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HELP Act Introduction– Protecting Vulnerable Children in America

July 02, 2010 - Posted by Mario Moreno

Immigrant Children


**Blog post by Daniel Ostrovsky**

A little girl is dreaming, sleeping in her bed. There is some noise. It disturbs her slightly, but she doesn’t fully awaken. She has an innate, subconscious confidence that the noise must be nothing – her parents will take care of it.  But in the morning, when she wakes, it’s eerily quiet. She goes into her parents’ bedroom and it’s empty.  Kitchen – nothing. Bathroom – they are not there. The little girl is terrified and doesn’t know what to do. What happened to her parents? How does she find them?

Unfortunately, this little girl’s story is not borrowed from a plotline of a horror movie. It describes the all-too-real experience of countless children whose parents are taken into custody by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). This was the experience of a seven-year old girl in Shakopee, Minnesota. In June 2007, neighbors found the little girl wandering alone through a park; she had been sleeping when her parents were taken into custody at their own home on suspected immigration violations.

In recent years, it’s become painfully clear that children are often the forgotten victims of America’s current immigration enforcement policies. A recent report by First Focus, a bipartisan advocacy organization concluded that “over 5 million children in the United States with at least one undocumented parent are at risk of unnecessarily entering the child welfare system when a parent is detained or deported.” It is a Herculean task for immigrant parents who have come in contact with ICE to reunite with their children. Detained parents are often not permitted to arrange for the care of their children and, upon deportation, are not provided with adequate time and resources to obtain proper documents and make travel arrangements to have their children join them. Reunification is also made more difficult, because these parents are often unable to communicate with child welfare agents.

All of this results in children – many of them U.S. citizens – entering the child welfare system while risking permanent separation from their moms and dads. Even when children don’t enter the system, examples of children like the Valeriano brothers, who sold their puppies to get money for food and rummaged their apartment for bus fare, after their father was detained, abound.

Senators Al Franken (D-MN.) and Herb Kohl (D-WI.) recently introduced the Humane Enforcement and Legal Protections (HELP) for Separated Children Act (S.3522 ) to prevent more innocent immigrant children from being separated from their parents. A House version of the bill (H.R.3531) has been introduced by Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA)

The bill aims to require ICE to take the interests of children and the risk of separation into account in its enforcement actions. There is no reason or justification for ICE, in enforcing our immigration laws, to create a trail of broken families and parentless children. The act is certainly a step in the right direction and should be supported by all those who care about protecting children – some of the most vulnerable members of our society.

But, in the absence of comprehensive immigration reform, it is unlikely to ameliorate the broader impact of America’s current immigration policies on children. Although America has a policy of providing shelter to asylum seekers and refugees facing torture or persecution abroad, our broken immigration system routinely allows  families to be permanently torn apart, and forces children into what is often an equally chaotic child welfare system. While the HELP Act is a good first step to assist and protect children who are at risk of being separated from their parents, we need a permanent solution for the broader problem of immigrant family separation — which only comprehensive immigration reform can provide.

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