California Senate Committee Looking into Keeping Immigrant Families Together

by Anna Jacobi

Today the California Senate Committee for Public Safety will hold a hearing on Assembly Bill 1081 (AB 1081), a bill which has been in the legislative pipeline since February of 2011. This bill addresses how local law enforcement officials are required to detain certain individuals under the federal Secure Communities Act. The hearing could have an impact on various systems within California and beyond, especially on the child welfare system and on the already stretched criminal justice system.

Among those speaking in favor of the bill will be Bianca Perez, a Los Angeles resident who was arrested last year for selling ice cream on the street and is now facing deportation. She has no criminal history and is the mother of an American-born infant.

How Deportations Relate to Child Welfare

In the United States, there are currently an estimated 5.5 million children living with at least one undocumented parent who is potentially at risk of deportation. Of these children, over half are United States citizens. Since 1996, U.S. deportation rates have increased over 400 percent, and the number of people being deported continues to rise.

In 2010 alone, the U.S. deported almost 400,000 people, more than ever before in a single year.  According to a report by the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, there were over 70,000 deportations in California as of March of 2012.  This has a tremendous impact on children and families, and therefore on the child welfare system in California.

These deportations have resulted in many children entering into the child welfare system not as a result of child abuse or neglect but rather because their parents have been detained or deported.  It is estimated that over 5,000 children are currently in foster care as a result of parental deportation.

There are also large numbers of parents who are currently detained in United States Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) holding centers where they may remain for months without being able to actively parent their children, resulting in even more children entering the foster care system.

Recent local and federal policies have contributed to significant increases in deportations. Section 287 (g) of the federal Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) of 1996 made it easier for immigration officials to find undocumented people by allowing local law enforcement officers to act as agents of ICE.

The creation of the Department of Homeland Security after the attacks on Sept. 11, and the subsequent development of the Criminal Alien Program (CAP) and Secure Communities Act programs also increased detentions and deportations. CAP allows ICE to gather information about convicted criminals to facilitate deportation, and Secure Communities requires local police to send ICE fingerprint information collected during all bookings.

While the stated intent of these programs is to focus ICE’s limited resources on immigrants who have committed serious crimes, in actuality the data shows that over half of the people being deported through the Secure Communities program have not been convicted of a crime beyond lacking documents or have only committed minor offenses, such as traffic violations, that would normally not warrant arrest. In many of these cases, single parents of young children are detained without being given the chance to make arrangements for the care of their children. As a result, these children are considered “abandoned” and enter the child welfare system.

How AB 1081 Will Address These Issues

AB 1081 would set a statewide standard for detention reforms. It would allow law enforcement to keep individuals in jail only if they have committed “serious or violent felonies,” as described in the California Penal Code, or if ICE produces a document stating that the individual must be detained for a specific reason. This would decrease the number of detentions and subsequent deportations for small misdemeanors such as traffic violations.

AB 1081 would also have an impact in protecting victims of domestic violence and crimes because current victims may be hesitant to come forward for fear of deportation themselves.

This legislation would make California the first state to enact a statewide law regarding reform about detaining individuals based on the Secure Community program.

Autumn Wade-Hak, Andrea Yee, and Mayra Perez-Lopez contributed to this article.

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