Esther Cepeda: Emily Ruiz Wasn’t the Only Child To Suffer From US Immigration Policies

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Two and a half months have passed since 4-year-old Emily Ruiz, a US citizen, was sent to Guatemala by Customs and Border Protection. She’s back home in Brentwood now, but that doesn’t change things for millions of American kids who are vulnerable to mistreatment because their parents are undocumented immigrants.

Back in March, I traveled to Guatemala to cover the Ruiz story and reported “A Generation in Exile,” a video that examines the broader phenomenon of US-citizen children forced abroad by immigration policy.

The issue is back in the spotlight in a recent column by Esther Cepeda, in which she approaches the problem from a different angle.

Even without being subjected to deportation, millions of US-citizen kids with undocumented parents face dire challenges—and possible abuses—right here in the United States, Cepeda writes.

Here’s an excerpt from the column:

In an article to be published in the Connecticut Law Review this fall, author Nina Rabin, director of border research at the University of Arizona Southwest Institute for Research on Women, chronicles what she describes as the “quiet, slow-motion tragedies (that) unfold every day in immigration detention centers throughout the country.”

During interviews with detainees, judges, attorneys and child welfare system case workers in the Pima County, Ariz., Juvenile Court system, Rabin and her staff found heart-wrenching examples of the dire challenges that families face in detention or deportation systems not equipped to process mixed-status families.

With approximately 5.5 million children in the U.S. living with at least one illegal immigrant parent — 4.5 million of these children are U.S. citizens — the issues go well beyond Arizona and are best summarized by Rabin’s finding that no formal policies or mechanisms are in place to guide humane treatment of parents and children in detention or deportation proceedings.

Child welfare personnel say parents routinely “disappear” because they are so difficult to track down once they are apprehended by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Out of fear, detained immigrants are often reluctant to provide information to allow a child to be placed with another family member, so children are more likely to wind up in the foster care system instead of with relatives. And parents who are able to remain on the radar in detention fare worse than incarcerated parents because of lack of family services routinely available in jails or prisons.

Illegal immigrants with no criminal record — living in the U.S. without authorization is a civil offense — are often perceived and treated as criminals. So even when detained parents choose to fight deportation, which means months or years in detention, personnel in the child welfare system are likely to “write off” those parents and assume that they’ll be unable to regain custody of their children.

Child welfare systems unaccustomed to the needs of families caught up in this process often can’t cope with long, unpredictable immigration hearing timelines that keep parents from complying with reunification plans. These cases can’t possibly conform to detailed statutory timelines that must be met once a child is in state custody. Additionally, few personnel seek assistance from consular offices to help children by identifying, evaluating and communicating with family members in the parents’ home country.


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