Children pack South Texas foster care systems after immigration enforcement claims parents
El Paso and parts of the Rio Grande Valley have some of the nation’s highest numbers of children living in foster care because their parents were removed by immigration enforcement, according to **a new study **
The institute that found at least 5,100 children are living in foster care in the U.S. as a result of the detention or deportation of their illegal immigrant parents, and almost one in four people deported in the last year were parents of a U.S.-born child.
According to its research, 7.5 percent of children in foster care in El Paso are there because their parents were either deported or detained. In the eastern Rio Grande Valley, they account for 7.8 percent of children in foster care.
For immigrant advocates like Austin-based Bob Libal, Texas senior organizer at the Grassroots Leadership, the study confirms the need to address immigration policy. His organization works to end for-profit incarceration and reduce dependence on criminalization and detention.
“I think [the study] confirms that detention and deportation system has dramatic consequences on children of those who are detained and deported and on the social service system,” Libal said. “I think we already knew that the deportation system drains a lot of resources, but now we also know that there are all these additional costs….[and] our immigration system doesn’t prioritize family unification.”
In Texas, ARC conducted interviews and surveys with child welfare caseworkers and attorneys, as well as with parents detained at two U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers in the state. But the problem doesn’t just exist along the border, according to the report.
ARC identified at least 22 states where families are more likely to be separated due to local law enforcement agencies “aggressively” involved in immigration enforcement, such as participating in the Secure Communities program, a controversial program that allows ICE access to data on every person booked into a county jail.
In counties surveyed where local police signed 287(g) agreements with ICE — letting local or state law enforcement officers act as immigration officers — children in foster care were 29 percent more likely to have a detained or deported parent than in other counties.
“The more intense the immigration enforcement in an area, the more families are likely to be separated,” ARC senior research associate Seth Wessler, told the Texas Independent.
In a Colorlines story written by Wessler, he details a number of immigrants who lost contact with their children during the detention and deportation process. In some cases, children were picked up by child welfare departments as immigrant parents were being detained by ICE, and parents were not allowed to contact their children.
ARC determined that most child welfare departments lack the policies to keep families united when parents are detained or deported, that ICE detention does not allow for Child Protective Services plans and that immigrant victims of domestic violence are at a higher risk of losing their children.
Wessler says one of the biggest factors in family separation is the detention process. ARC found that detainees are transferred an average of 370 miles from their homes, making communication with their children almost impossible.
“The isolation of detention is the issue,” he said. “And then suddenly people are deported without notice.”
On top of that, he said, ICE has historically refused to make accommodations for parents who need to make arrangements with child welfare departments and decisions concerning their children.
Despite criticism that faced his last attempt to introduce an Arizona-style immigration law in Texas, state Rep. Leo Berman (R-Tyler), a longtime hard-liner on immigration, said he plans on reintroducing legislation similar to Arizona’s that would increase enforcement on immigration policy.
“I filed a similar bill and I will file it again,” Berman said.
But Berman did say it’s important to keep families together.
Under his bill, he said, “children will not be separated from their mother and father, whether they’re U.S. citizens or illegal aliens.”
When asked, Berman said he would consider adding a provision to the bill to ensure that family separation does not happen.
“Children should never be separated from their parents,” he said. “If their children are U.S. citizens, [parents] should not be sent back… You’re hearing this from a guy that’s hardcore when it comes to immigration. But this is an issue no one’s asked me about before. [Family separation] is something I would never want to happen.”
Libal believes the study should serve as a starting point for thinking about legislation.
“People who are immigration hawks are quick to disparage immigrants and spend a lot of money on this,” Libal said, “but this report shows that there are consequences for U.S. citizens. I would hope that people would think about this and that this makes them think twice about spending $1.7 billion dollars on the detention system that’s tearing families apart.”
Still, it’s clear the federal government has not prioritized families in immigration policies. ARC found that between January and June of 2011, more than 46,000 parents of U.S. citizens were deported. At this rate, the report estimates that about 15,000 children of those detained or deported in the next five years could be placed in foster care.
Wessler said ARC is beginning to push its research to advocacy groups and lawmakers, who might be able to create a change in the system.