Saturday, December 8, 2012

Two New California Laws Aim to Keep Immigrant Families Together

Child welfare advocates in California, working with the First Focus Campaign for Children, have won a hard-fought victory in the struggle to keep children of deported or detained immigrant parents out of the child welfare system and reunite them with their families.  According to the groundbreaking 2011 report "Shattered Families" by award-winning journalist Seth Freed Wessler, at least 5,100 children in the foster care system have been prevented from reuniting with their detained or deported parents.  The same report estimates that that number will surge by 15,000 in the next five years if nothing changes.  Two laws recently signed by California Governor Jerry Brown may ultimately help to curb this trend and keep families together.

The "Reuniting Families Act" (SB1064) authorizes the family court to extend the time that child welfare agencies have to reunite children with their parents or to find a suitable relative for placement, regardless of the relative's immigration status.  It also requires that the California Department of Social Services provide guidance to social workers on referring eligible children to legal services for obtaining Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, and to create a Memorandum of Understanding for child custody cases with foreign consulates in accordance with the Vienna Convention. 

The "Calls for Kids Act" (AB2015) strengthens existing California Penal Law requiring that law enforcement notify parents, at the time of their arrest, of their right to make two phone calls to arrange for the care of their children.

The strategy of building and expanding on existing state child welfare and penal laws is one that advocates hope will be replicated in other states.  Expanding the procedural due process protections of the child welfare and penal systems could have a dramatic impact on the ability of detained or deported parents to retain their parental rights and prevent permanent separation.  In an era of increased state enforcement of federal immigration law, these types of protections arguably require more of state officials to preserve family unity than current federal immigration enforcement guidelines. 

-- Sarah Rogerson

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