By Wendy Cervantes, VP of Immigration and Child Rights Policy, First Focus
Cervantes was one of the authors involved in a report released last week about the impact of deportation proceedings on U.S. children. The report, titled Children in Harm’s Way: Criminal Justice, Immigration Enforcement, and Child Welfare, was produced jointly by First Focus and The Sentencing Project.
As immigration reform discussions advance in the nation’s capital, it will be important for policymakers to consider the impact of their decisions on children. The fact is that children in immigrant families now comprise 1 in 4 of all children in the U.S.Many live in mixed-legal status families with at least one undocumented parent and therefore are uniquely impacted by U.S. immigration laws.
In the past decade, the federal government dramatically changed its approach to enforcing federal immigration laws through increased collaboration with local law enforcement agencies. While the initial goal was to focus immigration enforcement efforts on those who had committed criminal offenses, the result has been record-breaking deportations, including a growing number of parents who have been apprehended by local and state police, often for relatively minor offenses.
In many cases, their children are U.S. citizens who face moving abroad to be with their deported parents, remaining in the United States without one or both parents, or being placed in the foster care system where they are at risk of being permanently separated from their parents. In fact, the Department of Homeland Security recently revealed that the U.S. deported over 200,000 parents of U.S. citizen children during the two-year period between July 1, 2010 and September 30, 2012, and a report by the Applied Research Center estimates that over 5,000 children are currently in the U.S. child welfare system due to a parent’s detention or deportation.
These children are caught between three systems that do not always communicate well with each other: criminal justice, immigration and child welfare.
Often, the good intentions of actors within each of these systems result in unintended negative outcomes for children and families. For instance, the police officer who responds to a domestic violence call believes he or she is acting in the interest of public safety by taking both parties to the station for questioning. The ICE officer who investigates the arrested domestic violence victim after a fingerprint check revealing she is undocumented believes he is appropriately carrying out his responsibility to enforce immigration law. The child welfare worker who places the victim’s children into foster care believes she is making the best decision for the children’s safety and well-being.
While the challenges highlighted by my fellow authors may seem daunting, it is important to note that there are concrete solutions that can greatly minimize the instances in which families and children are unnecessarily separated by immigration enforcement.
Many of the recommendations included in Children in Harm’s Way focus on the implementation of protocols within law enforcement and immigration enforcement agencies to ensure that parents of U.S. citizen children are quickly identified and provided the ability to make decisions regarding their child’s care. Such protocols include:
- Providing incarcerated and detained parents with phone calls upon apprehension to make child care arrangements
- Releasing parents from detention whenever possible, and ensuring parents are able to meet child welfare case plan requirements and participate in family court hearings
- Revision of current immigration law to provide immigration judges with the discretion to consider potential hardship to U.S. citizen children when making decisions about whether or not to deport their parents.
It is my hope that the information and recommendations provided in Children In Harm’s Way will help encourage our nation’s leaders to intentionally consider the best interests of children as they move forward on immigration reform. For too long children have been disregarded in U.S. federal immigration policy, creating serious threats to their safety and well-being.
Keeping families together and ensuring every child in the U.S. has the ability to achieve his or her potential should be priorities for an immigration reform that upholds our American values.
Cervantes is vice president of immigration and child rights policy for First Focus