In the United States today there are at least 5,000 children in foster care because their parents were deported or have been arrested due to irregular immigration status, according to a recent report prepared by the Applied Research Center, a New York organization that promotes social and racial justice.
The actual number of immigrant children in this situation could be much higher, said Seth Wessler, author of the report, adding that whatever the true figure is, it is likely to triple over the next five years if immigration laws do not change and if the emphasis on enforcement continues.
Part of the problem in estimating how many children of deported immigrants are transferred to foster families is that national data simply do not exist, said Wessler, because neither Immigration and Customs Enforcement nor social services departments are required to compile the information.
Moreover, within many states, such as Colorado, each county operates independently with regard to foster fami- lies. If the data exist, these agencies have no obligation to share it.
Even so, according to statistics from the Office of Refugee Resettlement, an agency within the Department of Homeland Security, each year since 2005 ORR has received 7,000 to 9,000 "unaccompanied minors," that is, minors who entered the country alone - most of them from Central America - or who remain alone in the country after their parents have been deported or left the United States.
However, ORR's report does not detail how many of those minors are put in foster care families or orphanages, how many of them are adopted or how many are eventually reunited with their families. For that reason, ARC's research was needed and is innovative, according to Wessler.
The ARC report is the first attempt at national data regarding the children of deported parents, he said.
The figures provided by ORR do not include children ofMexicans who decided to "voluntarily return" to their countries of origin, leaving their American children in this country. In fact, 85 percent of those unaccompanied minors come from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, according to the Vera Institute for Justice. This group was hired by ORR to provide pro bono legal assistance for those children who, without their parents, would also lack proper legal representation unless it were freely provided to them.
The Innocenti Insight report published by UNICEF in 2009 reported that 22 percent of U.S. children are children of immigrants, and that three out of four of those children do not speak English at home. More than half of them belong to low-income families.
Therefore, most of the children in foster care due to the deportation of their parents are from low-income families with limited knowledge of the English language, as confirmed by the ARC report.
In addition, the Insight report said, most of the children of immigrants in the U.S. live in traditional families, consisting of father, mother and several children. In these families, both father and mother work, either part time or full time.
Current immigration laws, according to the ARC report, are destroying these traditional family structures.
To determine the immigration status of children in the care of foster families and compile the information necessary for their report, the ARC staff met with social workers, lawyers and judges in states with the greatest numbers of immigrants - Florida, New York, California and Texas - and other states, including Utah, with high numbers of deportations.
They used the data compiled to project for the similar states not analyzed, including Colorado, and concluded that about 5,100 children of immigrants are in foster care.
"But that's a very conservative estimate," Wessler said at a news conference, explaining why ARC's estimate differs from ORR's numbers and from other reports.
Although Colorado was not among the states analyzed by ARC, Fabiola Esposito, who works in Child Welfare for the Denver Department of Human Services, said there are 1,700 children in foster care in the capital city, and 51 percent of them are Latino.
For privacy reasons and to protect the children, the Denver Department of Human Services does not keep statistics about the immigration status of the parents of children in foster care. Also, it is difficult to find statewide statistics about children in foster care because each county follows different policies, Esposito explained. Although Colorado was not included among the states studied by ARC, assumptions about children of deported immigrants in Colorado now in foster care can be inferred from ARC's national statistics.
According to the ARC report, "The foster care cases with deported or detained parents ranged from under 1 percent to 8 percent of the total foster care cases for each of the counties surveyed."
The federal Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System estimates that there are 8,213 children in foster care in Colorado.Using ARC's numbers, that means there are potentially 82 to 657 children of deported or detained parents in this state.Therefore, in Denver, with 1,700 children in foster care, there are potentially 17 to 136 children in that situation.
However, it should be noted that Colorado is not among the states where ARC identified detained or deported parent foster care cases. In other states, those cases were identified through official data, media reports, visits to immigration detention centers, or information provided by caseworkers, attorneys and foreign consulates. It should also be noted that Colorado law "does not require courts terminate parental rights in the normal deadline of 15 of the most recent 22 months if the child's extended stay in foster care is due to circumstances beyond the parent's control, including a parent's incarceration," according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (September 2011)," as quoted by ARC.
Colorado is one of three states with such a law, Nebraska and New York being the other two. "Because states have not passed exceptions fordetainees, detention can lead directly to the termination of parental rights," the report says.
Regardless, "Current laws do not reflect the culture of the Hispanic community and therefore have a negative impact on our families," Esposito said.
That impact extends to the whole community and presents legal ramifications, according an immigrant pastor who was separated from his family.
"I think it's a total disaster and something that goes against the international rights of the child, a document which, unfortunately, the United States has not signed or ratified," said Carlos Lopez, a native of Argentina and pastor of an independent ministry in Denver, referring to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, a human rights treaty that includes the right to live with family, which was unanimously adopted in 1989.
Lopez knows the pain of the situation firsthand. In spite of having valid immigration documents, he was deported eight years ago, precisely at the time his wife was expecting their first daughter.
He wasn't able to rejoin his family, which included a young son, for more than a year, after long processes and negotiations and ultimately an apology from the U.S. government.
"My own daughter treated me like a stranger. I know what this kind of immigration separation causes in the mind, in the emotions and even in the spiritual life of children. And not only children, but the entire family. Keeping families together should be the priority, not separating them," he said.
This focus seems far from reality, however. During the first six months of 2011, the federal government deported 46,000 immigrant parents of children born in the United States, according to documents ARC acquired from county, state and federal agencies, including Immigration and Custom Enforcement, through the Freedom of Information Act.
These deportations, said Wassler, occur throughout the country and not only in states with large numbers of immigrants or closer to the border. They occur particularly in states where local police work with federal immigration authorities through agreements such as the 287(g) program or the Secure Communities program.
The 287(g) program is a reference to the section of the same name in the Immigration and Nationalization Act that authorizes the federal government to enter into agreements with state and local law enforcement agencies, where officers of those agencies, after completing training provided by the federal government, assume some immigration duties.
Secure Communities, as defined by ICE, is a program, that "uses an already existing federal information-sharing partnership between ICE and the Federal Bureau of Investigation that helps to identify criminal aliens without imposing new or additional requirements on state and local law enforcement."
In Colorado, both programs are active; 287(g) statewide since April 2007 and Secure Communities in Denver, Arapahoe and El Paso counties since earlier this year. Secure Communities will be mandatory in all states by 2013.
According to a report published by ICE in September 2011, in Colorado there were 4,098 deportations during the fiscal year
2010-2011 that ended in July of this year. Nationwide, there were 2.3 million deportation proceedings during the same period. Almost 400,000 of those deportations were a result of Secure Communities.
Wassler said that immigration laws are unequally applied to different groups. For example, he said, undocumented female victims of domestic violence are at the highest risk of being deported and separated from their children if they report their abuse, especially in Arizona, due to strict, new immigration laws in that state.
Wassler speculated that there could be similar cases in other states and, therefore, the real number of children of deported parents in foster care could be higher than the number provided by ARC.
"ICE does not protect families when parents are arrested. Both ICE and the arresting police often refuse to allow parents to make arrangements for the care of their children," Wassler said. "And then their detention by ICE prevents parents from participating in Child Protective Services' plans to unite the family."
The situation is further complicatedby social services departments at both the state and county levels, mostly because they lack policies and procedures to follow in cases of arrest or deportation of parents.The City and County of Denver is an exception.
"In Denver we have a procedure in place precisely to prevent the separation of families," said Rosa Vergil-Garcia of Denver Fresh Start and of De Familia A Familia, two local nonprofit organizations dedicated to helping families. Vergil-Garcia also serves as consultant to the Denver office of foster care and adoption. The city's procedure, she said, is to intervene as soon as possible, immediately contact the people involved (social worker, judge, family members) and give notice, as appropriate, to the Consulate General of Mexico in Denver.
"If there is no negligence or child abuse, and if the parents being deported have no criminal record, then we start our procedure for family reunification as soon as possible," said Vergil-Garcia.
The procedure takes on average two years and, according to official statistics, 53 percent of those children are reunited with their parents, while other families adopt another 13 percent of those children.
Other counties in Colorado, however, including Arapahoe - where Secure Communities has been implemented - and Jefferson, lack these procedures and do not even allow social workers such as Vergil- Garcia to get involved with the case if chil- dren born in the United States are involved. For this same reason, they do not notify the Mexican consulate, said Vergil-Garcia.
Both Vergil-Garcia and Wassler separately suggested that parents properly prepare in advance a notarized letter explaining the arrangements for who will care for the children in case the parents are deported.
Copies of the letter, said Vergil-Garcia, should be left at school, at church and with the family members or friends who would eventually take care of the children. But even with that letter, family reunion may not be achieved or may be delayed for months or even years because the United States has developed "a systematic bias on the part of child protection agencies to reunite children with parents in other countries," said Wassler. "The conditions to be met by deported parents to join their children are often impossible to meet," said the ARC researcher.
For example, in many cases parents are not present in court to claim custody of their children simply because they are detained by ICE, something that social workers generally do not take into consideration.
And during their detention, parents cannot take parenting classes required to recover their children because those classes are not offered in detention centers, according to the information from ARC. Kara Frinck, who collaborates with ARC and is a lawyer and member of the organization Bronx Defenders, a nonprofit that provides free legal representation to Bronx residents in New York, asked that parents "do everything possible to maintain those assets that are critical to keeping custody of their children."
Two of these elements are regular phone calls and letters sent to their children.
"Immigration enforcement greatly increases the chances that families will never see each other again," said Rinku Sen, president of ARC, herself an immigrant from India. "Detaining and deporting parents shatters families and endangers the children left behind. It's unacceptable, un- American and a clear sign that we need to revisit our immigration policies," she said.
The ARC report is available for free in English and Spanish at arc.org/shatteredfamilies.