Caught Between Systems - EnforcementMore than 5 million children living in the United States today have at least one parent who is an undocumented immigrant. This policy brief analyzes the impact of immigration enforcement on these children and state child welfare agencies. It finds that current policies put children at risk of losing a parent and place unnecessary strain on the child welfare system. It recommends reforms to improve child and family well-being while enforcing immigration law.

Current policies direct federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to consider the well-being of children and families in work-site raids, but ICE’s currently prioritized programs do not provide family-related protections. The brief recommends that ICE take these concerns into account in all enforcement activities. It also highlights the difficulties children face in reuniting with their parents once the child enters the child welfare system, particularly if the parent has been apprehended for immigration reasons or has even a minor, non-criminal offense in their history. If a parent is detained or consequently deported, it is virtually impossible for the parent to participate in child welfare case plan requirements or family court proceedings, increasing the likelihood that their parental rights will be inappropriately terminated.

The authors provide critical recommendations to enforce immigration law while keeping children with their families and out of the child welfare system whenever possible. The brief recommends policies to ensure that children who do enter the child welfare system receive appropriate care and that apprehended parents receive due process. The report also points to key legislation that would accomplish these goals.

Recommendations for immigration court, ICE, and child welfare system policies include:

  • Allowing immigration judges to consider the potential harm to a U.S. citizen child of deporting the child’s parent.
  • Arrest procedures that will determine if apprehended individuals have children or other dependants, and information sharing so families can locate detained parents.
  • Limiting the presence and involvement of children during immigration enforcement procedures.
  • Training immigration and law enforcement officials to enforce the law while minimizing trauma to children.
  • A Department of Homeland Security liaison officer charged with facilitating cases involving child welfare agencies and detained parents.
  • Procedural reforms to ensure that cases involving parents with minor children employ non-custodial alternatives to detention when possible, and to encourage regular, meaningful contact between children and their detained parents.
  • Coordination with local child welfare agencies, to ensure that detained parents are able to participate in family court proceedings and administrative decisions involving their children.
  • A comprehensive annual report documenting the impact of immigration enforcement activities on U.S. citizen children.

The report was released by the First Focus in partnership with the Migration and Child Welfare National Network. The report is the first of the comprehensive paper series entitled, Caught Between Systems: The Intersection of Immigration and Child Welfare Policies. This new series examines the many challenges that arise when the immigration and child welfare systems collide and provides solutions on how the two systems can work together to better protect the interests of children and families.