Juana Reyes is an undocumented single mother of two U.S. born citizen children who sold tamales in front of Walmart in Sacramento, California for years. Her troubles began when she was arrested on June 28, 2012 for trespassing and Reyes was identified as a deportable alien by the local sheriff’s department. Though she had no prior criminal record and the trespassing charges were eventually dropped, Reyes was locked up in county jail for 12 days and her children were placed in foster care because the arresting officer refused to turn the children over to numerous relatives who came to the scene of the arrest. Reyes’ case made state and national headlines, like the CNN story titled “Don’t deport the tamales lady.” Reyes was eventually released, her children returned to her, and she is awaiting her immigration court date next year. It is unclear whether Reyes would have been released from jail or her children from foster care without the media attention and advocacy from community organizations.

This case illustrates the disturbing and growing trend facing thousands of detained or deported parents with children in the foster care system. Immigration enforcement has steadily increased in the past four years from 190,000 to over 400,000 cases. A report by the Applied Research Center estimates that at least 5,100 children are in the U.S. foster care system as a result of their parent’s detention or deportation. As illustrated in a case like Juana Reyes’, her parental rights were challenged not due to abuse, neglect or willful abandonment but primarily because she was poor and undocumented, and wasn’t given the opportunity to place her children with her undocumented relatives.

There are two California bills currently awaiting the Governor’s signature which would address many of the problems facing immigrant families divided by deportation.

  1. 1. AB 2015 (titled “Calls for Kids”) is sponsored by Assembly member Holly Mitchell. The billrequires that law enforcement inform a custodial parent, regardless of their immigration status, of his or her right to make two phone calls at the time of arrest to arrange for a child’s care, strengthening existing provisions in California law. The bill also requires posting notice of this right in jails in multiple languages.
  2. 2. SB1064 (titled “Reuniting Immigrant Families”) is sponsored Senator Kevin de León. The bill prioritizes keeping children with their families and out of the public child welfare system whenever possible, and ensures that separated families receive appropriate care and due process. Among other things, the bill would ensure that a child can be placed with a relative or legal guardian regardless of the relative or guardian’s status and authorizes the court to extend the family reunification period for detained/deported parents. The bill also requires the California Department of Social Services to provide guidance to social workers on working with appropriate foreign consulates in child custody cases.


If these California bills were to become law, they would be the first of their kind in the country. In fact,federal legislation introduced by Representative Lucille Roybal-Allard titled “Help Separated Families Act of 2012” (HR 6128) was modeled after these California bills. The bills have received bi-partisan support, media attention, and sign-on support from over 50 supporting organizations including the California Child Welfare Directors Association, the board of Supervisors from San Francisco and Santa Clara counties, the National Association of Social Workers, the Children’s Defense Fund, ACLU, MALDEF, Immigrant Legal Resource Center, CHIRLA, and many others.

While the debate about immigration enforcement is controversial, services to immigrant children and families in the child welfare system should not be. AB2015 and SB1064 reflect the fundamental principle that there must be due process given to all parents in the child welfare system and that safety, permanency and well-being are the guiding principles for all child welfare cases, regardless of the immigration status of the family.

Yali Lincroft, MBA, is a policy consultant for First Focus Campaign for Children, a primary sponsor for SB1064, and a technical consultant for AB2015.