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Migrant Nation

ICE policies leave overburdened foster-care system in their wake

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Consequently, not only are more undocumented parents with citizen children being deported, they actually represent a larger portion of the total deported, according to ARC's report. Data obtained by the group shows the Obama administration removed 46,000 parents of citizen children within the first six months of 2011. Between 1998 and 2007, the last time federal authorities released such data, the Department of Homeland Security deported 180,000 noncitizen parents, about 8 percent of all deportees during that time. Now, over 22 percent of deportees are immigrants with citizen children, Wessler with ARC says.

Many are children who may never reconnect with their parents, partly because child welfare agencies lack formal policies for dealing with such cases, but also because, as Wessler puts it, "these parents basically fall off the face of the earth" once they enter the shadowy world of immigrant detention.

ICE has historically refused to make accommodations for parents going through child welfare proceedings, and many of the those interviewed for Wessler's study were completely unaware of the process. Some weren't contacted by child welfare departments until after deportation, after the agency had already initiated the process to sever parental rights. "The child welfare system functions on a clock. And if a child's out of a parent's custody for enough time, then the clock changes. It changes over into the process of termination of parental rights," Wessler said.

Even more disturbing, many kids are quietly pushed to stay with strangers in foster care rather than family who may also be undocumented. Wessler referenced a home study report from a CPS worker in San Antonio that gave a glowing review of a child's grandparents, but still advocated against placing the child there because both were undocumented.

Federal law requires child welfare agencies to try to put children back with their parents precisely because longterm foster care can lead to a rash of other serious problems down the pike, from homelessness to increased involvement with the criminal justice system, to mental health issues, all highlighted by a 2007 MIT study examining the longterm impact of foster care.

Just last spring child advocacy groups filed a class-action suit against Texas, alleging numerous cases of abuse and neglect within the state's foster care system. And with an immigration policy intent on beefed-up enforcement, we're funneling even more kids inside. "They're now forced in a system which clearly has a whole set of detrimental effects on children in the long run," said Wessler. "Many of these kids should never have come to the attention of the system in the first place, and now they're stuck there." •

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