Immigration enforcement shatters families

The federal government appears to be taking a close look at immigration enforcement. Recently, the House Judiciary subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement conducted a hearing on Secure Communities, a federal program that will soon involve every local police department with the deportation of immigrants. Next week, the Department of Homeland Security will initiate a six-week pilot program in Denver and Baltimore that it says will result in quicker deportations of immigrants who have convictions, while providing relief for those considered low-priority. Unless these programs address the needs of families through clear policy guidelines, tragic separations will continue, especially for those also involved in the child welfare system.

When immigrant parents are detained or deported, the fate of their children is, at best, uncertain. In a year-long investigation to produce the first national data on child welfare and immigration enforcement, the Applied Research Center found that there are currently at least 5,100 children across the country suffering the loss of their families when these systems collide. We predict that number will grow to an additional 15,000 children within the next five years. Neither our child welfare systems nor Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has adequate policies in place to protect families, and it is clear from our data that local police involvement in Secure Communities and similar programs significantly drives up the chances of family separation.

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Local enforcement of immigration law and mass deportation create a situation in which even the tiniest interaction with law enforcement can lead to detainment and deportation. When parents are detained, child welfare caseworkers lose contact for months at a time, and parents cannot attend family court hearings, visit with their children or help make decisions about the best course of action for their families. After deportation, the chances of bringing the family back together shrink further. One caseworker in Florida said that when a parent is deported, the default position is often to terminate parental rights.

“Once they’re gone, it’s usually over for them,” he said.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) engages local police through such programs as Secure Communities, in spite of numerous objections from governors and police chiefs. Although the Obama administration insists that it is only deporting hardened law-breakers, DHS data show that about half of all deportees face no charges at all, and of the remainder, a great number are accused of minor infractions or immigration-related violations.

This summer, ICE chief John Morton released a memo affirming that ICE agents hold broad discretion to halt detention and deportation of many non-citizens. But our research indicates that such discretion is rarely applied, even for victims of domestic violence and other vulnerable groups. A recent report from the American Immigration Lawyers Association confirms that most ICE bureaus claim no knowledge of the discretion guidelines. Even President Obama recently said that the separation of families is “a real problem,” but unless family unity is addressed explicitly through policy, many more families will face such separation.

To address this terrible intersection of failed policies, several things must happen. Programs such as Secure Communities need to be rethought, and ICE should amend its detention and deportation practices to enable child welfare workers to do their jobs. Immigrants working to reunite with their kids are hardly a flight risk, so alternatives to detention are easily available. The clocks that automatically begin ticking on both parental rights and deportation need to be stopped until the family situation can be resolved. These are the kinds of changes that ICE, Congress and the administration need to put in place to address the tragic consequences of the way in which we now enforce immigration policy.

Sen is president of the Applied Research Center and publisher of colorlines.com.