Detention and Asylum - Family Separation and Parental Rights
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More On Family Separation & Parental Rights

The increase in immigration enforcement and detention over the last decade has destroyed many children’s ability to maintain a relationship with their parents. There are few protections in place to ensure that parental rights are not compromised by immigration detention and deportation. Today, when parents are apprehended, they are not guaranteed a phone call to make care arrangements for their children. And as a result, children have been left behind at schools and day care centers while their parents are moved half way across the country to a detention facility.

In some cases, women have lost permanent custody of their children because they are deported or are either unaware of or unable to attend family court proceedings while in detention. In other cases, women are deported without seeing their children and without the opportunity to arrange their care prior to deportation.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) does sometimes release parents from detention, or places them in an “alternatives to detention” program. But at this time, there is no clear set of regulations for cases where children are involved. Being released also depends upon a parent’s willingness to tell ICE officials that they have children. Many parents are hesitant to share this information because either their children or their children’s caretaker is also undocumented.

ICE, or state and local police operating on the agency’s behalf, sometimes contacts child protective services when children are impacted by the detention of their parent or caregiver. When this call is made, a range of complications may follow, including the termination of parental rights and difficulty reuniting families after that parent or caregiver has been deported.

Many challenges to parental rights are caused by a lack of communication between the different agencies involved, including the child welfare system, detention system, immigration courts and family courts. Families face even greater challenges when parents are detained in areas far from their children, language barriers prevent communication and state-to-state differences in child welfare law confuse processes and procedures. These separations can be easily prevented by releasing parents whenever possible, ensuring that parents who are detained have access to family courts and the ability to comply with family reunification plans, and facilitating family unity at the time a parent is deported.

While we do not yet know how extensive these family separations are, we do know that the potential numbers are massive. Five million children in the U.S. (three million of which are U.S. citizens) have at least one undocumented parent. The Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General has estimated that between 1998 and 2007 the U.S. government deported at least 108,434 parents of U.S. citizen children.

Independent reports by immigration attorneys and human rights advocates suggest the impact is much higher and report that hundreds of thousands of mixed status families have been separated, at least temporarily, by detention and deportation. Even when parents are not permanently separated from their children, the trauma that separation causes for a family can be lasting. The Women’s Refugee Commission is working to reduce this trauma and to ensure due process for all families, regardless of immigration status.

Read Women's Refugee Commission recommendations to reduce the impact of immigration enforcement on family unity.

Read about pending legislation on this issue.