By Sue Weishar, Ph.D.
Since taking office the Obama administration has deported over 1.06 million immigrants and is on tract to deport more persons in one presidential term than did George W. Bush in two. In FY 2011 a record breaking 397,000 persons were deported from the U.S. Between 1998 and 2007 approximately 8% of the 2,200,000 persons deported were parents of U.S. citizen children. In Fiscal Year 2011, 22% of the 397,000 persons deported were parents of U.S. citizens.1 The alarming increase in deportations and the deportation of parents of U.S. citizen children is shattering families and undermining communities across the U.S. A recent report by the Applied Research Center (ARC) shows how U.S. immigration enforcement policies and U.S. child welfare systems intersect in ways that fail to unify families, resulting in at least 5,100 children in foster care whose parents have been either detained or deported. ARC predicts that in the next five years at least 15,000 more children will face severe threats to their reunification with their detained or deported mothers and fathers.
ARC researchers found in their yearlong study, which involved a combination of statistical analyses and interviews with detained parents, immigration attorneys, juvenile court judges, and child protective services professionals, that the children of immigrants in counties where law enforcement officers have adopted aggressive immigration tactics are more likely to find themselves in foster care facing barriers to family reunification. For example, in counties where local police have signed 287 (g) agreements—which give local police the power to question persons about their immigration status and detain them—children in foster care were about 29 percent more likely to have a detained or deported parent.
The intersection of domestic violence and immigration enforcement practices also plays a major role in immigrant parents being separated from their children. In the interviews conducted by ARC, approximately one in nine stories recounted involved domestic violence. Victims contacted the police for protection against their abuser and instead were arrested, detained by ICE, and their children were placed in foster care. Increasingly immigrant parents, especially mothers, must make the impossible choice of either staying with their abuser or losing their children to the foster care system.
Substantial barriers prevent reunification of immigrant parents from their children when parents are caught up in the immigration enforcement web. Often immigrants arrested by ICE are detained hundreds of miles from their children.2 If the parent is able to make contact with Child Protective Services (CPS), frequently ICE refuses to transport the parent to dependency court hearings. Continued detention makes it impossible for the parent to comply with any part of the child welfare case plan, such as attending parenting classes or securing housing. If a parent fails to complete a case plan or a child is out of a parent’s custody for 15 months out of any 22 month period, federal law requires CPS to petition the court to terminate parental rights.3
The practices of CPS agencies can present major barriers to children reunifying with their immigrant parents. Frequently CPS agencies are reluctant to allow undocumented family members to assume custody, claiming their undocumented status makes them likely to be deported at any time and thus incapable of providing a stable home life. Many CPS agencies lack policies for reunification with deported parents and are unaware of the assistance that consular offices can provide. Some CPS workers have a deep bias against reunification with parents who have been deported, believing that children are better off in the U.S. than with their own parent in the parent’s home country.
ARC concludes the report with policy recommendations calling for federal, state, and local governments to “create explicit policies to protect families from separation and facilitate family unity.”4
Catholic social teaching prioritizes the family as the most basic unit of society. It is the first place where children learn about themselves and their vocations in the wider world. The family is also where young people first encounter God, form their consciences, and learn moral virtues. Wise public policies recognize that the well-being of society depends upon strong, unified families.5 Laws and policies that lead to the separation of children from their fathers or mothers harm us all. ARC’s important study sheds light on how our country’s immigration enforcement policies and child protective services practices intersect in ways that threaten families and U.S. society.
 Seth Freed Wessler, Shattered Families: The Perilous Intersection of Immigration Enforcement and the Child Welfare System, Applied Research Center, November, 2011, accessed November 18, 2011 online at http://arc.org/shatteredfamilies
 Immigrant detainees are transported an average of 370 miles from the location of their initial detention. Ibid p. 72.
 The Adoption and Safe Families Act (AFSA), a federal law enacted in 1997, was passed when many child advocates were concerned that children in foster care were languishing without any hope of adoption. The law was intended to make it easier for children in the child welfare system to be adopted or placed in permanent homes by the timely termination of parental rights. Ibid, p. 15.
 Ibid., pp. 57 and 58.
 From Thomas Massaro, S.J., Catholic Social Teaching in Action: Living Justice, (Roman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2008), pp. 87-88.