Nearly 45,000 such parents were removed in the first six months of this year, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Behind the statistics are the stories: a crying baby taken from her mother’s arms and handed to social workers as the mother is handcuffed and taken away, her parental rights terminated by a U.S. judge; teenage children watching as parents are dragged from the family home; immigrant parents disappearing into a maze-like detention system where they are routinely locked up hundreds of miles from their homes, separated from their families for months and denied contact with the welfare agencies deciding their children’s’ fate.
At least 5,100 U.S. citizen children in 22 states live in foster care, according to an estimate by the Applied Research Center, a New York-based advocacy organization, which first reported on such cases last year.
And an unknown number of those children are being put up for adoption against the wishes of their parents, who, once deported, are often helpless to fight when a U.S. judge decides that their children are better off here.
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Critics say the parents are to blame for entering the country illegally in the first place, knowing they were putting their families at risk.
“Yes, these are sad stories,” says Bob Dane, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which advocates tougher enforcement against illegal immigration. “But these parents have taken a reckless gamble with their children’s future by sneaking into the country illegally, knowing they could be deported.”
“Not to deport them,” he continued, “gives them the ultimate bonus package, and creates an incentive for others to do the same thing.”
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ICE, meanwhile, maintains it tries to work with such groups to ensure “family unity.”
“ICE takes great care to evaluate cases that warrant humanitarian release,” said spokeswoman Dani Bennett. “For parents who are ordered removed, it is their decision whether or not to relocate their children with them.”
But immigration lawyers say that is not so easy. A recurring complaint is that clients “disappear,” often sent to detention centers far from where they lived. They are routinely denied access to family court hearings, phones and attorneys. Many immigrant parents do not fully understand their rights, or that custody of their children might be slipping away.
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In the little mountain town of Sparta, N.C., the family of Felipe Montes is facing a similar fight. When immigration agents deported the 32-year-old laborer to Mexico two years ago, his three young sons — American citizens — were left in the care of their mentally ill, American-born mother. Within two weeks, social workers placed the boys in foster care.
Montes and his wife want the children to live with him in Mexico, saying they are better off with their father than with strangers in the U.S. He works at a walnut farm and shares a house with his uncle, aunt and three nieces.
But child welfare officials have asked a judge to strip Montes of his parental rights, arguing the children will have a better life here. Such a ruling could clear the way for their adoption.
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There are some signs of change. . . .
In another rare move, Felipe Montes, the father who wants his children from North Carolina to join him in Mexico, has been granted permission to temporarily return to the U.S. to attend custody hearings, though he must wear an ankle monitoring bracelet.
Still, Gonzalez and others say the changes are too haphazard and random, open to interpretation by individual ICE agents. And many say it seems particularly cruel that deported parents who return illegally in order to be with their children should be a priority for removal.
In Congress, California Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard has proposed legislation that would make it more difficult for local agencies to terminate the parental rights of immigrants. She calls it “heartbreaking ... that in the U.S., immigration status in itself has become grounds to permanently separate families.” It is, she said, “absolutely, unquestionably inhumane and unacceptable, particularly for a country that values family and fairness so highly.”
Still hoping for change
4 weeks ago