Put On ICE: How Detainment and Deportation Are Breaking Up Families

Back in the early summer, President Obama announced that immigration officials, including the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), would be suspending deportations against those who posed no threat to the nation’s security or public safety. In August, the Department of Homeland Security took action on Obama’s word, stating that it would review all of the nearly 300,000 pending deportation cases in order to identify those which are “low priority” and should be “administratively closed,” turning the focus off of working class folks and more onto those with connections to larger crime rings. The promise came after a heated year where Arizona’s most recent passing of immigration legislation laid way to some of the strictest immigration laws in the country, creating a domino effect in states like Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. The announcement gave a slight glimmer of hope to those whose lives not only reflected the constant threat of living with deportation, but to multitudes of activists long working against a severely broken immigration system.

However, such promise has come with little backing action. Just in the soon-to-be three years that Obama has been in office, more than 1.6 million people have been deported out of the States, a frightening number given that during both terms that Bush served, only 1.57 million were deported. Just during the first six months of 2011 alone, more than 46,000 parents were deported, leaving behind countless children in foster care. Now that we are approaching an election year, with the failed passing of 2010’s DREAM Act, Jim Crow-style immigration legislation spreading through the country, and anti-immigrations groups in an upswing, as well as xenophobia serving again as the political realm’s favorite scapegoat, one wonders how Obama will be delivering on 2012’s re-election campaign in regards to fair and just immigration reform.

All of this comes at the heels of the Applied Research Center’s (Colorlines’ publisher, where part of this research originally ran) newest investigation on immigration deportation and detention, for which both rates are sky-rocketing. The most disturbing fact comes from the information that a large percentage (1 in 4 as stated by ARC) of those detained or deported are parents, leading to their children getting placed in foster care systems with absolutely no contact with family members. Children can often fall through the notorious cracks in the foster care system and if children are separated from their parents for a long enough period, courts will often terminate parental rights, often putting those without immediate family or family that can support these kids up for adoption. The barriers that stand between parents and children being reunited are damning. From ARC’s most recent report:

There are at least 5,100 children currently living in foster care who are prevented from uniting with their detained or deported parents. If nothing changes, 15,000 more children may face a similar fate in the next 5 years.

This is a growing national problem, not one confined to border jurisdictions or states – ARC identified at least 22 states where these cases have emerged.

Families are more likely to be separated where local police aggressively participate in immigration enforcement.

Immigrant victims of domestic violence are at particular risk of losing their children

ICE detention obstructs participation in Child Protective Services’ plans for family unity, and most child welfare departments lack systemic policies to keep families united when parents are detained or deported.

Which then begs the question: how do families regain the custody of their children through this type of system? How does this affect an already broken child welfare system? Even with the most diligent departments attempting to reunite children with family, as required under federal law, how is this possible if parents are in a detention system that is equally broken? How is reuniting possible if parents are deported and can’t get back into the country? Why is ICE separating parents and children on minor offenses in the first place?

This comes at a startlingly relevant time as one high profile case has been making waves. Ahmed Hossain is scheduled for deportation by ICE this Tuesday, due in part to a clerical error on behalf of his former lawyer. If he is deported, he will leave behind his wife and two American-born children, as well as suffer potential health risks from a recent open heart surgery (the medication Hossain needs is not available in Bangladesh). Hossain first arrived in the states from Bangladesh under fair legal pretenses and in the process of seeking his American citizenship through an asylum claim, his lawyer filed his paperwork under the name “Akter Hossain,” a clerical mistake that Hossain himself pointed out. However, this caused the presiding judge to consider his bid as a fraud attempt and he was denied citizenship. Hossain reattempted another bid in 2001 after he won a “diversity visa” lottery, however, his bid was postponed due in part to the September 11th attacks and the ensuing fevered rhetoric around immigration that followed. Hossain’s case is not abnormal, though it is possibly one of the most clear-cut examples of the fallacy of the current immigration system and how it disproportionally impacts parents and their children in more threatening ways. If Hossain is deported, it is possible that his wife and two children will end up having their home foreclosed, and worse, the possible death of Hossain. This tearing apart of family and stability is all due to the simplicity of a clerical error.

While Hossain’s children will most likely not end up in foster care, it’s a reality that most children whose parents are undocumented and targeted by ICE will face. The hardest issue about this is that now you are not dealing with one, but two monumentally broken and bureaucratically impossible-to-navigate systems: the child welfare system and the prison-detainment system. In the past few years, immigration detainment systems have become a for-profit measure, ensuring a new business model not too far from the prison industrial complex. By detaining more immigrants, private prison industry leaders like GEO Group and Corrections Corporation make more money (tastefully named the “immigrant gold rush”), resulting not only in the recruitment of  more local law enforcement by ICE to target immigrant communities, but point blank, the terrorizing of undocumented persons (especially in regards to the specific violence women immigrants face, as well as the violence of losing one’s children) who have now become bodies with dollar signs on their foreheads to law enforcement agents. (On average, each undocumented citizen brought in and held in contract by ICE is priced at $95.) Expanded detainment is ultimately separating families and flooding the foster care system with terrified children, where they are expected to encounter a whole new set of abuses.

According to over 100 child welfare caseworkers and attorneys we interviewed around the country, as rates of deportations increase, so do the numbers of children from immigrant families in foster care. Indeed, federal data released to the Applied Research Center through a Freedom of Information Act request shows that almost one in four people deported in the last year was the mother or father of a United States citizen. Seth Freed Wessler, Colorlines 

However, this past month has seen some pushback, when Hispanic and Somali demonstrators in Milwaukee protested against Wells Fargo, who not only use mutual funds to back private detention centers, but also donate funds to anti-immigration politicians like Lamar Smith and Michele Bachmann, as well as anti-immigration lobbyists. Wells Fargo has profited from two of America’s largest immigration detention centers, $5.9 million in the Corrections Corporation of America and $88.7 million in The GEO Group (both of which have been accused of mistreating detainees), all while simultaneously courting immigrant dollars through multiple campaignsincluding a new effort to educate Latino customers on banking, as well as emphasizing their Spanish-friendly services.

Where is the line drawn between supposedly protecting and terrorizing? Where is the line between separating and abducting? Between the enslaving of masses in our history for profit and the enslaving of immigrants in the prison system for a profit? But the most glaring hypocrisy of all is that the same folks who are so bound to the idea of the family as “sacred” and creating family-friendly societies are the same proponents behind the separation of thousands of families.

But I guess that’s only if you and your family are considered valuable in the first place.

Call New York Sen. Kirstin Gillibrand at 212-909-0492 and Congressman Bob Turner at 718-520-9001 and ask them to stop Ahmed Hossain’s deportation by calling Christopher Shanahan, ICE Field Office Director, at 212-264-4213

Sign a petition to stop Ahmed’s deportation and visit the Facebook page for information.

5 replies on “Put On ICE: How Detainment and Deportation Are Breaking Up Families”

Thank you so much for writing this post.  I spent most of my first three years out of college working in various parts of immigration law, including non-profit, and I can tell you definitively that the system is broken.  I dealt with so many heartbreaking cases during my time in the field that it still haunts me.  I tried to watch a PBS Frontline documentary on immigrant detention a few weeks ago and only made it twenty minutes through before I had to stop it because I was crying.  Our immigration system tears up families, returns people to countries where they will face persecution and even death, mistreats immigrants in detention, and this mythic “line” that conservatives insist immigrants should get to the back of does not exist.  Thank you for drawing attention to this important issue.

I would like to place a little blame on Mexico. It plays the lead role in breaking up families when we are talking about Mexican immigration. We drive from CA to AZ a few times a year and nothing is more heartbreaking than seeing men cuffed in an unforgiving landscape with a helicopter hoovering over them knowing what they had to sacrifice to get here and be arrested. I don’t even know where to begin on policy that would change that.

I don’t have any easy answers for the immigration issues our country is facing, but I can say that splitting families up is NOT the answer. Putting children, who have parents who are capable of caring for them, in foster care is just wrong. I know that the US just can’t open all borders and say, “come on in!”, but there has to be a better answer than imprisonment and foster care. There just has to be.

I’ve been through immigration the hard way when I became a permanent resident of Australia but I realize that I had one great advantage most people don’t: I’m a born American citizen. I come from a country where my life has been well documented, where I was able to get an education, where the government is organized and I can actually process paperwork for formal immigration applications. It took a long time for me to get my residency and it was stressful and complicated. Luckily my fiance is a lawyer because if I had been forced to hire one, I would have been screwed. I never could have afforded it.

I was born lucky but millions of people aren’t. Their governments are corrupt; they can’t save money to pay thousand dollar application fees because they live off $200 a month; they have undocumented children because hospitals are poorly administered; they don’t have educations to win them extra points in the immigration process. It’s hard to immigrate the old fashioned way and for many people, it’s outright impossible. So I kind of take it personally when I hear news about these Jim Crow-style laws and when I’m reminded that the DREAM Act didn’t pass. Just because you come from a poor country doesn’t make you a criminal. Just because your children don’t have birth certificates doesn’t make you terrorists. Just because you can’t pay for the visa application doesn’t mean you will be a lazy-ass drain on social welfare. The DREAM Act gave people a way to better their lives and give back to our country, and it’s a shame that these people who’ve lived here illegally for generations have very few options to obtain the legal right to call America their home.

For Sale: “The American Dream.”

This is tough.  I certainly don’t want families to suffer, but I don’t believe that people should be able to move wherever they want unchecked; I’m not sure the US would logistically be able to support all of its current citizens along with everyone else who’d up and move here immediately if they could.  I’m glad the DREAM act died.  It seemed like a slimy way to funnel non-Americans into the American military (how many children of illegal immigrants would realistically be accepted into a 4-year university and be able to afford it?).  Reforms are certainly necessary, but I’m not sure it’s fair to claim that the government grants citizenship based on innate human value.

Leave a Reply