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The Perilous Intersection of Immigration Enforcement and the Child Welfare System

by Mark and Louise Zwick

A national tragedy is taking place. While we argue about whether people should be here or not, families are being torn apart without any recourse. Children are being separated from their parents and may never see them again.

A new study from the Applied Research Center, entitled “Shattered Families: The Perilous Intersection of Immigration Enforcement and the Child Welfare System,” affirms that there are at least 5,100 children currently living in foster care who are prevented from uniting with their detained or deported parents. The parents often do not know where their children are or who they are with, and have lost all contact with the child welfare system. Many of the cases documented in the study were related to calls seeking help from police by victims of domestic violence who were themselves placed in detention and deported.

While many children do leave with their parents, increasing numbers are separated for long periods of time. Some are placed with relatives in the United States, but child welfare agencies refuse to place the children with undocumented relatives, sending them instead to foster care with strangers who may be competent and just and may not be so. Even with the best of foster homes, separation from parents harms children psycho-logically; years of therapy may not overcome the long-term effects.

The number of deportations has increased markedly in recent years, destroying families in the process. Researchers predict that some 15,000 more children may end up in foster care in the next five years. The problem has been made much worse because of the involvement of local law enforcement in immigrant detention in the programs 287g and the so-called “Secure Communities” program in which immigrants are picked up by local police or sheriffs and placed in detention without regard for their families. Officials of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) state that parents get to choose what happens to their children if they are deported, but the research shows that this is not happening.

Adults and/or children who are deported have little or nothing when they return. In some countries houses of hospitality, the majority under Catholic auspices, assist deportees who have only the clothing on their backs for a few days until they can contact their families if they have any, ameliorating a little of the suffering.

Deportation is a Sin

            These realities help us to understand why the Second Vatican Council and three papal encyclicals have included deportation among the most serious sins. Dominum et vivificantem, Evangelium Vitae, and Veritatis Splendor all include the following paragraph from Gaudium et Spes:

“Whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, or willful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where people are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others of their kind are infamies indeed.”