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5,100 reasons for outrage

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Esther Cepeda
November 17, 2011
— If you are committed to the rule of law, if you expect your government to work in a cohesive and cost-effective manner, and even if you’re strongly against illegal immigration—here are 5,100 reasons to be outraged at how immigration laws are being enforced in this country.

In the umpteenth report released this year about how current immigration policies are contributing to skyrocketing civil rights violations against U.S. citizens, the Applied Research Center, a New York-based social justice public policy institute, recently released “Shattered Families: The Perilous Intersection of Immigration Enforcement and the Child Welfare System.” It is the first national study illustrating how frequently parents and children are separated when they’re caught up in immigration detention systems. Once a parent is in custody, it becomes nearly impossible to comply with the steps that state child welfare departments require to reunite families.


Through a combination of statistical analyses and interviews with detained parents, child protective services professionals, immigration attorneys and juvenile court judges, the report’s authors estimated that when the federal government removed more than 46,000 mothers and fathers of U.S.-citizen children in the first six months of 2011, at least 5,100 children were left to live in foster care.


These children represent 1.25 percent of all children in foster care across the country, and if no meaningful changes are made to how Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and state child welfare agencies work together, the Applied Research Center contends, at least 15,000 more will face long-term or permanent separation from their parents in the next five years.


A combination of factors are to blame, the center notes.


“Historic levels of deportation and policies that are all over the map have made it so (that) parents are detained an average of 370 miles from their kids and without meaningful ways to participate in decisions about their well-being or meaningfully engage in a reunification plan,” said Seth Freed Wessler, the author and principal investigator of “Shattered Families.”


“Child welfare agencies are losing track of parents—one of the most common remarks is that when a parent is detained or deported they basically fall off the face of the Earth—and then are refusing to place children with close family members in the home due to those family members’ legal statuses,” Wessler told me. “In some cases, when parents are back in their native countries, they are denying parents custody by arguing that, even parentless, children are better off in the U.S.”


An ICE representative told me in an email that this report is misleading and reaffirmed that “ICE works with individuals in removal proceedings to ensure they have ample opportunity to make important decisions regarding the care and custody of their children. We take great strides to evaluate cases that warrant humanitarian release. For parents who are ordered removed, it is their decision whether or not to relocate their children with them.”


To which Wessler responded: “I’m glad to hear their stated commitment to ensuring parents can be involved in decisions, but it’s not happening. ICE has said in the past that it doesn’t believe that the problem we’ve demonstrated is a significant problem at all. Well it is, we’ve shown it to be. ICE needs to take seriously its own statement to their commitment.”


During a roundtable discussion with Spanish-language media last week, President Obama agreed.


“It’s a real problem. I’ve instructed the Department of Homeland Security and all the agencies that as a basic principle, if parents are being deported, they have access to their kids, they have to be able to make arrangements, so that the children can go with them or be left with relatives. It’s not working perfectly today,” reported the Los Angeles-based La Opinion. “I’m not here to pretend this hasn’t happened, and I think we have to keep putting pressure on those responsible for administering the program, to make sure that children aren’t torn from their parents without due process and the possibility to stay with their children.”


Obama can’t punt this—he is responsible for exerting the most pressure. But we, too, must take our wrongly orphaned U.S. citizens seriously. If we continue to ignore them, the cost of our national apathy will be a moral bankruptcy far exceeding the price to feed and house these children while their parents desperately struggle to get them home, wherever home ends up being.


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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