Over the next five years, at least 15,000 American children face being separated from their parents because of immigration enforcement.
That’s one finding from a new report “Shattered Families” that examines the intersection of immigration enforcement and the child welfare system. It’s from The Applied Research Center, a 30-year-old racial justice think tank that uses media, research and activism to promote solutions.
The report has also found that:
- There are at least 5,100 children currently living in foster care who are prevented from uniting with their detained or deported parents.
- The problem is national, not one confined to border jurisdictions or states.
- Families are more likely to be separated where local police aggressively participate in immigration enforcement.
- Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention obstructs participation in Child Protective Services’ plans for family unity.
- Most child welfare departments lack systemic policies to keep families united when parents are detained or deported.
The report found that in many cases, ICE was detaining victims of family and gender-based violence whose children then entered foster care and subsequently lost their children.
Victims of domestic violence and human trafficking are often isolated from their networks because traffickers and abusers cut them off from families and friends. As a result, if they are detained by ICE, their children may have no other family or close family friends who are available to care for them.
Many of these women should have been protected from detention in the first place, because victims of crimes can apply for visas because Federal law maintains specific categories of visas for victims of domestic violence and human trafficking in particular. ICE is supposed to take special consideration for these victims, but the report finds that they appear to be being detained in immigration detention centers with disturbing regularity and for extended periods.
A parents’ attorney in Maricopa County, Arizona, described a case in which a report of domestic violence caused the initiation of the CPS case and a mother’s arrest and detention:
I have a Mexican immigrant client detained by ICE for a year. She was a [domestic violence] victim and the police got involved and that’s when they found out that she was undocumented and so they had to go ahead and detain her. Eventually, they released her and permitted her to stay here in the U.S. based on a Violence Against Women Act visa. But the fact that she was detained by ICE was enough to push the kids into foster care.
Her kids were in care for a whole year and there was no other family to take them. Now CPS is trying to help her get her sons back but the process is slow.
Hilaria was arrested in Phoenix, Arizona because she tried to defend herself against her abusive husband. In October 2010, her husband attacked her and she says she fought back, drawing blood. A neighbor heard screams and called the police. When officers arrived, they arrested Hilaria for assault. ICE quickly detained her.
Since their children were home at the time of the report, the police called CPS. When the CPS caseworker arrived, the officers and Hilaria’s husband said that Hilaria was the assailant, so the caseworker left the children with the husband. Two weeks later, the child welfare department returned to check on the children. The caseworker suspected that Hilaria’s husband was using drugs and removed the children from him, placing them in foster care.
Two months later, sitting in a visitation room over an hour from her children, Hilaria said tearfully:
“I’ve had domestic violence before but I took it for my kids. Now they’ve robbed me. I did what I did to defend myself and my kids.”
In May, 30-year-old Paula was one of almost 1,000 detainees held at the time inside the Willacy Detention Center, in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. For more than a dozen years, Paula lived with a man 20 years her senior who she says brought her to the U.S. after he met her in Mexico. The man presented himself to the outside world as her partner, but behaved more like her owner, keeping her on a short leash and forcing her to work without pay cleaning the homes of his family and contacts. He forbade her from having contact with her family in Mexico and she has not spoken with them for more than a decade. An attorney who represents her says she is a victim of human trafficking.
She had seven children with him since she came to the U.S. One of her daughters was very ill and at intervals required a machine to breath. Paula tearfully recalled the night that, while the man slept, she piled her children into his vehicle and drove away. Because of the hasty escape, Paula could not take her daughter’s breathing machine.
The next day, knowing that her girl could not survive without this machine, she drove to the closest CPS office and made the decision to voluntarily place her daughter in foster care until she could arrange to get the breathing machine or a buy a new one. She took her other children to a domestic violence shelter. But several months later, a sheriff’s deputy arrived and arrested Paula, charging her with neglect because she’d failed to provide her ill child with necessary care. She was brought to the local jail and the rest of her children were placed in foster care.
Rather than being released on bond or spending a short time in jail, Paula was soon moved to Willacy Detention Centre. When ARC interviewed her, she had already been at Willacy for seven months, with no word of when she might be released or deported. Victims of trafficking may be at particular risk of having their children placed in foster care if they are detained. As an attorney familiar with the case explained:
“Trafficking victims are by definition isolated. They have no support network at all. A lot of immigrants have extended networks, but trafficking victims don’t. Because of that, there’s nobody to take the kids to.”
Writing for Colorlines, ARC President Rinku Sen noted that:
“Mothers, in particular, are faced with impossible choices in this set up. We recorded stories of domestic violence victims who are supposed to be protected from deportation under the Violence Against Women Act. Instead, these women are arrested along with their abusers, thrown in detention, and then deported while their kids went into the system. If you’re such a woman and you report the abuse, you might be deported, since some law enforcement clearly didn’t get the VAWA memo. Or if you decide not to report because you wonder who will take care of your kids if you’re deported, then you can be charged with failure to protect the kids from an abuser. There’s no choice there, just a bunch of bad options that all separate you from your kids.”
To date, there has been no national data available on the numbers of children impacted by the intersection of immigration enforcement and child welfare systems.
Trafficking Victim or Criminal? Depends on Your Age
Image byShattered Families cover