Deportations: It's A Family Matter
Chicago -- Viewed in a certain context, the disruptions that 4-year-old Emily Ruiz suffered when she was unwittingly caught up in an immigration debacle were tame compared to the treatment of many other families with mixed immigration status.
To refresh your memory, Ruiz, a U.S. citizen, was traveling home to New
York from Guatemala with her grandfather, who was detained by U.S. Customs and
Border Protection (CBP) agents because of a two-decade-old infraction on his
temporary work visa.
Emily's father, Leonel Ruiz, living in the U.S. illegally since 1996,
said he was not given the opportunity to come pick up his child. CBP continues
to dispute his account, saying that the father declined to pick her up himself
and freely chose to return Emily to Guatemala with her grandfather.
Emily's story was not a happy one but at least had a tolerable ending:
She flew back to her family home in Guatemala with her grandfather but was
reunited with her parents on Long Island within three weeks. This is, sadly, a
walk in the park compared to what happens to others.
Once families find themselves in the immigration system, they are
frequently separated and face severe impediments to keeping track of each
other. Parents sometimes spend years struggling with limited resources to
regain custody of their children.
In an article to be published in the Connecticut Law Review this fall,
author Nina Rabin, director of border research at the University of Arizona
Southwest Institute for Research on Women, chronicles what she describes as the
"quiet, slow-motion tragedies (that) unfold every day in immigration
detention centers throughout the country."
During interviews with detainees, judges, attorneys and child welfare
system case workers in the Pima County, Ariz., Juvenile Court system, Rabin and
her staff found heart-wrenching examples of the dire challenges that families
face in detention or deportation systems not equipped to process mixed-status
With approximately 5.5 million children in the U.S. living with at least
one illegal immigrant parent -- 4.5 million of these children are U.S. citizens
-- the issues go well beyond Arizona and are best summarized by Rabin's finding
that no formal policies or mechanisms are in place to guide humane treatment of
parents and children in detention or deportation proceedings.
Child welfare personnel say parents routinely "disappear"
because they are so difficult to track down once they are apprehended by
Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Out of fear, detained immigrants are often
reluctant to provide information to allow a child to be placed with another
family member, so children are more likely to wind up in the foster care system
instead of with relatives. And parents who are able to remain on the radar in
detention fare worse than incarcerated parents because of lack of family
services routinely available in jails or prisons.
Illegal immigrants with no criminal record -- living in the U.S. without
authorization is a civil offense -- are often perceived and treated as
criminals. So even when detained parents choose to fight deportation, which
means months or years in detention, personnel in the child welfare system are likely
to "write off" those parents and assume that they'll be unable to
regain custody of their children.
Child welfare systems unaccustomed to the needs of families caught up in
this process often can't cope with long, unpredictable immigration hearing
timelines that keep parents from complying with reunification plans. These
cases can't possibly conform to detailed statutory timelines that must be met
once a child is in state custody. Additionally, few personnel seek assistance
from consular offices to help children by identifying, evaluating and
communicating with family members in the parents' home country.
Rabin's suggested reforms, condensed in a recently released briefing
called "Disappearing Parents: A Report on Immigration Enforcement and the
Child Welfare System," urge collaboration between immigration and child
welfare agencies, increased prosecutorial discretion for families, coordinated
support for parents and children who are trying to reunite, and programs
devoted to educating immigrant detainees about defending their parental rights.
Obviously, not every family can garner the headlines and top-shelf pro
bono legal support that assisted the Ruizes in reuniting. But all families
deserve respectful, humane treatment in all interactions with immigration law
enforcement agencies, especially when children and their guardians are
With comprehensive immigration reform out of reach for the foreseeable
future, improving the way families are treated in the existing system can't
happen soon enough.
Esther Cepeda's email address is estherjcepeda(at)washpost.com.
© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group