Immigrant advocates often use phrases such as “innocent” or “they are not criminals” when they are defending immigrant detainees. However, these statements are actually problematic since they fracture solidarities between marginalized populations and create frictions between immigrants and laborers, prisoners, and other native residents. As any experienced public defender can share, there are many individuals in jail and prison whose principal offense is associated with poverty, mental health, domestic violence, or substance abuse. For example, research indicates that the increasing rate of female incarceration, which has led to more children entering the foster care system, are not due to increases in offenders but rather legislation requiring mandatory minimum sentencing for drug-related and non-violent crime offenses. Rather than challenging the status quo of the criminal justice system, the rhetoric of the “innocent immigrant” undervalues and ignores the injustice of the U.S. incarceration system which systematically punishes and separates parents from their children (with mandatory minimum sentencing for relative minor crimes) and often disregards due process.

In the past two decades, state general fund spending on corrections has increased by more than 300%.Given gaping budget shortfalls, communities are struggling to preserve core services like education, fire protection and park services. There has been a dramatic shift in the political landscape from the previous “tough-on” crime era with even conservative politicians pushing for reform to reduce bloated corrections budgets. And, in this climate where the private corrections industry faces a decline in revenue and political popularity, immigration enforcement represents a profitable and largely unexamined growth area. Fiscal Year 2010 had the highest number of deportation in U.S. history primarily due to increased enforcement due to an expansion of Department of Homeland Security (DHS) enforcement programs which use fingerprints to identify immigrants in prisons and jails. In 2009, approximately 40% of Corrections Corporations of America’s $1.7 billion revenue was generated by immigration detention.

“For those of us who have worked with families of the incarcerated, our challenges facing children of detained immigrant parents are all too familiar and heart-breaking – reducing child trauma at the time of arrest, improving contact and visitation between parent and child, providing supportive services for family members carrying for children left behind,” says Angie Vachio, co-founder of PB&J Family Services, a program serving children of incarcerated parents in New Mexico. “As children’s advocates, we believe that children of prisoners – whether they are in jail, prison, or detention facilities – need a safe place to live and people to care for them in their parents’ absence,” says Dee Ann Newell, Executive Director for Arkansas Voices for Children Left Behind. “These issues aren’t just limited to a border state like New Mexico – even in the jails of Arkansas, there have been many cases involving an immigrant parent with deportation/child care custody issues.” Correctional reforms involving U.S. citizen incarcerated parents (such as anti-shackling of pregnant women, mandatory phone calls by caregiver parents at the time of arrest, parenting programs inside prisons) have not been implemented by DHS despite the obvious similarity of issues.

Most of the children with a detained and deported immigrant parent are U.S. citizens. As new Census data reveals, in states like California and New Mexico, over 5) percent of children under 18 are Latino or of immigrant descent. These children are our future and how we treat them – and their parents – will profoundly influence how these children grow up.

Our goal should be consistency in our message and commitment to the principles for supporting the rights of all children of incarcerated parents – regardless of immigration status.


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