Barriers to Reunification

When discussing the deportation and detention of undocumented immigrants, the conversation rarely includes the impact that the actions of the U. S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have on the children of undocumented parents.   From the immediate emotional trauma of being separated from one or both parents, to the physical trauma of leaving their homes, children of undocumented parents suffer to an alarming extent.  The ICE tactic of removal is usually a forceful and violent one in which parents are dragged off in one direction while children are hauled off in another. Goodbyes are rarely afforded to detainees and immediate removal does not allow for time to secure the welfare of the children. If no relative is able to advocate for the children, the ICE’s course of action is to place the children in the care of Child Protective Services until the state can decide their fate. As legal U.S. citizens, these children are entitled to remain in the country without their parents and are placed in the foster care program. In 2011, the Applied Research Center, which publishes the Color Lines website, reported that “at least 5,100 children whose parents are detained or deported are currently in foster care around the United States” (Wessler 2011). The foster care program aims to place these children with available foster families, without regard for linguistic and cultural similarities. Children are forced to grow up in different environments from their own, without knowledge of their culture or ancestry. Siblings are sometimes separated and placed in different homes, creating a second level of separation. The emotional turmoil that these events have on children often go unmentioned as these children are shuffled around in the foster care system.


Parents in detention centers, or those who have been deported, are disconnected from the real world and have no access to their children, family, lawyers or child welfare caseworkers. The immediate detention of undocumented parents severs all forms of communication, which usually lasts for months and sometimes years. The Applied Research Center reported that “ 85 percent of detainees lack legal representation and can be held for months, sometimes years, in squalid conditions” (Wessler 2011). Lacking the means to defend their parental rights over their children only adds to the frustration already felt in detention centers.  The ICE does not aid in providing legal services for detainees, often resulting in many parents missing court dates and foregoing the opportunity to plead their case. Without the parents’ presence at court hearings, the judge, lawyers and caseworkers decide the faith of the children without any contribution from the parents.  “Ultimately, child welfare departments and juvenile courts too often move to terminate the parental rights of deportees and put children up for adoption, rather than attempt to unify the family as they would in other circumstances” (Wessler 2011). The U.S. legal system advocates for children to remain in the U.S. in foster care rather than being deported with their parents because of the parents’ inability to provide for the children after being deported. Once deportation has occurred, reunification seems impossible and very few are able to reconnect shortly after. The emotional and physical welfare of the children of undocumented parents should be taken into consideration and changes to the ICE’s procedures changed to address their needs.


Rabin, Nina. 2011. “Disappearing Parents: A Report on Immigration Enforcement and the Child  Welfare System.” The University of Arizona. Retrieved May 5, 2012. (

Wessler, Seth Freed. 2011. “Thousand of Kids Lost From Parents in U.S. Deportation System.” Color Lines, November 2. Retrieved May 5, 2012 (