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Women’s Refugee Commission Supports Legislation to Keep Families Together by Protecting the Rights of Immigrant Parents

The Women’s Refugee Commission welcomes the introduction of the Help Separated Families Act of 2012 (HR6128). This landmark legislation, introduced today by Representative Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA), represents a long-overdue step forward in the effort to protect children’s well-being and family unity when parents become involved with the immigration enforcement system.

An alarming number of children are separated from their parents because their parents are detained or removed from the United States. More than 46,000 parents of U.S. citizen children were removed from the United States in just the first six months of 2011. Today, 5,100 children are in the child welfare system because of a parent’s detention or removal, and 15,000 more are expected to enter the system in the next five years if current rates hold. Yet child welfare practices often lack sufficient mechanisms to  support family reunification in cases where parents are in immigration proceedings.

“When children enter the child welfare system because of a parent’s detention or removal, widely accepted child welfare principles—such as those that preference placement of a child with relatives in order to support family unity—may be trumped by inaccurate  conclusions about undocumented parents and caregivers,” said Emily Butera, senior program officer, detention and asylum program at the Women's Refugee Commission. “A person is not unfit to care for a child because she lacks immigration status. Yet we continue to hear about cases in which children are placed in foster care with strangers instead of with caring relatives because of immigration status, and about  family court judges deciding that a parent is unfit because she does not speak English or may be deported.”

The child welfare system’s lack of familiarity with the immigration process, and the biases that have developed as a result, mean that children with undocumented parents are being unnecessarily separated from their families for weeks, months or years—and sometimes even permanently.

Decisions about whether a person is a fit and willing parent or caregiver for a child should not be influenced by immigration status alone. The Help Separated Families Act aims to improve outcomes for children with detained and removed parents by ensuring that immigration status alone does not disqualify or prevent a parent or relative from caring for a child. The bill would also require  states to make reasonable efforts to allow parents to participate in child welfare processes and proceedings before  terminating the parental rights of someone who has been detained or removed. In addition, it requires states to accept foreign identification documents in assessing the appropriate placement of children with relatives.

“These important measures would significantly reduce unnecessary separations of children from their families, and the uncalled for termination of parental rights of undocumented parents,” said Butera.  “We applaud Representative Roybal-Allard for her leadership in addressing this issue and urge Congress to act quickly to reform child welfare practices in a way that guarantees all children the chance for a meaningful and lifelong relationship with their families.”

Emily Butera is available for comment at 202.822.0166 x 25 or 202.821.5051

Michelle Brané is available to comment in Spanish at 202.822.0166 x 31 or 646.717.7191