Chronicle of Social Change


By Beth Cortez-Neavel

President-elect Donald Trump made clear in a recent interview that he plans to deport between two and three million undocumented immigrants, a drastic increase from current practice under which about 235,000 were sent away in 2015.

Many of the people being deported will be parents of children who are U.S. citizens, born into the rights and protections of this country. Child welfare and immigration reform advocates fear that the surge in deportation will prompt a spike in foster care admissions for children in this circumstance.

“It’s a kid’s worst nightmare to have their parents disappear,” said Wendy Cervantes, director of First Focus’ Center for the Children of Immigrants. “You know how we create those plans for ‘Okay if there’s a fire we’re going to meet outside at this spot?’ [Kids] always said: ‘Those plans are so much easier, because we know that we’re going to be with our parents once we’re outside. And now we’re planning for our parents not being here.’ … It’s really scary. It was just eye-opening to me that it’s scarier than having your house burn down.”

Wariness and uncertainty has prompted some organizations to plan ahead in an effort to help families that might be torn apart by deportation.

Children Left Behind in Foster Care

In fiscal 2015, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deported 235,413 undocumented immigrants, 70.5 percent of whom were in U.S. border states.

More than a third of undocumented immigrants within the country report having U.S.-citizen children under the age of 18 for whom they are responsible, according to the Migration Policy Institute. ICE doesn’t ask parents in its custody to disclose undocumented children in their family.

ICE’s own assessment of a two-year period from 2010 to 2012 shows 204,810 removals for parents of U.S. citizen children. Some of those children will leave the country with their parents, and many others will be placed with relatives. A small portion are placed into foster care.

The most recent numbers available from 2011, a conservative estimate from Race Forward’s Shattered Families report, found that approximately 5,100 children are in the foster care system who had a parent deported out of the 397,607 children in foster care systems that year. Race Forward also estimated that between 2011 and 2016, there would be 15,000 more children like this in the U.S. The Race Forward estimate is one of the only available counts of these children because state child welfare agencies don’t track this information. Race Forward instead based the estimation on anecdotal evidence and case studies.

The likely outcomes for these children are not good, Cervantes said.

“It’s always just like those different levels of how much trauma they undergo,” she said. “They’re losing a parent, which we know has a very significant impact to their physical health, their mental health, their ability to do well in school. Even the fear alone of potentially losing a parent to deportation; we’ve seen a lot of studies that just the fear alone can cause post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms in children just by having that dread every day.”

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