Academic journal article Child Welfare

Detached and Afraid: U.S. Immigration Policy and the Practice of Forcibly Separating Parents and Young Children at the Border

Academic journal article Child Welfare

Detached and Afraid: U.S. Immigration Policy and the Practice of Forcibly Separating Parents and Young Children at the Border

Article excerpt

Since 2014, there has been an increase in the number of families emigrating from Central America who are seeking asylum in the United States (U.S. Customs & Border Protection [CBP], 2018). Most (over 90%) are from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, a region known as the Northern Triangle, where they face ongoing violence and safety concerns (Crea, Lopez, Taylor, & Underwood, 2017; Roth & Hartnett, 2018). Despite efforts by the Trump administration to deter these families from migrating (U.S. Department ofJustice, 2018), trends suggest that the destabilized conditions in the Northern Triangle-particularly in Guatemala and Honduras-continue to leave parents little choice but to emigrate (Musalo & Lee, 2017).

As the number of family apprehensions has increased, so has the CBP practice of forcibly separating children from their parents. The practice reached its height during the month of May 2018 when an estimated 2,300 children-including 102 under age 5 (MS. L. vs. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, 2018)-were separated from their parents under the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy of detaining parents who are immigrants as criminals in federal facilities (Almukhtar, Griggs, & Yourish, 2018). Within the U.S. immigration system, after the point of separation children are transferred to the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). ORR policy is to place those who are under age 13 in transitional foster care until a more long-term placement is identified (Office of Refugee Resettlement, 2015). A number of studies have focused on general pathways through the U.S. system for children who are immigrants (Byrne & Miller, 2012; Roth & Grace, 2015), but we know less about what happens to the youngest of these children, particularly those who have been separated from their parents while in transitional foster care. This empirical article aims to address this gap. Specifically, we aim to better understand how transitional foster care programs have adapted to meet the emerging challenges of serving these children, particularly those under age 5, and to draw preliminary conclusions about the emerging impact of family separation on the children themselves.

Although the Trump administration halted its practice of separating families in June 2018, our study is critical for the field of child welfare because it highlights ongoing tensions between the U.S. immigration system and child welfare principles. The practice of forcibly separating parents and children at the border was a strategy by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to deter future immigrants from coming to the United States (Ponnuru, 2018). The impact of this practice on parents and children, however, is clearly at odds with the mission of the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) (n.d.) to provide "compassionate and effective delivery of human services" and to prioritize family preservation. Parents fear that returning home will threaten their safety and their children's well-being, and their request for asylum is to keep their family together. Paradoxically, therefore, after presenting themselves at the border, parents are forced to give up custody of their children, releasing them to a system where they have no legal influence and few rights. As long as the U.S. government continues to find new ways to deter immigration without consideration for the rights of children and families, these tensions are unlikely to disappear. This study provides insights into the implications of such policy shifts for the programs in place to protect immigrant children and, by association, the well-being of the children themselves.

In the section that follows, we briefly introduce the transitional foster care program for immigrant children. Then, drawing on unique qualitative data from in-depth interviews with staff members at four transitional foster care sites, we describe the perspectives of the program staff responsible for protecting children's well-being during the transitional period between parent separation and long-term placement. …

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