As Congress looks toward meaningful immigration reform, we must take care not to neglect one of the most heartbreaking problems within the current, broken system: what happens to children when their parents or guardians are deported.
Currently, according to the Applied Research Center's report "Shattered Families," at least 5,000 children of immigrants live in U.S. foster care because their parents were detained or deported. If the current trends hold, the center estimates, 15,000 more children over the next five years will be ripped away from their mothers and fathers as a result of federal immigration enforcement actions.
In the wake of immigration arrests, law enforcers often don't allow detained immigrant parents the opportunity to make proper arrangements for the care of their children. Kids can come home from school, only to find their mothers and fathers gone.
When a child enters the foster-care system, detained parents often have little input into plans for their children's care, since the hearings and proceedings that determine those arrangements tend to take place far from the detention centers where immigrants are held. Once parents have been taken into custody or deported, caseworkers report, it is difficult for children to maintain contact with them.
All of these factors increase the chances that parental rights may be inappropriately terminated in cases where parents are involved in immigration proceedings, resulting in permanent family separation.
Even when detained parents are released and allowed to remain in the United States, roadblocks exist to the reunification process.
If a child has entered the foster-care system, parents must meet the requirements of a child-welfare case plan to regain custody of their kids. This plan may require parents to demonstrate that they can meet the health and welfare needs of their children, yet Medicaid, most mental health services and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families are not available to many of them because of their immigration status.
Additionally, parents may be asked to find a baby-sitter who is in the country legally or to prove "legitimate employment." With the clock ticking, undocumented parents, who face barriers to getting services or jobs because of their immigration status, can permanently lose their parental rights, leaving child welfare agencies to care for their children if they cannot be placed with a documented family member.
For victims of domestic abuse or other forms of gender-based violence, the situation can be even more tragic. Undocumented victims of domestic violence can face an impossible situation: either staying with their abusers and suffering violent attacks or risking detention and the possible loss of their children by speaking out.
Once parents are deported, the challenges to reuniting with their children in the United States become even greater. In most cases, children are reunited with their deported parents only if foreign consulates are able to get involved and advocate on the parents' behalf. Furthermore, some social workers and family court judges may believe that children of deported immigrants are better off living in the foster-care system here in the United States than they would be living with their parents in another country.
One step toward a saner policy is contained in a bill introduced in Congress last year by one of us (Roybal-Allard), the Help Separated Families Act. The legislation, which Rep. Bass will co-sponsor when it is reintroduced in the upcoming Congress, would make it far more difficult to terminate parental rights solely because of immigration status, and it would also allow foster children to be placed in the best homes for them, regardless of the immigration status of a potential guardian.
This legislation won't end all of the suffering that our broken immigration system causes children and families, but it's a good start. For too long, the youngest and most vulnerable voices in our immigration debate have been ignored.
We live in a country defined both by its proud immigrant heritage and by its enduring commitment to families. Ultimately, immigration reform will not be successful unless it protects children, prevents families from being torn apart and shows the world America means what it says when it speaks out on the importance of respecting human rights.
Rep. Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) serves as founder and co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth. Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-East Los Angeles) is also a member of the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth.