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Emily Butera is the Senior Program Officer for Detention and Asylum at the Women's Refugee Commission

Maribel was driving in Virginia with her one-year-old child when she was pulled over by a police officer, who asked to see her driver’s license. A Mexican citizen living in the U.S. without a visa, Maribel was arrested for driving without a license. She was quickly transferred to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody and agreed to be deported. Maribel only wanted to take her child—a U.S. citizen—with her. Her child, however, was placed in foster care because Maribel was not allowed to make child care arrangements of her choosing. More than three months later, the child remains in state custody. Maribel is unable to comply with the requirements that the state child welfare agency established as a precondition to get her child back because she is in immigration detention awaiting removal. She is afraid that she will be deported soon and will be unable to take her child with her; she’s trying desperately to make sure this doesn’t happen, but there are many obstacles in her way.

Maribel is one of many mothers whom Women’s Refugee Commission staff have talked to who have been separated from their U.S. citizen children. These separations arise because of the lack of humanitarian protocols that apply at the time a parent comes into immigration custody and because of the unintended complications that arise when a family becomes involved with both the immigration and child welfare systems. Over and over again, the detained mothers we have interviewed have told us that they are willing to accept deportation. But they also want to maintain a relationship with their children, whether by taking their children with them when they leave, or arranging for them to live with relatives here in the U.S.

While policymakers have long asserted that cases like Maribel’s are isolated incidents, a recent report by the Applied Research Center reveals that the scope of this problem is alarming. ARC researchers found that over 46,000 mothers and fathers were deported in the first six months of this year, and an estimated 5,100 children are currently in foster care because one or both of their parents have been detained or removed. If deportations continue at their current rate, this number could jump to 15,000 in the next five years.

These are numbers that should move policymakers to action. Behind these statistics are real parents and   children. And every action that unnecessarily severs these parent-child relationships can have significant social and economic costs.

When parents are deported and forced to leave their children behind, it undercuts normal parent-child relationships. The loss of a critical role model in their life—often the principle disciplinarian—can drive children to drop out of school or fall in with the wrong crowd. Children may feel that their parent has abandoned them, often with care responsibilities for younger siblings, and may hold tremendous anger towards their parent. These reactions can have a permanent impact on children’s well-being. Studies have shown that the after-effects of these separations can lead to developmental delays, poor school performance, depression and aggression.

There are economic considerations as well. When children are placed into the child welfare system as a result of a parent’s detention or deportation, state child welfare agencies assume the financial burden. At a time when many states are in fiscal crisis, it simply does not make sense to divert funds from other important programs to care for children who would not be in the system if their parent had not been detained or had been able to make care arrangements of their choosing.

It is clear that the White House has gotten the message. Recently, President Obama publically acknowledged that the issue of family separation due to immigration enforcement is a “real problem.”

“If parents are deported, they have to have access to their children,” he said during a press conference with Spanish-language reporters. “I think that we have to continue to put pressure on those responsible for administering the program, to be sure that children are not snatched from their parents without due process.”

What is less clear is what ICE is going to do to address the problem.

For the last three years, the Women’s Refugee Commission has raised the issue of family separation with Congress, the Department of Homeland Security and the White House. In a report released last December, we outlined measures that U.S. officials can take to protect immigrants’ parental rights and to decrease the number of children needlessly placed into the child welfare system. Conversations have been encouraging and new developments, such as the discretion policy and forthcoming Risk Classification Assessment, are steps in the right direction. But as the ARC report shows us, these strategies are not yet having an impact and are not enough.

It is time to take the issue of family separation and parental rights across the finish line. We have data to show the extent of the problem and a commitment from the President that his administration will do better. We also have committed individuals at ICE with both the will and the ability to implement policies that reduce the impact of immigration enforcement on children, enable detained parents to participate in child custody proceedings and ensure that parents can take their children with them if they choose.

Unlike so many of the immigration challenges facing our country, this one does not require a change in the law, though a change would certainly reduce the number of parents who are detained and deported. It also does not require turning a blind eye to violations of the current law. It simply requires the government to take into account the collateral costs of detention and deportation and to develop policies and practices that uphold every parent’s right to a relationship with their children.

The costs for these policy changes are minimal, but the benefits, both economic and personal, are enormous.

See our full recommendations and read more about our work on parental rights here.


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