Between January and June of 2011, the United States carried out more than 46,000 deportations of the parents of U.S.-citizen children, according to previously unreleased federal data obtained by Colorlines.com’s publisher, the Applied Research Center. The figures reflect a striking increase in the rate of removals of parents and raise serious concerns about the impact of these deportations on children, many of whom are left behind.
Congress demanded two years ago that the Department of Homeland Security begin to compile this data by July 2010, but it had not been made available to the public. The Applied Research Center obtained it through a Freedom of Information Act request.
The data on parental deportations does not reveal how many children each of these parents had, or whether their children remained in the U.S. or left with their mothers and fathers. However, the Applied Research Center has also found a disturbing number of children languishing in foster care and separated from their parents for long periods. After a year-long national investigation, we estimate there are at least 5,100 children in foster care who face barriers to family reunification because their mother or father is detained or deported. That number could reach as high as 15,000 in the next five years, at the current rate of growth.
The rising number of parental deportations has corresponded with an overall increase in immigration enforcement under the Obama administration; in fiscal year 2011, a record 397,000 people were deported. Yet parental deportation has also increased as a proportion of all removals. Between 1998 and 2007, the last period for which similar data is available, approximately 8 percent of almost 2.2 million removals were parents of U.S.-citizen children. The new data, released to the Applied Research Center in September, reveals that more than 22 percent of all people deported in the first half of this year were parents of citizen kids.
If rates of parental deportation remain steady in the year to come, the country will remove about as many parents in just two years as it did in the ten-year period ICE tracked previously. The number of children of non-citizens placed in the U.S. child welfare system will no doubt shoot up as well. Already, according to our research, one in 16 kids in Los Angeles’ child welfare system are the children of detained or deported parents. Certain jurisdictions on the U.S.-Mexico border and at least one Florida county included in our field research had even higher rates.
The Obama administration has accepted the deportation of parents as an acceptable consequence of its immigration enforcement policy. In an interview aired on PBS’ "Frontline" last month, Cecilia Munoz, the administration’s top advisor on immigration, said that unless Congress passes a comprehensive immigration reform bill to provide a path to lawful status for undocumented immigrants, the deportation of parents will continue.
"At the end of the day, when you have immigration law that’s broken and you have a community of 10 million, 11 million people living and working in the United States illegally, some of these things are going to happen," said Munoz.
"Even if the law is executed with perfection, there will be parents separated from their children," Munoz added. "It is a result of having a broken system of laws."
The Obama administration has been clear that ICE holds vast power to determine who it will and will not detain and deport. In July, ICE director John Morton released a memo affirming that agents have discretion in enforcement decisions. The memo instructed agents to consider "whether the person has a U.S. citizen or permanent resident spouse, child, or parent" when determining who to detain or deport.
Yet, Munoz’s comments and the data we’ve obtained suggest that indiscriminate deportation of parents may be an inevitable result of a rapidly growing immigration-enforcement juggernaut. It is less a matter of a broken system than of the Obama administration’s very intentional policy of deporting 400,000 people a year.
Parents Return to Find Their Kids
In October, the New York Times reported that almost half–48 percent–of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. arrived before 2000. Long-term residents, who are more likely to have children with U.S. citizenship, are increasingly the targets of federal immigration enforcement.
Indeed, the flow of immigrants crossing over the U.S.-Mexico border has declined in the last several years. And of the majority of the diminishing numbers of people still picked up crossing the border have already lived in the U.S. In 2010, 56 percent of people caught at the border had been deported before, up from 44 percent in 2005. Advocates say many of those who are returning are coming back to be with their children, who were left behind when they were deported.
These long-term residents of the U.S. are targeted by a federal deportation policy that relies increasingly on local police. A controversial program called Secure Communities, which has elicited protest from governors in three states, now turns a traffic stop or other run-in with police into a path to deportation.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement maintains that parents who are deported have control over what happens to their children. "The parent can decide whether to have the child leave with them or stay in the U.S.," an ICE spokesperson wrote in an email to the Applied Research Center, explaining the new data.
Yet, as our research on the intersections of immigration enforcement and the child welfare system shows, that is not always the case. Detained and deported parents regularly face the prospect of permanently losing their parental rights because their children are in the foster care system. These parents are often left out of decisions about where their children should live.
According to policy advocates, ICE has for years said that it does not believe significant numbers of families are separated in this way.
Emily Butera, senior program officer at the Women’s Refugee Commission, a policy advocacy organization in Washington, said, "ICE tends to say, ‘We think these are isolated incidents.’ Everyone we’ve talked to from DHS and ICE say that they can’t do anything unless they know how big the problem is."
Our research suggests the problem is substantial. In just six months, 46,486 parents of an unknown number of U.S.-citizen children were removed. According to our national study, thousands of their children face extended and sometimes permanent separation from their parents.
The data on parents of U.S.-citizens deported is overdue.
In 2009, after Homeland Security’s inspector general released earlier data on the number of deported parents, Congress directed ICE to "begin collecting data on the deportation of parents of U.S.-born children no later than July 1, 2010" and to report that data at least semi-annually. Despite these demands, no data has been released to the public until now.
The new data suggest that parents living in certain parts of the country are particularly likely to be deported. The breadth of removals includes not only known deportation hubs like Arizona, Texas and California, but also parts of the South and Midwest. The ICE office covering Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina ordered large numbers of deportations, as did the one based in Chicago and covering seven states in the Midwest. These geographic trends provide further evidence of the changing orientation of immigration enforcement; it is moving increasingly to communities in the interior of the country.
As immigration enforcement spreads across the country and more parents of United States citizen children are deported, the collateral effects are likely only to grow.