In a briefing with Latino journalists last week, President Obama directly acknowledged that his administration's immigration enforcement practices break up families and exclude parents from decisions about the custody of their children. His comments affirmed the central findings of a yearlong investigation by the Applied Research Center, which publishes Colorlines.com, released earlier this month. The investigation concludes that there are at least 5,100 children currently in foster care who are stuck there because their parents were detained or deported by immigration officials.
The president said parents should have access to their children if they are detained and that he has directed the Department of Homeland Security to examine its family unification practices to ensure that happens. The White House declined to comment today on the details of that examination or what policy changes it may produce.
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But in his comments last week, the president said that there are administrative actions that the Department of Homeland Security can take to address the separation of families.
"I'm not here to pretend that this hasn't happened," said Obama, in response, according to a journalist present, to a question about the issues raised in the Applied Research Center investigation.
"I think we have to keep putting pressure on those responsible for administering the program, to make sure that children aren't torn from their parents without due process and the possibility to stay with their children," the president added, according to La Opinion's report on the briefing.
The Department of Homeland Security did not immediately respond to request for comment on the president's remarks, but a spokesperson for Immigration and Customs Enforcement said that the agency has reviewed the Applied Research Center investigation.
That investigation found that when mothers and fathers are detained and their children are in foster care, parents can do little to advocate for their families. In reviewing hundreds of individual cases, we found no parent who had been transported from detention to appear at the juvenile court hearings that determined their family's future. Many could not even access their hearings by phone. We further learned that, once parents are deported, child welfare departments and juvenile courts often move to terminate parental rights, which clears a child for adoption.
Echoing these findings, the president said last week that parents "have to be able to make arrangements, so that the children can go with them or be left with relatives. I don't think this is functioning perfectly now," according to La Opinion's report.
"It's a real problem," said the president. "I've instructed the Department of Homeland Security and all the agencies that as a basic principle, if parents are being deported, they have access to their kids."
Ricardo, a father from Napa, Calif., who our researchers met inside an Arizona detention center in February, has been detained for almost a year while he awaits deportation. His 1- and 2-year-old babies are living in foster care with strangers.
Ricardo's children were removed from his custody because a babysitter left them alone for less than an hour and a neighbor called the police. Ricardo, whose name has been changed, and his wife, a U.S. citizen, were arrested and convicted on misdemeanor child endangerment charges. But because he is an undocumented immigrant, rather than being released and quickly moving to regain custody of his children, his information was run through a federal database and ICE moved him to detention. His wife suffers from seizures and the county child welfare department refused to place their babies with her unless Ricardo was present to parent as well.
But Ricardo was not present because ICE had detained him and, despite the child welfare system's mandate toward family reunification, his children have now been in foster care for close to a year. Ricardo has been fully excluded from family court proceedings because he is detained. His parental rights will soon be terminated, according to an immigration advocate familiar with the case.
The Applied Research Center estimates that another 15,000 children, at least, may be stuck in foster care and unable to reunify with their detained or deported parents over the next five years, if nothing changes.
Looking through the double-paned window of the visitation booth at the Pinal County Jail in Arizona, where he is detained, Ricardo said, "I love them like nothing else."
In June, ICE announced that officers would be expected to use their discretion to weed out immigrants whom the administration considers low-priority for deportation, because they have not been convicted of a criminal charge. These include longtime residents of the United States and those with children.
But in interviews with Colorlines.com, immigration attorneys and advocates around the country say that they have not seen any significant increase in the use of ICE discretion to release parents. On Wednesday, the American Immigration Lawyers Association released a report that concluded "most ICE offices have not changed their practices since the issuance of these new directives."
Even if the policy is implemented as the administration says it may be, many families are likely to be shattered, sometimes permanently, because of an expanding category of people who fit into ICE's target population of "criminal alien."
Tens of thousands are now prosecuted criminally and incarcerated each year for crossing back over the border after a previous deportation, often to rejoin their families or to appear in juvenile courts. ICE considers them part of the targeted group. Ricardo is also part of the targeted category, because his interaction with police over the endangerment charge automatically shifts him into ICE's "criminal alien" category.
Meanwhile, a growing percentage of people deported during the Obama administration are parents of U.S.-citizen children. Data obtained by the Applied Research Center through a Freedom of Information Act request shows that from January to June of 2011, the U.S. deported over 46,000 parents of citizen kids. That's about 22 percent of all deportees. In the 10-year period that preceded the Obama administration, just 8 percent of deportees were parents of U.S. citizens, according to previously released government data.
In response to questions about the separation of families at last week's briefing, the president said, "We're examining detention policy so that we can execute it in the most humane way possible. I think there's a wide range of administrative measures we can take, not all of which are in progress now."