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    Marta’s daughters cried, “Mommy, no! Mommy, no!” as she was apprehended by immigration officials. She was allowed no phone call, and could not arrange childcare. Marta sobbed as she told me how she was unable to meet in person with her own attorney or anyone else involved in her custody case because she was in immigration detention. Alone, she struggled to navigate the complex child welfare system. Despite her desperate attempts, Marta was deported and her children were split among foster homes. Her parental rights were terminated. She will never see her children again.

    Recent dramatic increases in immigration enforcement, detention and deportation are tearing families apart. Current detention and deportation practices jeopardize immigrant parents’ parental rights and compromise their children’s well-being.

    The Women’s Refugee Commission’s Migrant Rights and Justice Program protects the human rights and due process rights of families impacted by immigration enforcement. One focus is on assisting immigrant women whose parental rights have been violated, and sometimes terminated, because they have been detained or deported.

    Key Reports & Resources

    Parental Rights Toolkit Cover English

    Detained or Deported? A Toolkit for Parents' Rights


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    Family Separation & Parental Rights


    Five and a half million children in the United States - 4.5 million of whom are U.S. citizens - have at least one undocumented parent. All children with undocumented parents are at risk of permanent family separation if one or both of their parents is detained or deported. The risk is even greater for children placed in the child welfare system when their parent becomes involved with the immigration system. More than 5,100 children are in the child welfare system today because of a parent’s detention or deportation.

    When a parent enters the immigration system, it is a confusing, chaotic and traumatic experience for the entire family. Apprehended parents are not guaranteed a phone call to make care arrangements for their children. In some cases, immigration authorities call child welfare authorities, who take the children into their custody. In other cases, children simply fall through the cracks. They are left behind at schools, day care centers, or in unsafe or unstable environments. For such children, there is also a very real risk of being taken into child welfare custody.

    It is extremely difficult for detained and deported parents to participate in the child welfare system and in family court proceedings. Our groundbreaking 2010 report, Torn Apart by Immigration Enforcement: Parental Rights and Immigration Detention, details these challenges. Detained parents may be held far from where their children are living. In detention, parents do not have access to the programs and services they need to get their children back. Their ability to participate in family court proceedings is controlled by immigration authorities. And there are few protocols to help parents facing deportation make arrangements for children to join them in their home country.

    Many deported mothers and fathers will never see their children again; others have no opportunity to arrange for their care, and little hope for future reunification. In the most extreme cases, parental rights are terminated and children remain in the child welfare system or are adopted by other families.

    Family separation and the loss of parental rights can be prevented by simple and concrete policy changes, including:

    • Identifying parents and caregivers immediately following apprehension
    • Permitting parents and caregivers to make phone calls to arrange child care
    • Prioritizing parents and caregivers for release or alternatives to detention
    • Ensuring that parents and caregivers can communicate with their children from detention
    • Ensuring that detained parents and caregivers have access to family courts and are able to comply with family reunification case plans
    • Facilitating family unity in the case of parental deportation


    Our Work

    The Migrant Rights and Justice program is working to protect the rights of families who are involved in both the immigration and child welfare systems. We conduct extensive research, which becomes a foundation for advocacy with Congress and the Administration and for the development of resources to assist migrant parents and their allies.

    We create systemic change by advocating before the government—including Congress, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services.

    • Our legislative advocacy advances changes in the law to protect parental rights and keep families together.
    • Our advocacy with the Department of Health and Human Services works to ensure that child welfare agencies do not discriminate against parents on the basis of their immigration status.
    • Our advocacy with the Department of Homeland Security advances humane enforcement, detention and deportation practices. These policies will reduce the use of detention, allow parents to make decisions about what happens to their children and reduce the collateral costs of immigration on family unity.

    We create practical resources, such as our Toolkit for Detained and Deported Parents. This resource helps parents caught between the immigration and child welfare systems, and those who assist them in navigating these systems. It provides detailed, step-by-step instructions, advice and tools to help parents protect and maintain their parental rights and make well-informed, critical decisions regarding the care and welfare of their children.

    Learn More

    Read about our Parental Rights Toolkit and other educational resources.