Children of Deported Immigrants Languish in Foster Care as the Obama Administration Fights Itself

| November 17, 2011 4:00 AM

In recent months, several presidential contenders have stirred controversy by declaring just how hard they would crack down on illegal immigration. Herman Cain pondered an electrified border force, and chuckled that he might not be joking. Michelle Bachmann called on Congress to pass a law to “deal with this issue of anchor babies.” But none of their proposals have come close to a phenomenon that a recent report says is increasingly common under the Obama administration: allowing the removal of the children of undocumented parents who are detained or deported for immigration violations, and placing them into long-term foster care.

Margarita Almaraz and Alfonso Mejia were deported from the U.S. in 2009 and could therefore not appear in court for custody hearings for their daughters. The family was reunited in Mexico City this summer. AP/Marco Ugarte.

More than 5,000 children across the country are currently in foster care because their parents have been detained or deported, a study by the Applied Research Center estimated. The study was based on a year-long investigation.

Here in New York City, researchers estimated there are 30 such cases in the Bronx alone, the sole borough in which they collected data.

Jennifer Friedman, an immigration lawyer at the Bronx Defenders, told the New York World her office is currently handling at least 15 such cases. She said that parents in New York City usually end up in deportation proceedings after being arrested for conduct unrelated to their immigration status –- sometimes resulting in serious charges that also put the family on the radar of child welfare authorities.

But in another significant group of cases, Friedman said, the only reason children remain in foster care is because the parent has been detained or deported.

The Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency disputed this point, calling the Applied Research Center report “misleading” for suggesting that immigration enforcement was directly responsible for children being removed from their parents. “State and local child welfare agencies independently remove children from a home when there are concerns for the child’s safety and care,” said ICE spokesman Luis Martinez, in a statement sent to the New York World, which he said the agency had prepared specifically to respond to the report. Martinez said that ICE typically does not detain “primary caretakers of children” unless they are “legally subjected to mandatory detention based on the severity of their criminal or immigration history.” Those who are detained, he said, are provided “ample opportunity” to participate in their children’s family court cases.

But Friedman and Emily Butera, a program officer at the advocacy group Women’s Refugee Commission, said parents are losing custody of their children unneccessarily at several stages of the deportation process.

Parents enter the system after being arrested by local police or detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. In the case of arrests, the police run routine checks of immigration status. If a parent is in the country illegally, he or she is placed under a hold called a detainer, and usually sent directly to an immigration detention center. In New York City, in 2010, ICE placed detainers on a total of 3,155 inmates, and took custody of 2,552 of those inmates for potential deportation, according to the Department of Corrections.

Once under detainer, detainees are often unable to communicate with family members. Immigration and Customs Enforcement allows one phone call, only after a detainee arrives at a long-term detention facility, which is often days after the initial arrest or detainment. Sometimes, said Butera, their children end up being left in haphazard and often unstable care arrangements.

“That’s where I think a lot of those families are falling through the cracks,” said Butera, drawing her conclusion from interviews she and her colleagues have conducted with detainees at ICE facilities around the country.

Read the full post at New York World.

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