What happens to children when their parents are detained or deported?
The Daily Beast has a good story today on Encarnación Romero, a Guatemalan woman who was jailed on immigration charges for two years and ended up losing parental rights to her infant son. Romero faked documents to secure a job at a Missouri poultry plant, which was raided in March 2009 by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. She was charged with federal identity theft — a charge the Supreme Court ruled in May 2009 cannot be applied to immigration cases — and put in jail for two years. While she was there, her parental rights were terminated by a court and an American family adopted her baby — all without her consent.
The full story is worth a read for some of the intricacies of parental rights laws and the arguments on both sides. But it’s also worth considering the broader impact of immigrant detention and deportation on families, particularly in cases where U.S.-born children are allowed to stay in the country but their parents are not. (Romero is slated for deportation, but her son, an American citizen, is for now still in the custody of his adoptive parents.)
It’s difficult to say exactly how many parents of American children have been deported. A 2009 Department of Homeland Security study estimated that at least 108,434 parents of U.S.-born children were deported between 1998 and 2007. The actual number could be higher, due to incomplete ICE records on parental status.
Deportation of a parent is a risk for a large number of children. A Pew Hispanic Center report released in August found that of the 5.5. million children of illegal immigrants residing in the country in 2009, about four million were American-born. Eight percent of the 4.3 million babies born in the country in 2008 — 340,000 in total — were born to one undocumented parent.
What happens to the U.S.-born children of deported undocumented immigrants varies. Some children of undocumented parents have another parent who is a citizen or legal resident. (Having a spouse or child who is an American citizen does not necessarily prevent deportation orders. The Guzman family, which I wrote about in October, is an example of an American-born woman and her son facing her husband’s deportation.)
In other cases, children of deported parents live with family members or are placed in foster care. Some move with their parents to their parents’ country of origin, where they may not speak the language or be allowed to work legally when they grow older.
None of the options is fair to children who are American citizens, Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.) said in 2009. “If, in fact, some [children] were left behind here, then you have the sad tragedy of breaking up families,” he said. “If they were taken back, I would argue the direct result of our actions is the deportation of our citizens. How do you deport a U.S. citizen?”
A parent’s immigration detention or removal poses risks to a child’s safety, economic security and long-term well-being, according to a study of 190 children whose parents were arrested, detained or deported. The Urban Institute found a majority of children experienced behavioral changes, such as different eating or sleeping habits, aggression and crying, after a parent was arrested. Three out of five families in the study reported difficulty “sometimes” or “frequently” after the arrest of a parent. One in four of the families studied moved in with others to save housing costs.
How could the system better protect these children? The Urban Institute says that immigration laws should take parental status into account and argue hardship to American-born children before immigration judges. It also says parents in immigration detention be considered for supervised release — with ankle bracelets, for instance — so they would not be separated from their families.