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    Family separation and the loss of parental rights can be prevented through 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 the ability to comply with family reunification case plans
    • Facilitating family unity in the case of parental deportation

    The Women’s Refugee Commission advocates for these solutions with Congress and the Administration. As a result of our advocacy, there have been critical advances on both the administrative and the legislative fronts.

    Key Administrative Developments

    Parental Interests Directive (aka Facilitating Parental Interests in the Course of Civil Immigration Enforcement Activities Directive) | 2013

    In 2013, U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) issued its Parental Interests Directive, a critical and long-awaited step that closely mirrors recommendations in the Women’s Refugee Commission’s seminal report Torn Apart by Immigration Enforcement. While the directive does not reduce the scope of enforcement, it does reduce the likelihood that some parents will be permanently separated from their children. It makes it easier for detained parents to maintain a relationship with their children and to participate in family court proceedings. It will reduce the number of children who are unnecessarily placed into the child welfare system, help protect children of detained parents and increase the likelihood that children can reunite with their parents at the conclusion of the parent’s immigration case.

    Key documents on the Parental Interests Directive:

    Coinciding with the release of ICE’s Parental Interests Directive, the Women's Refugee Commission released a two-page guide (English | Español) for detained and deported parents with child custody concerns. It provides parents with information on how to use the directive TO protect their parental rights, participate in family court proceedings, engage in parent-child visitation and coordinate care of their children. ICE has made this guide available in all immigration detention facilities housing adults for more than 72 hours.

    For more information on how detained parents can use the directive to protect their families, see our Toolkit for Detained and Deported Parents.

    ICE Detention Reporting and Information Line | 2012

    In 2012, ICE established a toll-free stakeholder hotline to enable those affected by the detention system to report concerns and seek resolutions—a system that the WRC has consistently advocated for. Detained parents can use the hotline to report issues concerning their parental rights and to exercise the protections provided by the Parental Interests Directive. It is especially helpful for parents who have not been able to resolve concerns with ICE at the local level and want to seek help from ICE headquarters, as prescribed by the Parental Interests Directive.

    Detention Standard on Access to Family Court Proceedings | 2011

    Through research and monitoring, the Women's Refugee Commission discovered that ICE had no standard protocol concerning detained parents’ right and ability to participate in family court proceedings. We presented ICE with solutions for improving parents’ access to family courts. As a result of this advocacy, ICE’s 2011 Performance-Based National Detention Standards set forth procedures for parents to access family court proceedings. Though the standards are not enforceable, they make it clear that detained parents may attend family court proceedings at the discretion of ICE.

    Prosecutorial Discretion | 2010

    In June 2010, then-ICE Assistant Secretary John Morton issued a memorandum directing the agency to focus enforcement resources on certain categories of individuals: those who pose a threat to national security; those who have been convicted of serious crimes; and those who recently entered the U.S. unlawfully or returned to the U.S. after being removed.A June 2011 follow-up memorandum further clarified the agency’s enforcement priorities: it directs ICE personnel to exercise prosecutorial discretion in deciding to what degree to enforce immigration law in any given case. The memorandum identifies key factors to be considered in deciding whether to open or pursue an immigration case against an individual. Notably, one factor that favors discretion is whether the migrant is the parent or primary caregiver of a child who is a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident. The Women’s Refugee Commission was instrumental in advocating for the inclusion of parents and caregivers in this policy. The discretion policy has resulted in an increasing number of parents being identified and prioritized for release.

    Online Detainee Locator System | 2010

    Following advocacy by the Women's Refugee Commission, in 2010 ICE launched an online detainee locator system (ODLS) that makes it easier to locate and communicate with individuals held in the detention system. This has been valuable for friends, relatives and attorneys--and the child welfare system itself--to keep in touch with parents and communicate with them about the welfare of their children. The ODLS has increased parents’ ability to participate in child welfare proceedings and get their children back.


    Legislation championed by the Women’s Refugee Commission has gained traction in both houses of Congress and has garnered support from members on both sides of the aisle.

    Humane Enforcement and Legal Protections (HELP) for Separated Children Act

    The HELP Separated Children Act would institutionalize critical reforms to protect children and families. The act draws heavily from recommendations made in the WRC report Torn Apart by Immigration Enforcement: Parental Rights and Immigration Detention. The Migrant Rights and Justice program has led the national advocacy effort to secure passage of the HELP Separated Children Act since 2009.

    Specifically, the HELP Separated Children Act would:

    • Amend enforcement and detention policies to reduce the number of children who are unnecessarily separated from their parents and placed into the child welfare system as a result of immigration enforcement
    • Protect detained parents’ right to make decisions in their child's best interest and to participate in the child welfare process
    • Increase the likelihood of family reunification at the conclusion of the parent's immigration case.

    The HELP Separated Children Act passed the Senate as part of the “Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act” (S. 744). It has also been introduced as stand-alone legislation in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Prominent supporters include bill sponsor Senator Al Franken (D-MN), Representative Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA), Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX)

    Help Separated Families Act

    When parents who are involved in the immigration system also become involved in the child welfare system, they can confront unfair biases about what it means to be undocumented. Sometimes, these biases lead the child welfare system and family court to oppose reunification of a child with an undocumented parent, or to refuse to place a child in the care of an appropriate relative simply because that relative lacks immigration status.

    Decisions about whether a person is a fit and willing caregiver should not be influenced by immigration status alone. The Help Separated Families Act aims to improve the likelihood of family reunification by:

    1. allowing child welfare agencies to consider detention or deportation as an appropriate reason to delay filing to terminate a parent’s parental rights;
    2. requiring states to allow parents to participate in child welfare processes and proceedings before terminating their parental rights;
    3. encouraging states to place a child with a relative whenever possible, regardless of the relative’s immigration status.

    The Help Separated Families Act passed the Senate as part of the “Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act” (S. 744). It is also included in the House companion bill, the “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act” (H.R. 15). It has also been introduced in the House of Representatives, most recently in June 2013 by Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard.