Safety Planning is a must for the undocumented
By Vanessa Ceceña
It is no secret that there has been a surge in the number of deportations since the Obama administration took power. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) removals during FY 2013 totaled 368,644. 133,551 were apprehended within U.S. boundaries and 235,093 were detained at the border.
While the numbers are astonishing, I am more shocked at the number of people deported that have not committed a crime. Out of the 151,834 people removed without a criminal history, 23,436 of them were already in the U.S. when deported. ICE does not track how many of these individuals have family in the U.S., but I imagine that it is a significant number.
The increase in deportations over the years has had an adverse effect on immigrant families, on communities and countries of origin, as well as on communities. Deportations cause economic hardship, emotional distress, and family separation.
In addition to economic hardship (and in many times intensified economic hardship), deportations can destroy the family structure. Families are separated; children are left without a parent or without both parents, in some cases.
What happens to a family when the father, the primary breadwinner, is deported, or when both parents are deported? What happens if the parents are detained during a raid while the children are at school? As a graduate student I researched this very topic, focusing on child welfare policies and system that control the future of some of these children.
In November 2011, the Applied Research Center (now known as Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice Innovation) published a report, Shattered Families: The Perilous Intersection of Immigration Enforcement and the Child Welfare System, that explored in great depth the effects of deportation and the increasing number of immigrant children from mixed status families entering the foster care system. Mixed status refers to a family whose members have different immigration status. For example, the parents and the oldest child may be undocumented, whereas the youngest children are U.S. citizens.
According to the ARC’s report, there are at least 5,100 children in foster care due to a parent being deported or detained. It estimates that another 15,000 children will enter the foster care system within the next five years. The likelihood of these children being reunified with family is slim.
Communities whose police department has signed a 287(g) agreement have higher rates of children entering foster care. A 287(g) agreement is a collaboration between law enforcement and ICE. Once signed, designated officers are able to acts as immigration law enforcers. ICE officers supposedly provide them with training and guidance.
When a parent, or parents, is apprehended by immigration family separation is almost unavoidable. What will happen once a child enters the foster care system will depend on the location of residency in comparison to immigration detention centers and if there are relatives residing in the U.S. with “papers”, amongst other circumstances. The following is an overview of what commonly happens based on the ARC report.
Children with an apprehended parent(s) can be placed into temporary foster care even though they might have undocumented relatives that can care for them. They are deemed “unfit” to care for the children because they are also at risk of being deported at any time.
Once the parent is transferred to an immigration detention center, which can be hundreds of miles away, there is no system in place that allows the court-appointed attorney to know the immediate location of the parent in order to make contact to discuss the future of the children.
It is common for parents to miss their dependency court hearing, which in turn results in the children remaining in foster care. When the attorney is able to locate and contact the parent, ICE does not agree to transport the parent and does not assist the parent in complying with the reunification plan that is presented by Child Protective Services (CPS).
After months, the parent is deported to Mexico, for example, and CPS is unable to reach the mother and does not try to contact the Consulate. Once the parent contacts CPS, they might say that reunification is a possibility, but not until a home study takes place and once the parent attends parenting classes and finds employment. The parent then completes the tasks, contacts CPS, but CPS might still decide to terminate parental rights since they have a federal deadline.
Again, this might not be the result for every family. Border communities fortunately do not encounter processes such as the aforementioned as often because of the proximity to the border and number of detention centers in the area. Some counties, like San Diego, have an International Liaison as part of the Child Welfare Services (CWS) team that is in contact with the consulates and CWS in other countries.
So, what can be done for these children and families?
Systematic change will not happen overnight, and I do not foresee ICE and Child Welfare Services in every state working hand-in-hand anytime soon, BUT there is something that community groups and attorneys can do collaboratively. As a graduate student I was able to help in the development of a “Safety Planning” program during my internship with the Unitarian Universalist Refugee and Immigrant Services, and Education (UURISE).
For months I researched how various organizations nation wide had addressed this issue. What I found was that yes, some organizations and unions had produced material meant to inform those who are at-risk of being deported, but that there was a focus on raids. Also, the flow charts created to explain what happens when one is apprehended (ie. transferred to a detention facility, transported to a facility at a border town and then deported) did not necessarily apply to border communities like San Diego. Our final version of the Safety Planning program essentially pulled concepts and facts from different sources and was crafted to address specific challenges our community members had been faced with.
The overall idea of Safety Planning for at-risk immigrants (basically immigrants that can be deported) is to help them initiate a conversation with their family and plan for that dreaded worst-case scenario, being deported.
Some of the potential situations we tried to have people address through the UURISE’s Safety Planning program included:
- What will happen to my children? Who will be able to pick them up from school if I’m apprehended during the day? Who will have legal guardianship of them?
- Who will pick up my last paycheck? Who will cash my check?
- Who will be able to enter my apartment and give a notice? Will my spouse or partner be able to continue living there? What if she/he is not on the lease?
- Who will be able to sell my car?
- If I am deported, will my family join me in Mexico (for example) or will they stay here, in the U.S.?
Imagine having to verbalize your worst fears, your nightmares, and all other questions you have tried to avoid. I personally would have a difficult time “safety planning” and would dance around these hypothetical questions even though down inside I would know that they could quickly become a reality. As it is I have a hard time deciding on insignificant day-to-day decisions at times.
At a few free legal clinics hosted by UURISE I tested out what was at the time a pilot program in North County San Diego. Having to ask people these questions was much more emotionally difficult than I had envisioned. I could see people become tense, uncomfortable and blankly stare at their partner not knowing what to respond. Many said that they did not know who could carry out any of these actions on their behalf, but that they did have someone in mind.
One of the key components of Safety Planning for those at risk of deportation is creating a Power of Attorney (a carta poder) a legal document that allows an individual to grant “power” to someone else (a trusted friend, a family member, etc.) to act on her/his behalf for a specified period of time or in the case of an event (ie. deportation or death).
Families are able to meet with an attorney to create a Power of Attorney that is specific to their situation. This helps to empower individuals and allows them to control a small piece of the future. They might not be able to avoid being deported, but they can help their family and assets by having a legal document that protects their interests.
Family separation, children entering the foster care system as a result of deportation is not an issue that solely affects the undocumented Mexican or Central American immigrant communities. Legal Permanent Residents (green card holders), those in the process of adjusting their status (applying for permanent resident status), refugees, asylees, those in the country on visas (ie. Student or business visas), those with Temporary Protected Status (TPS) or those granted “Withholding of Removal”.
As you can see, it is an issue that affects more than the 11 to 12 million estimated undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S.
With the high number of deportations has come an increase in U.S.-born children moving to the parent’s home country. This has created yet another obstacle for these families.
Children who grew up here in the U.S. who have received their schooling in English and who are used to the “American” way of life are now being faced with the challenges of adapting to living in another country. Various towns in Mexico are experiencing this change.
CNN reported on this issue back in 2012 and stated that while children are able to enroll in schools, they are unable to graduate from high school unless they have Mexican citizenship.
A definite need for a type of social work-attorney collaboration exists. I am referring to an approach that is empathic and holistic, while being able to provide the legal advice such precarious situations require. It is imperative that social workers and other professionals involved in child welfares services to be aware and have some knowledge about Safety Planning and the dynamics of family separation in these cases.
Vanessa Ceceña is a native San Diegan who grew up on the U.S.-Mexico border. She received her Master of Social Work from the University of Southern California and her Bachelor’s degree in International Development Studies from the University of California, Los Angeles. Her focus has been on immigration and Mexican indigenous communities from Oaxaca. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook.