Help Separated Families Act Introduced

Last week, Representative Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA) introduced the Help Separated Families Act, H.R. 6128. The bill addresses the separation of families as a result of immigration enforcement. It prohibits termination of parental rights based solely on immigration proceedings and absent reasonable efforts to contact parents. To encourage and enable relative placement for separated children, the bill also prohibits questioning and disqualification of caregivers based on immigration status and allows alternative documentation for background checks of caregivers. 

Immigration status has no bearing on care giving abilities and immigration enforcement should not leave children parentless and traumatized. Recent reports point to the increasing incidence of children being placed in foster care because of immigration enforcement. Ensuring family unity and continuity of care for children calls for a federal process to address these separations. 

Last session, the House and Senate both introduced bills title, HELP Seperated Children Act, H.R. 2607 and S. 1399. The House version includes a variety of provisions to ensure there is process in Homeland Security and that all relevant agencies are working together. The Senate version is similar, but shorter and more exclusively focused on Homeland Security changes. These bills address children witnessing enforcement activities as well as the ongoing coordination of care once immigration enforcement proceedings are underway. Neither bill addresses termination of parental rights or kinship caregivers as does H.R. 6128 introduced last week. 

Children witnessing enforcement activities alone can carry the trauma into their future functioning.  But needless separation from safe parents and requisite adjustment to new, often changing caregivers is sure to destabilize healthy growth and development. It is clear that even the threat of immigration enforcement is disrupting families’ full engagement with the community and limiting parents’ healthy involvement in their children’s lives. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to preserve immigration violation penalties as the responsibility of the federal government and the administration’s decision to exercise prosecutorial discretion for certain qualifying immigrants, helping separated children and families would add another measure of security for mixed-status families. Five million American children have at least one undocumented parent even as two-thirds of these children are citizens by birth.  President Obama has publically acknowledged the problem of separation by immigration enforcement, agreed that detained caregivers should have access to their children and directed DHS to examine occurrences of family separation and practices that enable family unification.

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