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U.S. Immigration Policy and Child Welfare: A Clash of Agendas

Collisions typically produce damage to at least one of the parties involved. Panelists at this year’s Fauri Memorial Symposium held at the School of Social Work on September 28, 2012 addressed the damage created by the collision between the policies of the Immigration Control and Enforcement (ICE) and the needs of children in families headed by undocumented parents. 

Panelists at the day-long conference discussed the national, state, and local implications of ICE enforcement activities that result in the investigation, detention, and deportation of parents and their separation from children who are often United States citizens. 

A morning panel focused on national level issues. Keynote speaker Guillermina Jasso, Silver Professor of Sociology at New York University and an alumna of the Joint Doctoral Program in Social Work and Social Science, noted that the complex and stressful process of obtaining visas and permanent residence status often divides families. In many cases, she said, the process forces some children to remain in their native countries while other family members are able to enter the US. Existing policy not only produces patterns of inequality among families, she argued, but creates inequality within family units. 

David Thronson, JD, Professor at Michigan State University Law School and founder of the University’s Immigration Clinic, pointed out that immigration policy connects to family policy since up to 75 percent of immigration cases involve families with children. This involvement can take a number of forms. Nine million people live with at least one person who is undocumented; 5.5 million children have an undocumented parent; and 3.8 million undocumented parents have at least one child who is a US citizen. He noted that once families become involved in the immigration enforcement system, the needs of children typically receive little or no consideration. 

Alan Dettlaff, MSW, PhD, Associate Professor at the University of Illinois School of Social Work, indicated that immigration enforcement efforts divide children who are US citizens from their undocumented parents. As ICE enforcement efforts increase, more families are affected. He cited DHHS estimates that between 1998 and 2007, 108,000 parents of US citizen children were deported, but 46,486 parents were deported during the first 6 months of 2011. ICE policy does not provide for the needs of children in these families, and this may account for the estimated 5,100 children who are in foster care as a result of parental deportation. Parents who are detained or in the process of deportation are often unable to participate fully in family court proceedings that determine placement for their children, since they may not have access to interpreters and immigration attorneys. He argued that children’s interests would be better served by collaboration between child welfare agencies and courts. 

A second panel addressed the state level effects of ICE policies on families and children. Martha GonzalezCortez, Executive Director of the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan, noted that the situation of undocumented immigrants and that of immigrants going through the process of obtaining visas had become more difficult since the passage of PWRORA, since undocumented families had lost access to the basic social safety net. She also noted that there is an absence of policies to protect the children of undocumented immigrants who become involved in the Michigan child welfare system. Therefore, when parents are deported or detained, they may have their rights terminated, and the children may be placed for adoption. She suggested that Michigan should emulate states like California and Florida, which have policies in place to meet the needs of children in these situations. 

Nadia Tonova, the Director of the National Network of Arab-American Communities, noted that immigration issues that affect children are not confined to the Latino community. She noted that even for legal immigrants, there is a five-year waiting period in Michigan for access to health care benefits, including S-Chip for children. Although four states allow undocumented children to access medical benefits, Michigan is not among them. She noted, however, that Michigan makes prenatal care available to all. 

Ben Cabanaw of the Michigan Department of Human Services discussed the growing population of immigrants who are unaccompanied minors. Children can be placed in this category because they arrive as refugees or asylees, because they arrive as part of family units that later break up, or because they arrive alone and have a dependency order through the courts. About 59 percent of unaccompanied minors arrive as refugees; Cabanaw said that their previous experience in refugee camps and other difficult situations makes it unlikely that they will be adopted, and can create difficulties when they are placed in foster care. He noted, however, that unaccompanied minors served through DHS programs have relatively good outcomes: at discharge, 90 percent had stable housing and 52 percent were working at least part time. 

A third panel of speakers addressed the local implications of ICE policy. Laura Saunders, ACSW, Lecturer III, University of Michigan School of Social Work, spoke on behalf of the Washtenaw County Coalition on Immigrant Rights. This organization was started in 2008, following an ICE raid in which members of 20 families were deported, leaving these families torn apart. She indicated that Ann Arbor’s proximity to the border increases ICE activity here, noting that since its founding the Coalition has responded to 405 calls for assistance, one-third of which involved the separation of US-born children from their parents. She gave two examples of situations in which DHS policies had resulted in the permanent separation of US-born children and deported parents. 

Lourdes, an undocumented mother with US-born children who is currently under a deportation order, then discussed her experiences with the process. The Coalition on Immigrant Rights assisted her in resolving her initial detention and in securing legal representation, but she is uncertain about her future. She noted that her children—one of whom has special needs— have required therapy.

In the final session, participants discussed possible solutions. Jasso indicated that advocates need to become informed about immigration law, and that stakeholders need to form coalitions based on common ground, indicating that collaborative local programs such as that in Boston can serve as models. Innovation, she argued, is key to progress. Thronson also highlighted the need for advocates to become informed about the law and about the legal options available to families involved with ICE. Dettlaff also suggested that Michigan should look to states like California, which has developed programs that address the interests of families involved in the immigration process. Finally, he noted that advocates should question the conventional wisdom that the children of deported parents are always better off in the United States. 

Written by Amanda Rowe Tillotson MA, MSW. She is a PhD candidate at UM SSW and is enrolled in the joint doctoral program in social work and political science

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