With deportations at record levels, children of detained illegal immigrants are increasingly being put into foster care because of a lack of coordination between federal and state officials, say immigrant and children's advocates.
Many of these children are taken care of by relatives who live nearby, but others are left without caregivers and are turned over to state Child Protective Services, said Nina Rabin, a University of Arizona law professor who authored the study "Disappearing Parents: A Report on Immigration Enforcement and the Child Welfare System."
CPS often loses track of the parents once they are in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Rabin said.
"Some of these children will never reunite with their families," said Laurie Melrood, a family services consultant and immigration advocate who was among the speakers at a press conference Tuesday in Tucson.
Deportations have been on the rise each of the past 10 years. The 396,900 removals nationwide in fiscal year 2011 were three times the total deportations made in fiscal 2001, government figures show.
About one-fourth of the people deported during the first six months of fiscal 2011 (46,000) were fathers or mothers of U.S. citizen children, a study by Seth Freed Wessler of the Applied Research Center, a racial-justice think tank based in New York, found. He estimates there are about 5,000 children in foster care whose parents have been detained or deported. Another 15,000 will fall into foster care over the next five years, the report estimates.
Nearly half of the estimated 10.2 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. are parents of minor children, the Pew Hispanic Center said in a December report.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials say allegations that children are in foster care because their parents were detained are misleading.
"State and local child welfare agencies independently remove children from a home when there are concerns for the child's safety and care," spokeswoman Amber Cargile said in an email. "ICE works with individuals in removal proceedings to ensure they have ample opportunity to make important decisions regarding the care and custody of their children."
Immigration and Customs Enforcement doesn't typically detain primary caregivers unless it's necessary based on the person's criminal or immigration history, Cargile said.
And being a sole caregiver is one of the humanitarian reasons considered by the agency in releasing people using the method known as "prosecutorial discretion," she wrote. Long-term, it's the parents' decision whether to take their children with them back to their home country upon removal, Cargile wrote.
Cases of detained illegal immigrants being the sole caregiver are rare, the agency said. ICE does not have protocols in place for working with state child welfare agencies, but it makes an effort to help the detainee, the agency said.
That's not what Rabin has observed with her clients who are detained in Eloy or Florence. Once in detention centers, people can't receive incoming phone calls, and the phone system doesn't allow them to leave messages when making outgoing calls, which inhibits communication between caseworkers and parents. And Child Protective Services doesn't usually have the funds for caseworkers to drive from Tucson to Eloy or Florence and meet with the parents in person.
Recommendations made by advocates at the news conference include more training for CPS about immigration processes; that CPS work more closely with foreign consulates to communicate with detained parents; and that ICE give parents more discretion to care for their children while their cases go through the courts.
Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or firstname.lastname@example.org