WASHINGTON, D.C., June 22, 2010 -- The Women’s Refugee Commission welcomes the introduction of the Senate version of the “Humane Enforcement and Legal Protections for Separated Children Act” (HELP Separated Children Act), which will reduce the number of children who are separated from their parents as a result of immigration enforcement actions. This legislation, introduced by Senator Al Franken (D-MN) and co-sponsored by Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Russ Feingold (D-WI), Richard Durbin (D-IL), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) Herb Kohl (D-WI), Robert Menendez (D-NJ), will provide much-needed safeguards to help keep children with their parents while their parents’ immigration cases are proceeding. The law will also protect the rights of families so that parents are able to make decisions that are in their children’s best interest.
Since 1997 the Women’s Refugee Commission has worked to protect the rights of women, children and families who are impacted by immigration detention. Detention and asylum program staff have met with detained women across the country who repeatedly report that they are unable to locate their children, or face custody challenges due to their detention. As a result of these stories, the Women’s Refugee Commission has been working with the United States Congress and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to ensure that immigrant parents and their children enjoy the same rights and protections afforded to any family unit living in the U.S.Over the past several years, immigration enforcement activity in the United States has increased exponentially. The often-overlooked consequence of this enforcement is that many children, the majority of them U.S. citizens, face permanent separation from their parents and caregivers because the parent or caregiver is placed in immigration detention. Many of these parents do not need to be detained as they either have no criminal background or pose no threat to the community and yet, when taken into custody they are not granted so much as a phone call to make care arrangements for their children until they arrive at an immigration detention facility— sometimes days, even weeks after they are first apprehended. Once detained, it is extremely difficult for parents to comply with family reunification plans, to participate in family court proceedings and to make arrangements to take their children with them if they are deported. In some cases, children are left alone to fend for themselves, or are taken in by relatives who are either unprepared to care for the children indefinitely or lack the necessary legal documentation to be a caregiver.
During a June 2010 visit to Arizona detention centers and shelters in Mexico for recently deported women, the Women’s Refugee Commission found a demonstrable need for ICE to provide and oversee clear and enforceable guidelines for its field offices in order to increase detained parents’ access to parole and to ensure that those who must be detained are able to fully and fairly participate in all proceedings relating to the custody of their children. This recent visit reaffirmed the Women’s Refugee Commission’s recommendation that a presumption against detention should be in effect for all but the most extreme cases. Detention should be a last resort, while alternatives to detention should be more readily employed.
“While meeting with parents in Arizona detention facilities, I met desperate women and men who faced losing custody of their children because they were not able to participate in the legal proceedings that determined the status of their legal parental rights,” says Emily Butera, program officer for the Women’s Refugee Commission’s detention and asylum program. “Others did not know where their children were and had not had contact with them in months. Many of these parents accepted that they were going to be deported, but were desperate for help to take their children with them when they go. Others told me that they feared their children were in an unsafe situation with an abusive parent, and that there was nothing they could do to protect them.”
The HELP Separated Children Act is crucial legislation that would increase the ability of children to remain with their parents. The legislation would require that a child welfare provider or nongovernmental organization screen every person whom ICE wishes to detain to determine whether they are the parent or caregiver of a minor child in the United States. The law also stipulates that when officials are determining whether or not to detain, release or transfer the parent or caregiver, the best interest of the child must be a priority consideration. The legislation would provide further protections to minimize trauma to the child and would require that all detained parents be able to remain in contact with their children, report abuse to child protective services, participate in reunification plans and family court proceedings and have the time and access to obtain travel documents for their children before they are deported.
The Women’s Refugee Commission looks forward to continuing to work with Senator Franken and his colleagues in the Senate to expand protections for separated children and to ensure that immigration reform preserves family unity and due process rights.
Read more about our work on keeping families together.