Children of deported immigrants languish in foster care – as the Obama administration fights itself

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 Ashanti, center, and Ashley. The family was reunited in Mexico City this summer. Meanwhile, other children of detained or deported parents languish in foster care. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

Editor’s note: This is the first in a regular series of articles from The New York World digging deeper into recent work from academics, research organizations and others investigating government policy and actions affecting New Yorkers.

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.

More than 5,000 children across the country are currently in foster care because their parents have been detained or deported, estimated the study, which was based on a yearlong investigation by the Applied Research Center. 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. “It is merely because they are being detained or being deported and there is nowhere else for [the child] to go,” she said.

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 on Tuesday, 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,” Butera said, drawing her conclusion from interviews she and her colleagues have conducted with detainees at ICE facilities around the country.

Parents also risk losing custody of their children while they are held in detention, Friedman said. They are usually sent to facilities far away from their children – in New York cases, most parents are held in Texas, Louisiana or Georgia. This means they cannot comply with typical family court plans for reunification, which include requirements such as visits with children and parenting classes. She said parents are also unable to attend, and sometimes are not even informed, about crucial family court hearings that determine their child’s fate.

“What we do see happen is the family case going forward without any information about where the parent is,” Friedman said, “and the family court attorney assuming the parent is not interested in participating.”

Other parents are separated from their children during the final stage of the process, the deportation itself. If the child is a U.S. citizen, Butera said, he or she is not allowed to travel on ICE’s chartered deportation flights. The result is a significant logistical and financial obstacle that can again result in children being left in unsuitable living situations.

“We need to find a way for parents who want to take their children with them to do so,” Butera said.

Last week at a press briefing with Latino journalists, President Obama took a sharply different tone from ICE, according to an account by the newspaper La Opinión. Directly contradicting the statement prepared by own agency, Obama said that some families are being separated as a result of the current deportation process.

“I’m not here to pretend that this hasn’t happened,” Obama said.

The president even asked the audience to turn up the heat on his own agency.

“I think we have to keep putting pressure on those responsible for administering the program,” Obama said, “to make sure that children aren’t torn from their parents without due process and the possibility to stay with their children.”

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