Fragile Families: Foster Care, Immigration, and Citizenship

Fragile Families: Foster Care, Immigration, and Citizenship

Fragile Families: Foster Care, Immigration, and Citizenship

Fragile Families: Foster Care, Immigration, and Citizenship


In the past decade, debates over immigrant rights and family rights, and accompanying concerns over birthright citizenship, have taken center stage in popular media and mainstream political debates. These debates, however, frequently overlook the role of the public child welfare system in the United States--the agency charged with protecting children and maintaining the integrity of families. Based on research conducted in the San Diego-Tijuana region between 2008 and 2012, Fragile Families tells the stories of children, parents, social workers, and legal actors enmeshed in the child welfare system, and sheds light on the particular challenges faced by the children of detained and deported non-U.S. citizen parents who are simultaneously caught up in the immigration system in this border region.

Many families come into contact with child welfare services because of the precariousness of their lives--unsafe housing, unstable employment, and the conditions of violence, drug use, and domestic violence made visible by the heightened police presence in impoverished communities. Naomi Glenn-Levin Rodriguez examines the character of child welfare decision-making processes and how discretionary decisions constitute the central avenue through which race, citizenship, and other cultural processes inflect child welfare practice in a manner that disproportionately impacts Latina/o families--both undocumented and U.S. citizens. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork to look at how immigration enforcement and child welfare play central roles in the ongoing production of citizenship, race, and national belonging, Fragile Families focuses on the everyday experiences of Latina/o families whose lives are shaped at the nexus of child welfare services and immigration enforcement.


It was Esperanza Foster Family Agency’s annual holiday party and I was sitting with Liliana, Bailey and Emma’s foster father, Trevor. We were eating enchiladas and listening to Trevor speak about the challenges and rewards of being a foster parent, the “high highs and the low lows.” Emma, not quite two years old, had been leaning between the knees of her other foster father, Josh, while Trevor spoke. Partway through his speech she toddled over to Trevor and put her arms up. He reached down and scooped her up with one arm and she laid her head against his shoulder, one small hand on the back of his neck. the room was filled with a collective sigh—here was a perfect moment between father and daughter, an image of the sort of relationship that Esperanza Foster Family Agency stood for. I knew Trevor and Emma well and Trevor certainly felt like Emma’s father to me. Emma’s pending adoption would be finalized soon, and Trevor and Josh would be Emma’s permanent family.

Yet as I sat watching them under the glow of the lanterns and the warm San Diego evening sky, I thought about all the other relationships in which Emma was embedded. Her biological mother and father meeting her at Chuckie Cheese the next week, still hoping for her return. Her grandmother who had wanted to take her in but felt too old to do so without help. Emma’s older siblings, placed with various extended family. the broader social networks that connected her back to family in Honduras, a set of legal relationships that would be severed by her pending adoption and new legal birth certificate, which would list Trevor and Josh as her parents.

I tried to imagine how the scene would feel if Emma’s biological parents and siblings were in the room. They had been neglectful and unstable, but they had not been violently abusive. Emma’s social worker had eventually ruled out reunification with Emma’s parents, but she had considered the possibility . . .

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