President-elect Donald Trump made clear in a recent interview that he plans to deport between two and three million undocumented immigrants, a drastic increase from current practice under which about 235,000 were sent away in 2015.
Many of the people being deported will be parents of children who are U.S. citizens, born into the rights and protections of this country. Child welfare and immigration reform advocates fear that the surge in deportation will prompt a spike in foster care admissions for children in this circumstance.
“It’s a kid’s worst nightmare to have their parents disappear,” said Wendy Cervantes, director of First Focus’ Center for the Children of Immigrants. “You know how we create those plans for ‘Okay if there’s a fire we’re going to meet outside at this spot?’ [Kids] always said: ‘Those plans are so much easier, because we know that we’re going to be with our parents once we’re outside. And now we’re planning for our parents not being here.’ … It’s really scary. It was just eye-opening to me that it’s scarier than having your house burn down.”
Wariness and uncertainty has prompted some organizations to plan ahead in an effort to help families that might be torn apart by deportation.
Children Left Behind in Foster Care
In fiscal 2015, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deported 235,413 undocumented immigrants, 70.5 percent of whom were in U.S. border states.
More than a third of undocumented immigrants within the country report having U.S.-citizen children under the age of 18 for whom they are responsible, according to the Migration Policy Institute. ICE doesn’t ask parents in its custody to disclose undocumented children in their family.
ICE’s own assessment of a two-year period from 2010 to 2012 shows 204,810 removals for parents of U.S. citizen children. Some of those children will leave the country with their parents, and many others will be placed with relatives. A small portion are placed into foster care.
The most recent numbers available from 2011, a conservative estimate from Race Forward’s Shattered Families report, found that approximately 5,100 children are in the foster care system who had a parent deported out of the 397,607 children in foster care systems that year. Race Forward also estimated that between 2011 and 2016, there would be 15,000 more children like this in the U.S. The Race Forward estimate is one of the only available counts of these children because state child welfare agencies don’t track this information. Race Forward instead based the estimation on anecdotal evidence and case studies.
The likely outcomes for these children are not good, Cervantes said.
“It’s always just like those different levels of how much trauma they undergo,” she said. “They’re losing a parent, which we know has a very significant impact to their physical health, their mental health, their ability to do well in school. Even the fear alone of potentially losing a parent to deportation; we’ve seen a lot of studies that just the fear alone can cause post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms in children just by having that dread every day.”
Angst about the incoming administration’s policies is high, but there has also been sharp criticism of the Obama administration by immigration advocates for ratcheting up the use of local law enforcement to identify and deport undocumented immigrants.
“If the Bush Administration’s immigration enforcement strategy can be defined by its focus on workplace immigration raids, Obama’s enforcement approach is defined by its focus on local law enforcement and jails,” said Seth Wessler, one of the co-authors of the 2013 “Children in Harm’s Way” report, along with Cervantes.
“We actually worked very closely on some cases where it was really unfortunate that a parent didn’t even have a chance to make a phone call or make any decision about what happens to their child – and then their parental rights, in the end, ended up being terminated inappropriately,” Cervantes said.
Barriers to Family Reunification
Right now, parents face many barriers to reunifying with their children. When a parent is detained, child welfare agencies may not be able to find them. If the parent is located, they aren’t always able to communicate with child welfare case workers or their families due to the distance of the detention center from their home community and strict visiting guidelines.
In 2013, the Obama administration instructed ICE field offices to coordinate with child welfare systems about pending cases that involved a potential deportee. Each field office was required to establish a parental rights coordinator. Cervantes said the coordinator policy has been more effective in some field offices than others, but it has helped things overall.
“We have seen definitely increased collaboration and improvement of parents being involved [in the child welfare process] as a result of the directive,” she said.
There are also barriers after the parent is deported to their home country. Frida Espinosa works with the Instituto para las Mujeres en la Migracíon (IMUMI) in Mexico. The organization works with deported mothers to provide legal services to help them reunify with their children in the U.S.
Espinosa said when parents are returning to small towns in Mexico or Central America, there aren’t many resources available that they need in order to complete case plans to get their children back. Depending on why the child was removed from the parent – whether due to child abuse or neglect, or abandonment by the parent being deported – parents may need parenting classes, psychiatric evaluations or substance-use treatment.
“That is the biggest barrier,” Espinosa said, “being able to follow a case plan in a different country where the social services infrastructure is so dependent just on the state and the locality where you are.”
At the federal and state levels, there are no laws that forbid the placement of a child in foster care solely because their parent has been deported. And even if a deported or detained parent can follow the plan to reunification, as Felicity Northcott with International Social Service said, the state court system could still decide to cut the family’s ties to the child just because the parent has been deported.
“There have been cases where the judge has said that the very fact that the parents are here without documentation is sufficient reason to remove the child – that the parents have acted illegally and therefore are not competent to be parents,” she said.
In California, however, the Reuniting Immigrant Families Act does have a provision that says a parent or relative cannot be denied placement consideration based on their immigration status. The law also says that reasonable efforts must be made to reunify a child with a deported parent.
To help keep these families together, some state and county jurisdictions have designated immigration specialists to handle cases where a parent is deported and the child is in foster care. Some child welfare systems have agreements with Mexican consulates to help reunify families.
But Michelle Brané with the Women’s Refugee Commission said part of why these kids stay in the foster care system, instead of being reunified, is that local immigration and child welfare systems still aren’t coordinated enough to help these parents keep their children.
“They operate completely independently,” she said. “That means that if you’re not prepared once you’re detained, it can be really difficult to make these arrangements.”
Child Welfare Workers Are Worried
“If some of the new administration’s tax plan goes through then we can expect defunding and smaller budgets at many [child welfare agencies],” she said. “I don’t think they’d be completely defunded, but child welfare agencies already struggle with not having resources and the caseworkers often just have too big a caseload to actually manage. So if there’s an aggravation of that understaffing problem then that will have a collateral effect on this question on how we protect the children of deportees.”
A possible dialing back of immigration policies protecting families and children of undocumented immigrants could also contribute to the rise in children entering the foster care system, Cervantes said.
“Our big concern, then, is that come 2017 and whatever deportation plan the Trump administration has in mind – and any policies that they might revoke that have been helping to mitigate the harms of children – will just create a really, really horrible situation that will not only impact kids and families but will also impact schools, whole communities and the child welfare system,” she said. “Because without some of these protocols that we currently have in place, there is a very good chance that there could be a large number of kids entering the system only because their parents have been deported.”
Trump’s 100-day plan also includes withdrawing Obama’s executive actions, including the Parental Interests Directive and a 2012 directive that established Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which allows undocumented immigrants who arrived as minors to get work permits and deferred deportation.
Trump also pledged to cancel all federal funding to Sanctuary Cities, which include border state cities like Los Angeles, California; Tucson, Arizona; Santa Fe, New Mexico and Austin, Texas. Experts also say it is possible Trump could withdraw the more recent Deferred Action for Parents of Americans executive order with an extension to the DACA program.
The possibility of losing key child and immigrant protection policies like these has left child welfare workers uneasy. Cecilia Saco, the social workers’ supervisor with the Special Immigration Status Unit in the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, says the effect the Trump administration’s immigration policies will have on the system is a question all child welfare workers are asking.
“I think it’s difficult to predict what is he going to do. We’re all waiting to see what is going to happen,” she said.
It’s Already Begun
Without solutions to reunification barriers, and with the possibility of policy change under the Trump administration, the number of children left in the system because their parent has been detained or deported is going to rise – although it is tough to predict by how much, given the lack of data.
But in the last couple of weeks, Michelle Brané said the number of children in the foster care system with a parent who was detained or deported has already skyrocketed. She’s seeing this anecdotally from organizations working with these cases.
“Originally we thought it would go up after the new administration came into office,” said Brané said, who believes the election results have created a gap between the Obama administration’s policy and ICE workers.
“It really does seem like the field officers, like the ICE people out in the field, basically are on their own just not following through with the [U.S. immigration policy] directives that they think are going to be reversed,” she said.
Cities and counties are already starting to prepare for Trump’s impending immigration policy. In L.A. County, where Saco works, the Board of Supervisors – which oversees the county’s child welfare system – has proposed a task force and strategy to protect immigrant communities within the county, which has the most undocumented immigrants within the state.
Faith-based organizations and nonprofits are also preparing. The Women’s Refugee Commission has a toolkit available for immigrant families to help them plan for their potential deportation and ensure that they keep their parental rights. The toolkit includes information on making childcare arrangements, helping to determine whether a child ended up in the foster care system, how to participate in the child welfare system processes, how to reunify with their children and contact information for all state child welfare agencies.
There’s also some hope that child safety will remain a bipartisan issue in Congress, Wendy Cervantes said.
“We know that there has always been long-standing bipartisan support for enforcing immigration law in a way that’s humane and that upholds the safety and wellbeing of children,” she said. “I do think that there is some appetite for possibly maintaining some of these memos that would protect children. I just hope that moving forward, the new administration really focuses on doing everything it can to ensure that any immigration enforcement it carries out is done humanely and responsibly.”
Beth Cortez-Neavel is a freelance journalist and editor based in Austin, Texas.