A California state legislative committee voted unanimously last week in support of a bill that will strengthen the rights of parents arrested by local police and those held for additional time because of their immigration status. The new rules are designed to combat a problem uncovered by Colorlines.com, in which parents stuck in detention are unable to remain engaged with their children in foster care.
If passed, AB 2015 would require that officers inform parents of their right to make up to three phone calls after arrest. While existing law provides for parents to make three calls, it does not require local cops to inform those booked of that right. Additionally, the law allows parents to make additional calls from jail at the time of release, transfer or because they are “held for immigration reasons.”
California Assemblymember Holly Mitchell introduced AB 2015 in February to respond to the findings of Colorlines.com’s “Shattered Families” investigation. The investigation estimated that there are at least 5,100 children currently in foster care with parents who have been detained or deported by immigration authorities.
When arrested and detained parents are denied additional phone calls to family, friends or the child welfare department, the likelihood grows that children will end up stuck in the child welfare system rather than in the care of relatives or community members. Once the child welfare department gets involved in a case the barriers to family reunification begin to grow.
Immigration enforcement is increasingly conducted within local jails. Secure Communities is a federal detention program that checks the immigration status of everyone booked into a county or state jail. It is operational in the majority of counties around the country. If a Secure Communities check finds that someone is a noncitizen, the federal government can request the local jail continue to hold that person—even if they’ve been charged with no crime—so that immigration authorities can detain them. For parents, this means that an arrest that might have lasted only a few hours or days and therefore caused only short family separation can become an extended and potentially permanent ordeal.
Many of the children Colorlines.com found in foster care with detained and deported parents were separated from parents when local jails and federal immigration authorities collaborated. In some cases, parents were moved to distant detention centers without the ability to make calls to their kids or to the child welfare caseworker in charge of the case.
The problem is an especially big one in California, which has large populations of immigrants and children in foster care. Surveys conducted by the Applied Research Center, Colorlines.com’s publisher, with Los Angeles and San Diego child welfare case workers and attorneys found that in those two counties alone, there are about 1,500 children in foster care with detained or deported parents.
Danielle Butler Vappie is an attorney working in the Los Angeles child welfare system. In testimony prepared for the Assembly Public Safety Committee last week, Vappie wrote, “If parents are able to make a plan in advance of the Department being involved, it ensures less children are entering foster care unnecessarily, that parental rights are protected and family ties are saved.”
“Once a parent has an immigration hold, is deported or shipped to an out of state facility, it’s too late,” she added.
In the course of our investigation, Colorlines.com interviewed one Napa, Calif., man who was arrested and then quickly moved to an Arizona detention center. His children were placed in foster care at the time of arrest. Because he was moved to detention without prior notice, he was not able to call his children’s caseworker before he was transferred and the child welfare system did not know of his whereabouts for weeks. Inside the detention center, which is actually an Arizona jail with a federal contract to hold immigration detainees, the man told us he had to pay prohibitively high fees to make calls. He’d largely lost contact with his children and caseworker as he faced the immanent prospect of deportation.
In testimony presented to the Assembly committee Laura Jimenez, who directs the group California Latinas for Reproductive Justice wrote, “When a parent is arrested, it is imperative that they be allowed to make arrangements for their children who need care regardless of their race, income or immigration status.”
“[W]omen of color and immigrant women are affected by this issue because of the disproportionate numbers of people of color that are arrested and incarcerated,” she added.
In addition to the phone calls, the bill requires local jails to post notices about these rights to make calls “in any non-English language spoken by a substantial number of the public” in the locality.
The bill is the second piece of legislation in California introduced in response to the Shattered Families investigation. As I wrote last month, Senate Bill 1064:
would authorize juvenile court judges to provide detained or deported parents additional time to reunify with their children. Currently, under California law, if a child has been out of his or her parents’ custody for a year, the child welfare agency may move to terminate parental rights and put the child up for adoption. Our investigation found that when parents are detained or deported, however, they’re often unable to participate in court hearings or complete required tasks like parenting classes. As a result, the time clock passes them by and their rights may be terminated for no fault of their own.
Together, the pieces of legislation would significantly address the separation of families at the intersection of the immigration enforcement and child welfare systems. Both bills will now move to other legislative committees before they’re referred to the House and Senate floors.