Friday, January 11, 2013

Family Unity and Immigration Reform: An Inclusive State Advocacy Agenda Considers Rights of Both Parents and Children

Conversations among advocacy groups nationwide are gaining momentum in anticipation of the agenda for the 113th Congress.  Based on information from a recent conference call among advocates, a critical mass of attention is centering on family unity and affording rights to immigrant children and parents through immigration reform efforts.  At the heart of the priorities being discussed is a dual focus on both the rights of parents and children, the latter often taken for granted at the expense of the former. 

At times in tension and aligned, the rights of children and parents intersect in unique ways when looking at potential reform efforts on the horizon.  Two important pieces of scholarship are must-reads for anyone seeking to engage in a thoughtful consideration of immigration enforcement policies that balance the two.  Bridgette Carr (UMich) urges immigration enforcement, including immigration courts, to adopt the well-known family law standard of the “best interests of the child” when a parent or child is in removal proceedings.  David Thronson (MSU) articulates a systemic devaluation of the rights of children in family courts and in immigration proceedings and identifies several of the tensions between family integrity and the operation of immigration and nationality laws. 

What is exciting about the momentum around this issue in this moment is that advocates are successfully addressing these issues at the state and local levels.  Because child custody matters are usually handled by state family courts and in child dependency proceedings, and because child protective services (a state agency) often plays the most critical role of determining whether and how to reunite parents with their children, the state has begun to address this issue at the same time that the federal government is determining its legislative priorities.  Arguably, with enforcement carrying the largest price tag for the federal government, and with the skyrocketing expense on the child welfare system from the separation of families being a function of enforcement efforts, directing federal dollars to the state functions that regulate family relationships would be cost-saving for both federal and state governments.

Current state-based efforts to preserve family unity include successful amendments to existing child welfare and law enforcement statutes to specifically protect immigrant families of undocumented or mixed immigration status.  Recent successes in California (posted in detail in a previous post here) to expand the rights of immigrant parents post-arrest and to better equip the child welfare system in assisting immigrant children and parents have encouraged other states to identify creative solutions.  Florida has created state-funded, legal immigration consultation services for court staff to help them sort out dependency cases involving immigration complications. 

And most recently, following its new legislation affording undocumented immigrants the ability to obtain a driver’s license, Illinois is considering legislation patterned after the California bills to assist parents post-arrest and keep children out of the child welfare system by empowering child protective services to place the children with their next-of-kin or a family friend.  Similar efforts in New York are currently planned for this legislative session.

By focusing both on the rights of parents (expanding right to communication post-arrest and allowing placement of the children with next-of-kin or friend of the parent, whether or not they are documented) and the rights of the child (lengthening the time for placement and requiring child protective services to screen undocumented children for possible immigration relief), these state efforts are creating the momentum for more family-focused immigration reforms that consider both the rights of children and parents.

-- Sarah Rogerson

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