.-citizen children are deported, the collateral effects are likely only to grow. We have to know what this means for our communities and we hope with this report to get people to think differently."
Photo: Pepe Lozano/PW