Behind the thick glass that runs the length of the Yuba County Jail’s visitation corridor, Tatyana Mitrohina’s eyes glisten, and then fill with tears as she recounts the last time she saw her son. “During the visit, he climbed into my arms and fell asleep with his head on my shoulder while I walked around with him,” she remembers.
Two months after that visit, Mitrohina was sent to the Yuba County Jail in Marysville, California, hours away from her 2-year-old son, who is in foster care. She was convicted on charges that she had hit him. While she does not deny the charges, she does say she had expected to be released from jail and to get counseling and start to rebuild her life with her child. But with the increasing collaboration between local authorities and federal immigration officials, Mitrohina found that she would not get that second chance. The government had slated her to be deported to Russia, the country she left as a teenager.
“When I first got here, I would break down crying once a week, just thinking about everything that’s happened,” says Mitrohina, who is 30 years old.
Immigration and child welfare advocates say that Mitrohina’s story—the loss of her child, her incarceration and detention, and her struggle to care for her child—represents a new and dangerous terrain at the intersection of three government systems—deportation, incarceration and foster care—that are tearing apart poor families and families of color.
While rates of detention and deportation have increased exponentially in recent years, what is happening to immigrant families is not a new story. It has been played out time and again in the lives of Black families who, in the past 20 years, have faced an increase in drug-related arrests and sentences that place Black parents in jail and their children in foster care. As immigrant families find themselves targeted by a combination of public policies, it is becoming clear that their experiences and those of Black families, women and children are troublingly similar.
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In 1996, Bill Clinton signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRAIRA), increasing the ease with which immigrants—including green card holders—could be deported, especially as a result of criminal convictions. “Criminal aliens” (as they are labeled by the government, especially those classified as “aggravated felons”) can now be summarily deported, even if they served jail time many years ago. In addition, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, better known as ICE, can place detainers on immigrants in jails and prisons, even those still awaiting a hearing or trial. Upon completion of their sentence, these people face removal proceedings. In the wake of 9/11, a growing number of local governments have also begun collaborating with ICE informally and formally through 287(g) programs that deputize local police to enforce federal immigration laws. Without some degree of local collaboration, Mitrohina would never have faced deportation.
According to the government, deportation is technically an administrative procedure, so it doesn’t fall under the aegis of double jeopardy. Yet deportation effectively sentences people to exile. “You would be hard-pressed to find a detained immigrant in the United States who did not constantly feel that they were being punished a second or third time for the same mistakes, solely due to their immigration status, including lawful permanent residents like Tatyana,” said Raha Jorjani, an attorney at the Immigrant Law Clinic at the University of California, Davis, who helped file an appeal on Mitrohina’s behalf.
In the past 12 years, deportations have quadrupled to more than 200,000 annually. About 100,000 people choose voluntary deportation every year. Meanwhile, deportations based on criminal convictions have increased nearly threefold, reaching almost 90,000 a year. The impact on families has been devastating. Human Rights Watch reports that since IIRAIRA went into effect there have been a minimum of 1.6 million children and spouses separated from their families as a result of deportation.
While enforcement in its totality—the raids, border enforcement, local cooperation with ICE, employer verification, special registration and deportation—is like a wrecking ball for families, Jayashri Shrikantiah, director of the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic at Stanford University, argues that “it is criminal deportation where the laws are harshest.”
“It’s a double whammy for families,” she said about cases like Mitrohina’s. “The child has already been separated from the parent if the conviction is recent enough, or the parent has already suffered time in prison and then it happens a second time, and again there is a separation from the child.”
There is growing anecdotal evidence that the increase in detention and criminal deportations is fomenting a trend where the children of immigrants—80 percent of whom are U.S.-born citizens—are placed in foster care. ICE and child welfare departments do not gather, let alone share, much information on the families or gender of deportees or the citizenship of foster children’s parents, so it’s impossible to know how many children have been institutionalized so far. The lack of data collection is a major problem for advocates, who are seeing the trend grow but cannot prove its scale.
Mitrohina herself says that another woman in the Yuba County jail is facing a situation similar to hers. According to Mitrohina, the woman was charged with negligence after her 14-year-old daughter ran away from home and tried to get an abortion. ICE was called to detain the mother, who was a 30-year U.S. resident. Even without knowing the scope and scale of the children being placed in foster care as a result of parental detention and deportation, these stories suggest a harrowing reality for immigrant families.
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Mitrohina has long, brown hair that she has to tug back behind her ears every few minutes. She is serious as she answers questions and recounts her story. She speaks in long streams of thought, often jumping from the recent past to her childhood when describing her current circumstances. It’s a life that has been marked by the tolls poverty and public institutions take on families.
Mitrohina was born in 1978 in Russia with deformities on her hands and feet that she says her parents could not accept. “They considered me inadequate and worthless, and told me so all the time,” she said. After shuttling in and out of public institutions as a child, her parents put her up for adoption when she was 14.
She was adopted by a couple in Sonoma County, California, soon after, but did not have an easy transition to life in the United States. And although her parents applied for her to receive citizenship, a combination of bureaucratic delays and legal missteps left Mitrohina without it. At the age of 21, she moved out of her parents’ home and has not been in contact with them since. Although years have passed, Mitrohina speaks about her childhood with an anger and confusion that is immediate.
In 2005, the prenatal clinic where she’d been receiving care made house visits and diagnosed Mitrohina with postpartum depression and post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of her deeply troubled childhood. “I really thought I could deal with my problems on my own,” she said. “They offered counseling, and even when CPS [Child Protective Services] got involved, I never accepted it because I was afraid they would take my baby away.” She acknowledges now that the enduring trauma of being cast out of her own family compounded her struggle to cope with the stresses of new parenthood and joblessness.
Things were looking up, though, Mitrohina insists. Before her arrest, she had found a job for the first time in two years and had completed two semesters at the Santa Rosa Junior College. But the strains of being a single mom on public assistance were too much for her, and she was arrested in June 2007 for abusing her son. Her child was temporarily put in foster care, and the Family Court in Sonoma County agreed that it would be in the child’s best interest to return home if Mitrohina completed a short jail sentence and six-month probation. The terms of her probation required that she enroll in parenting and anger-management classes, seek counseling and begin a course of medications to manage her depression.
Two days after Mitrohina’s sentencing, however, she found that ICE had put a hold on her record. She had been added to the long and steadily growing queue of non-citizens slated for deportation. Mitrohina was sure the ICE detainer would amount to little and felt confident that her legal entry into the country and green card would clear up the minor glitch in her case.
But it was a race against time: every day she remained in ICE custody was another day she violated the terms of her probation and risked losing her son permanently to the foster care system. She fought for a Cancellation of Removal but was denied. She then appealed that judge’s decision to the Board of Immigration Appeals but was also denied.
“The goals of that [family] court conflicted with the goals of the immigration court, which were to determine whether or not someone in Tatyana’s position deserved a second chance in the United States,” Jorjani explained. Mitrohina was stuck between two legal systems that do not communicate.
Searching for escape from this catch-22, Mitrohina still visits the law library and carries around a sheaf of notes of applicable cases and laws she wants to explore to push her case further.
Deportation, though, is now a near certainty, but not one she can accept.
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Immigrant mothers are not the first to deal with the ways that different government agencies intersect, usually to their detriment. The experiences Black families have had with child welfare and criminal justice policy make clear what can happen to communities when family policy intersects with a set of other punitive policies.
In 1997, just a year after the passage of IIRAIRA, then-President Clinton signed another bill that slammed poor people and people of color. The Adoption and Safe Families Act came on the heels of changes in welfare policy. It terminated the parental rights of anyone whose child had been out of their custody and in the child welfare system for 15 of the previous 22 months. The law sped up the process for the children to be legally adopted.
In large part because of mandatory minimum sentencing polices that came out of the War on Drugs era, incarcerated parents have their rights terminated at a higher rate than others, and this disproportionately affects Black parents who are incarcerated at rates far higher than whites. Black children are about nine times more likely than white children to have an incarcerated parent and comprise 37 percent of the foster care roles despite being only 15 percent of the total population. Families are, in effect, being punished twice over.
Like Mitrohina, whose ICE detainer prohibits her from completing her probation to regain custody of her son, mandatory minimum sentences that last longer than 22 months make it impossible for incarcerated parents to take the necessary steps in proving their willingness and desire to care for their children. According to Dorothy Roberts, arguably the nation’s leading scholar on race and child welfare policy, there is a connection between the child welfare and criminal justice systems. “These are punitive systems,” she said, adding that they are “ways of regulating poor people, especially people of color.”
This punitive approach to sentencing and deportation works against family and child welfare because family well-being requires care, not punishment. In her book Shattered Bonds, Roberts writes, “One way to preserve more families is to prevent child maltreatment. An overwhelming body of research on the negative effect of poverty on children tells us that generous public support of child welfare would dramatically reduce cases of child abuse and neglect.”
The fact that these systems work punitively is no surprise. “For hundreds of years, we have addressed problems largely related to poverty by way of mass incarceration of people of color and expansion of a prison-industrial complex. Similarly, rather than engage in meaningful immigration reform, we destroy families, create fatherless and motherless children by detaining immigrants, then forcibly ship them to countries many of them have not seen since they were a few years old,” said Jorjani.
Black and immigrant communities facing similar circumstances offer new opportunities for multiracial coalitions and organizing.
Loretta Ross, national coordinator of Sister Song, the Women of Color Reproductive Health Collective, reflected that just as “welfare reform impacted primarily Black and Latina women, once it became clear to Korean business owners that this is going to affect their mothers and elderly too, it did provide the space for people to work across race and across issue. There has to be an increased level of solidarity work and the people involved in child welfare would have to have been involved.”
This past spring, Mitrohina was occupying her time with books, letter-writing and television, anything to keep her from dwelling on her past and her uncertain future. She tries to nap, too. Every day between breakfast and lunch, Mitrohina returns to her cell and tries to sleep away her anxiety. The likelihood that she will never see her son again dominates her thoughts.
“I know firsthand what it is like to be abandoned,” Mitrohina said. “And now this is what my baby will grow up thinking happened to him.”