When the law shatters familiesBy Tammy Alexander
“Josefina’s baby was just 9 months old and Clara’s children were 1 and 6 when they were placed in foster homes with strangers … For the four months that [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] detained them, Josefina and Clara had no idea where their children were … Josefina was very quiet as she talked by phone from Mexico a year after she was deported: ‘I don’t know where my child is; I have no contact with my baby.’ ”
This story describes two sisters who were taken into immigration custody after neighbors reported they had drugs in their house (none were found). It is from a report by the Applied Research Center, “Shattered Families: The Perilous Intersection of Immigration Enforcement and the Child Welfare System.”
The stories are heartbreaking. More than 5,000 children are in foster care because one or both of their parents has been deported or is in immigration detention. Many of these parents may never see their children again.
Once detained, immigrants are often transferred to facilities hundreds of miles from their homes, are unable to attend court hearings on parental custody, and have their parental rights terminated after an absence of several months.
There are a variety of reasons why someone might find themselves without proper documentation. Filing deadlines are missed; lawyers give bad advice or intentionally mislead. Some who lack documentation were brought across the border as children themselves decades ago.
And some crossed the U.S.-Mexico border as adults. It is hard for us to understand the poverty or fear that would cause a young woman to make the difficult choice to leave family and make the dangerous journey across the border, where hundreds die in the desert each year and where many are sexually assaulted on their way north.
And, yes, being in the U.S. without proper documentation is a violation of the law, but it is an administrative infraction, not criminal — in the same category as running a red light or speeding. Yet, for these violations, people are detained and their children taken away.
Beyond the human costs, there are economic costs to placing thousands of children in foster care. We spend billions of dollars separating families while study after study shows immigrants contribute as much or more to our economy than they receive in benefits.
Jesus spoke about the special place of children in God’s eyes: “See that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven” (Matt. 18:10).
God hears the cry of the child ripped away from a loving family. Do we?
Federal immigration officials and local child welfare agencies can change procedures so that children are able to reunite with their parents whenever possible, or are at least able to stay with relatives. The Help Separated Children Act proposed in the U.S. Congress is one such policy proposal. Furthermore, changes can be made to the way immigration laws are enforced so that children are not separated from their families in the first place.
Pray for the mothers and fathers and children who are suffering unbearable anguish. Then urge your federal and local policymakers to change the laws and regulations that needlessly shatter families.
Tammy Alexander is legislative associate for domestic affairs in the Mennonite Central Committee U.S. Washington Office.
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