Thousands of Kids Lost From Parents In U.S. Deportation System

A yearlong investigation by's publisher, the Applied Research Center, found more than 5,000 children stuck in foster care because their parents were detained by ICE. One in four deportees have U.S.-born kids and face total loss of parental rights.

By Seth Freed Wessler Nov 02, 2011

Clara’s eldest kid was 6 years old and her youngest just a year old when it happened. Josefina’s baby was 9 months. All three children were ripped from their mothers and sent to live in foster homes with strangers. Clara and Josefina, sisters in their early 30s who lived together in a small northern New Mexico town, had done nothing to harm their children or to elicit the attention of the child welfare department. Yet one morning last year, their family was shattered when federal immigration authorities detained both sisters. Clara and Josefina were deported four months later. For a year, they had no contact with their children.

The sun was rising on a late summer morning in Farmington. Clara (all parents’ names in this story have been changed) was asleep inside the trailer that she shared with the children and Josefina, who was finishing a night shift at the local restaurant where both sisters worked. Clara says she was jolted awake by the sound of banging and yelling. A group of uniformed officers, some marked with ICE, for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and others DEA, for Drug Enforcement Administration, burst through the door.

The agents put Clara in handcuffs, while two of the officers began walking and carrying the children out of the trailer. Clara pleaded with them, asking what they would do with her children. "We’re taking them where we take all the kids," Clara remembers one of the agents saying. She begged them to let her call a friend who could come pick up the children. The agents refused.

When Josefina arrived home from work several hours later, ICE officers were waiting. The sisters were locked up in the San Juan County jail, where they stayed for several weeks until ICE transported them to an immigration detention center in Albuquerque, three hours to the south. Their children remained in foster care.

This family is one among thousands who’ve been through the same ordeal. In a yearlong investigation, the Applied Research Center, which publishes, found that at least 5,100 children whose parents are detained or deported are currently in foster care around the United States. That number represents a conservative estimate of the total, based on extensive surveys of child welfare case workers and attorneys and analysis of national immigration and child welfare trends. Many of the kids may never see their parents again.

These children, many of whom should never have been separated from their parents in the first place, face often insurmountable obstacles to reunifying with their mothers and fathers. Though child welfare departments are required by federal law to reunify children with any parents who are able to provide for the basic safety of their children, detention makes this all but impossible. Then, once parents are deported, families are often separated for long periods. Ultimately, child welfare departments and juvenile courts too often move to terminate the parental rights of deportees and put children up for adoption, rather than attempt to unify the family as they would in other circumstances.

While anecdotal reports have circulated about children lingering in foster care because of a parent’s detention or deportation, our investigation provides the first evidence that the problem occurs on a large scale. If these cases continue mounting at the same pace over the next five years, 15,000 children of detained and deported mothers and fathers will likely be separated from their parents and languish in U.S. foster homes.

Citizen Kids Caught in the Deportation Dragnet

Josefina and Clara’s children are among the hidden victims of an expanding immigration detention and deportation system that now expels nearly 400,000 people each year.

According to Clara and Josefina, the ICE and DEA agents came to their home looking for drugs, but found none. Clara believes a neighbor called in the false report to ICE. A criminal background check confirms that charges against the sisters were dropped and that neither had ever been convicted of any crime. ICE nonetheless detained them because of their undocumented immigration status, moving them from the county jail to the immigration detention center where they were held for three months. They were deported to Mexico in December 2010.

According to over 100 child welfare caseworkers and attorneys we interviewed around the country, as rates of deportations increase, so do the numbers of children from immigrant families in foster care. Indeed, federal data released to the Applied Research Center through a Freedom of Information Act request shows that almost one in four people deported in the last year was the mother or father of a United States citizen. (Next week, will publish a follow-up story further detailing and explaining this startling data.)

Roberta is one such parent. Almost a year ago, she was arrested on a drunken driving charge that would likely have triggered only a short interruption in her child custody, if she were a citizen. Instead, it threatens to result in the termination of the 35-year-old’s parental rights, because she is an undocumented immigrant and was deported after being charged. Her five young children are now in two different foster homes in Phoenix. Separated from them by the U.S.-Mexico border, Roberta cannot make the journey back to fight for her kids.

ICE detained Roberta after the Phoenix police stopped her one evening as she drove three of her children home from a family party, where Roberta acknowledges she had one beer too many. Police administered a breathalyzer and charged her with driving under the influence and with child endangerment.

"I know I’ve made a mistake, but I’ve never before had a problem and I’ve paid," Roberta told me in late January 2011, while still at the Eloy Detention Center, a 1,600-bed facility run by the for-profit Corrections Corporation of America. A criminal background check confirms that this was Roberta’s first conviction in her 15 years living in the United States.

Phoenix is one of almost 70 jurisdictions around the country where local police have signed agreements with the federal government to act as immigration agents. The "287(g)" agreement, as the program is called, turns a simple traffic stop into a path to deportation by deputizing local cops as immigration enforcement agents.

Our research found that children in areas where local cops aggressively engage in immigration enforcement are more likely to be separated from their parents and face barriers to reunification. In the counties we surveyed where local police have signed 287(g) agreements with ICE, children in foster care were 29 percent more likely to have a detained or deported parent than in other counties. That disparity remained statistically significant when controlling for the size of the foreign-born population.

In Roberta’s case, as the police officer arrested her, he called the county Child Protective Services, which came quickly to the side of the road and took the children away. The agency placed them in what were supposed to be temporary foster homes, until Roberta could get out of jail.

But she was not released–not until she was deported, without her children.

A Morally Corrupted System

Local immigration enforcement is metastasizing through initiatives like the 287(g) agreements and, most significantly, through a controversial program called Secure Communities, which allows ICE access to data on every person booked into a county jail. As the federal government shifts its deportation tactics away from high-profile workplace raids and toward enforcement that’s silently tied to the day-to-day functions of local police departments, a growing number of long-time residents with families and deep ties to the U.S. are deported. The program is turning jurisdictions around the country into deportation hotspots. We have identified at least 22 states where children in foster care face barriers to reunifying with their detained or deported mothers and fathers.

Whatever the state of the debate, or rancor, over who should and should not be allowed to live in the U.S., the moral and bureaucratic fallout of deporting 400,000 people a year are accumulating to toxic levels. Child welfare caseworkers say that in the face of an opaque detention system, they are helpless to reunify families. And although federal law requires child welfare departments to make diligent efforts toward family reunification, when parents are detained that’s basically impossible.

In Los Angeles, where according to our research, the mother or father of approximately one in every 16 children in foster care has been detained or deported, a caseworker for the country described the frustration. "Ultimately, as social workers our role is to reunify families. I’m not saying that ICE is right or wrong; what I’m saying is, let us do our job, let us reunify families."

An immigration enforcement system that operates anything like the one we have will run roughshod over most everything.

Some of the most unsettling cases that our research has uncovered involve children who entered foster care when local police arrested non-citizen mothers after they or neighbors called 911 to report domestic violence.

Hilaria, of Phoenix, was arrested because she tried to defend herself against her abusive husband. One day in October 2010, he began berating her and threatening her. In minutes, the words escalated into hitting and choking. Hilaria fought back, freeing herself from the man and running to the kitchen, where she says she picked up a screwdriver and threw it at him, drawing blood.

A neighbor heard screaming and called the police. When the cops arrived, Hilaria’s husband told them that she attacked him and, as is too often the case in domestic violence reports, the officers arrested Hilaria for assault. Because their children were home at the time, the police called Child Protective Services. But when the officers and Hilaria’s abuser told the CPS worker that Hilaria had been the assailant, the caseworker left the children with him. Two weeks later, the child welfare department returned to check on the children. The caseworker now suspected that Hilaria’s husband was using drugs and removed the children from him, placing them in foster care.

Two months later, Hilaria sat on a plastic chair in a small detention center visitation room, speaking through tears. "I’ve had domestic violence before, but I took it for my kids," she said. "Now they’ve robbed me. I did what I did to defend myself and my kids."

Hilaria is now applying for a reprieve from deportation, which is available to some victims of domestic violence. But because of the charge of assault against her, it’s not clear the government will grant her a visa–she violates a zero-tolerance policy against "criminal" immigrants. The Obama administration recently announced that it would review the deportation cases of all 300,000 people slated for removal. The policy change, which is designed to stop the deportations of people brought to the U.S. as children and other target populations, does not appear to have helped even those like Hilaria. One year after her arrest, Hilaria is still detained. Her children are still in foster care.

The Abyss of Detention

Four months after Roberta lost her children, she also sat in detention center visitation room, sifting through crinkled papers in a bulging folder to find a photo of two of her children. "It has been four months since I’ve talked to my kids," she said, looking at the photo of her then 7-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter. The children stood shoulder to shoulder, smiling at the camera in front of a graffiti-scrawled wall near the family’s Phoenix apartment. The boy wore camouflage pants and the girl a pink shirt.

"I would rather die than lose my kids," Roberta said, tears running down her round face.

"They treat us like animals here," she complained of the barbed-wire ridged jail in Arizona’s basin cotton fields. According to Roberta, women inmates were given unwashed underwear and detainees were fed stale bread and dirty vegetables for their two meals a day. "But the worst," said Roberta, echoing the sentiments of other detained parents, "is that I can’t see my kids."

Three weeks after ICE detained Roberta, the juvenile court held a hearing about her family. Roberta, however, did not know about it. Neither her court appointed attorney nor the child welfare caseworkers or attorneys contacted her.

All of the parents with children in Child Protective Services custody whom we interviewed inside six detention centers said that they missed at least one of their juvenile court hearings. From detention, they could not access the courts and their attorneys could not find them.

ICE is not by law required to detain many of those it plans to deport, but it keeps non-citizens locked up to prevent them from absconding. A parent whose singular concern is getting her kids back is scarcely a flight risk. ICE nonetheless takes confinement to an extreme. Even when parents know about their juvenile court hearings, ICE categorically refuses to transport them to juvenile court hearings where vital decisions about their families are made. In hundreds of interviews with attorneys and caseworkers, not one had ever seen a detained parent appear in person at a hearing. Some detainees are not even able to arrange to phone into the hearings.

Unsurprisingly for a system in which about 85 percent of detainees lack legal representation and can be held for months, sometimes years, in squalid conditions, ICE functions without any obligation to the legal needs of the people it detains. And juvenile court judges are powerless to compel ICE to do anything.

"Parents [should] have an absolute right to be present in a court hearing," a juvenile court judge in Pima County, Ariz., told us, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "We order that if they are in custody they appear, but these orders are not honored by the detention facilities. We don’t have the authority over the federal centers."

A month after she was initially detained, Roberta was finally able to contact her court appointed attorney by phone. But the attorney spoke no Spanish and they could not communicate. Roberta still arranged to call in to the next court hearing, but she says that because of a bad phone connection over the detention center phone, she understood nothing uttered in the courtroom.

Without any specific policy for addressing the needs of detained parents, child welfare agencies often treat them as if they’ve abandoned their children. And so, after several months in detention and no contact with her children, Roberta says she got a letter in the mail. "All [the court] sent me was a Spanish sheet with threats," she said. "If you don’t appear, you’ll lose kids. That’s all it said."

There was also little chance she could have complied with the child welfare department’s overall plan for family reunification. Detention centers provide parents no access to the services and programs needed to take part in their case plans for reunification, which for her would have consisted of treatment for alcohol abuse, parenting classes and visitation with her children.

Because detainees are often moved to detention centers far away from their homes–an average of 370 miles–they can rarely see their children. Though the Obama administration has said that it plans to overhaul immigration detention practices, including making efforts to detain non-citizens closer to their homes, as of August 2011, this promise did not appear to have taken effect in any significant way.


Parental Rights End at the Border

Josefina and Clara were deported to Mexico after three months in immigration detention. They made their way to Michoacán, 1,000 miles south of the border, to their mother’s home, where they began trying to regain custody of their children.

During a July 2011 phone interview from Michoacán, Josefina spoke quietly about the baby she never got to bid goodbye. "I don’t know where my child is, I have no contact with my baby," she said. "I didn’t do anything wrong to have my children taken away from me. I didn’t steal, I didn’t do drugs, nothing. Why did they take my children?"

Once parents are deported, the threats to their families grow. While parents are detained, child welfare departments are largely prostrate to reunify families. Once mothers and fathers are deported, however, the agencies often switch gears, actively slowing down the reunification process and sometimes halting those efforts altogether.

Soon after they were deported, the sisters contacted the Mexican consulate in New Mexico to ask for help in regaining their parental rights. The consulate began corresponding with the child welfare department on the sisters’ behalf. For months after their deportation, a staff person at the consulate repeatedly told Clara and Josefina that the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department planned to reunify the family as soon as the sisters could prove that they had stable housing and jobs. Yet, even after they found work and were set up in their mother’s home, the children remained in foster care. Reunification dates cited by the department came and went, but still, no children.

According to the sisters, the New Mexico child welfare department would not let the mothers speak by phone with the youngest two of the three children and Clara spoke only once to her 6 year old. According to Josefina and Clara, they heard word that their children were placed in three different foster homes and the babies were being raised entirely in English. They feared their children would not remember them even if they were reunified and they began to believe they might never see their children again.

"I miss everything about my kids," said Clara through sobs over the phone. "How I spent Saturday and Sundays with them, how I made my home with them, all of it. Then my children were just gone."

Many deported parents make the tormented decision to make the bloody desert journey over the U.S.-Mexico border without papers so that they can be present at juvenile court hearings. Caseworkers around the country said that in many cases, when a parent of a foster child is deported, they are back weeks later to appear in a juvenile courtroom to try and reclaim their children.

The risks of crossing are enormous. In addition to growing violence in Mexico against migrants crossing into the U.S., immigrants caught in the country after a previous deportation now face prison time. Until recently, immigrants who were deported before were simply deported again. Now, "illegal reentry" is treated as a federal criminal offense that carries sentences of years. The charge now accounts for nearly half of all federal criminal prosecutions.

Clara and Josefina did not risk crossing back over the border; the fear of violence on the border or of extended incarceration was too great. So for a year, they waited, in fear their parental rights would be terminated.

In late September 2011, their hope dwindling, the Mexican consulate in New Mexico phoned the sisters at their mother’s house in Michoacán. "They told us to go to the airport the next day," said Clara.

In the morning they drove three hours to the airport. Two employees of the Mexican government escorted the three children off the plane. In the middle of a waiting room at the airport, after 14 months apart, Josefina and Clara took the children into their arms.

The next day, now back at their mother’s home with the sounds of pouring rain in the background, Clara said over the phone, "It hurts me so much to talk about this. I don’t want to remember anymore." Now the family will try to piece themselves back together.

For many, however, separation is not memory. It is a present horror. In July, after seven months of detention, Roberta was deported to Mexico. She was given no notice before she was loaded onto an ICE bus and dropped at the border. ICE did not give her time to call her children’s caseworker or her court-appointed attorney before her removal and she arrived in Mexico with nothing but $10, given to her by another deportee.

Deportation too often leads to the seamless termination of parental rights. In jurisdictions around the country, child welfare departments and children’s attorneys have successfully argued that it is in a child’s best interest to remain in the U.S. rather than join their parents in another country. Though child welfare departments are required by law to try to reunify children with their parents, and research shows that children fare better with their families than in foster care, the principal is often quashed when a border stands in the way.

Many caseworkers and attorneys noted to us a pervasive bias against placing children in another country. "When you break down the cases, placement with parents in Mexico happens very rarely," an attorney who represents children and parents in El Paso, Texas, told us. "The knee-jerk reaction of almost everyone is that the children are better off in U.S."

As a parents’ attorney in Takoma, Wash., said in describing several cases like Roberta’s, "They’re deported and they’re treated like they fall off the face of the earth."

Some jurisdictions, especially those near the U.S.-Mexico border, are working to interrupt this rapid move to sever families. In San Diego County, Calif., and El Paso County, Texas, for example, the child welfare departments have established international liaisons who work with the Mexican consulate and Mexican child welfare department to place children with their families in Mexico. Without the consulate, Clara and Josefina would still be without their children.

Yet most countries lack any formal policy for deported parents and ultimately, when parents are detained and deported, families are shattered.

In the detention center, before she was deported, Roberta looked up from the photo of her children and stated a policy that many would think is common sense. "If you send the mom to Mexico," she said, "let her take her kids with her." It has now been one year since she lost custody of her children. Her family’s status remains in limbo.

Esther Portillo-Gonzales joined Seth Freed-Wessler in the year-long investigation that produced this story. Their research is ongoing.

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