An unprecedented increase in the deportation of undocumented immigrants has left an estimated 5,100 children languishing in U.S. foster homes -- a troubling figure that could triple in the coming years, according to a November report from a New York-based advocacy group.
The "Shattered Families" report from the Applied Research Center, which the activist group says is the first to analyze national data related to the separation of families involved in deportations, offers a look at the human dimension of the highly contentious immigration debate.
The Obama administration deported 46,000 parents of children who are U.S. citizens in the first six months of 2011, the ARC report says. Government data shows a total of 397,000 expulsions in fiscal year 2011, with half involving people with criminal records.
"This means that almost one in four people deported is the parent of a United States citizen child," said Seth Freed Wessler, the report's chief investigator and author. "ARC's research has uncovered a troubling collateral effect of these deportations: Thousands of children enter the child welfare system and are often stuck there."
Ross Feinstein, a spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said the agency had not reviewed the report.
"Our agency does work with individuals in removal proceedings to ensure they have ample opportunity to make important decisions regarding the care and custody of their children," Feinstein said. "Furthermore, as outlined in the agency's June 2010 Civil Enforcement Priorities memo, ICE will typically not detain individuals who are the primary caretakers of children, unless they are legally subject to mandatory detention based on the severity of their criminal history or their risk of flight."
But once separated, the "Shattered Families" report says, the children face enormous obstacles to rejoining their parents, even though child welfare agencies are required by federal law to reunify them with parents who are able to care for them. Because child welfare authorities lack formal policies for dealing with deported parents, the report says, children often fall through the cracks.
After parents are deported, the researchers found that families remain separated for long periods, with child welfare agencies and juvenile courts often moving to terminate the parental rights of deported immigrants. Children who don't have other immediate family are then put up for adoption.
"One of the most common responses from the hundreds of caseworkers and child welfare attorneys that we interviewed all over the country ... was something like, 'When a parent is detained or deported, they basically fall off the face of the earth when it comes to the child welfare system,'" Wessler said.
The researchers concluded that controversial federal programs such as Secure Communities, which allows federal authorities to screen fingerprints of those arrested by local police in order to detect undocumented immigrants, had turned parts of the country into "deportation hot spots" where families were being torn apart. Critics have said that Secure Communities nets large numbers of noncriminal undocumented immigrants and takes the focus away from violent offenders.
"When we violate that commitment to keeping families together, when we take kids away from loving families, the result not only runs counter to the values that Americans place on families themselves," said ARC President Rinku Sen. "It also starts to look a little too much like abduction to be tolerable."