WASHINGTON, D.C. —The Women’s Refugee Commission welcomes the introduction of the “Humane Enforcement and Legal Protections for Separated Children Act” (HELP for Separated Children Act), which will reduce the number of children who are separated from their parents as a result of immigration enforcement actions. The bill, introduced by Representative Lynn C. Woolsey (D-CA), includes critical safeguards to help preserve the family unit and reduce the strain immigration enforcement is placing on our foster care system and U.S. citizen children.
“During immigration raids in my Congressional District in 2007 and 2008, I saw how immigration officials created widespread anxiety and fear, particularly among children. We should never punish children because of the actions of their parents. That’s why I’ve introduced the HELP for Separated Children Act, and I look forward to working with my colleagues to get it signed into law,” said Representative Woolsey.
Since 1998, the Women’s Refugee Commission has worked to expand protections for detained women, children and families. Over the last year, detention and asylum program staff and partners conducting site visits around the country began to hear from an increasing number of detained women concerned about their children’s whereabouts.
“We wanted to talk to women about the conditions of their detention, but they were begging us to help them find their children, with whom they had had no contact since being detained,” says Michelle Brané, director of the Women's Refugee Commission’s detention and asylum program. “Upon further investigation, we discovered that many parents, when they are deported, are being permanently separated from their children. Some have even had their parental rights terminated, at times without their prior knowledge.”
The rapid increase in immigration enforcement over the last five years and the increasing reliance on local and state law enforcement to enforce federal immigration laws have led to an expansion in apprehensions and detentions following traffic stops and immigration raids in private homes. Children, including those who are U.S. citizens, are impacted by these apprehensions. Yet precautions are rarely taken to minimize trauma and ensure that children are provided with appropriate care. Parents are not guaranteed a phone call to make arrangements for their children and many children only learn that their parents have been apprehended when no one comes to collect them after school or they return to an empty home. Other children are left alone in the home or are turned over to child protective services even if there is a relative or friend available to care for them. These children are sometimes placed in foster care at taxpayer expense.
“The impact on children can be devastating,” says Brané. “Many of these children are permanently cut off from their parents, and even those who are ultimately reunited may spend months or years believing they have been abandoned. The easiest and most effective way to protect family unity and ease the strain enforcement places on children is to stop detaining their parents. There are other less intrusive ways to ensure they appear at their immigration hearings.”
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has the discretion to release many of these parents or place them into alternative programs that ensure their appearance in court while enabling them to remain in the community, where they can make the best decisions for their children if they are ordered deported. The agency has issued guidelines for certain enforcement actions that require agents to identify parents and other caregivers and consider them for release. However, these guidelines apply only to worksite raids involving more than 25 people. ICE has no screening requirements that apply in traffic stops and home raids, during which the majority of the women are apprehended. As a result, most do not benefit from these protections.
The HELP for Separated Children Act requires critical, nationwide protocols to help keep children with their parents or caregivers and out of the foster care system while their parent’s or caregiver’s cases are pending. The Act requires that all individuals apprehended in an immigration enforcement action, whether by ICE or entities operating under agreement with ICE, be screened by nongovernmental organizations, child welfare agencies or other community service providers within six hours to determine whether they are a member of a vulnerable population.
The Act further stipulates that ICE consider vulnerable individuals, including parents, caregivers, families, children, asylum seekers and pregnant and nursing women, for release on parole, bond or into an alternatives to detention program. In addition, the HELP for Separated Children Act would guarantee detained parents’ access to their children and enhance communication between the Department of Homeland Security, child welfare agencies, caregivers, immigration and family courts and legal representatives to preserve parents’ custody rights and ability to arrange for their children to accompany them to their home country if deported.
“The HELP for Separated Children Act represents a major step forward in reducing collateral damage from our immigration enforcement policies and ensuring that the U.S. upholds its obligation to protect parents’ right to make decisions about the care, custody and control of their children,” says Brané.
The Women’s Refugee Commission looks forward to continuing to work with Representative Woolsey and her colleagues in Congress to expand protections for separated children and to ensure that immigration reform preserves family unity and due process rights.
More information at: http://www.womensrefugeecommission.org/programs/detention/55-detention/807-avoidable-adverse-impacts-on-children-of-ice-enforcement-practices
Contact: Michelle Brané