OGDEN — Isaac Lugo wasn't worried when the cop pulled up behind his dad's car, lights flashing. The two were stopped at a red light on the way home from picking up pizza for a father-son movie night. His dad drummed on the wheel impatiently. They bantered back and forth, trying to guess what the fuss was about. When another police car rumbled up behind the first, the 16-year-old — a tall, wiry Mexican boy — was confused. But it wasn't until his dad was in handcuffs because of an unpaid parking ticket and he was alone in the car — miles from home without a driver's license — that he had any premonition of what was coming.
Within six months, Lugo was a ward of the state. His father, who agreed to voluntary deportation after authorities discovered he was in the United States illegally, was on a greyhound bus to Mexico.
More than 5,100 children are in the foster care system because their parents have been detained or deported, according to a recent report from the Applied Research Center, a New York based racial justice think tank. Children like Lugo represent 1.25 percent of the total children in foster care — a program that costs state and national governments some $29 billion annually. As the country ramps up immigration enforcement, more families are getting caught up. Twenty-two percent of the 397,000 illegal immigrants deported in 2011 were parents to U.S.-citizen children, compared to just 8 percent from 1998 to 2007. If deportations continue on trend, the ARC estimates the country will add 15,000 immigrant children to the foster care roles over the next five years.
Some of these children end up in foster care because their parents believe it is better to give them up than take them back to countries they do not remember. But others are wrested from fighting parents because of cultural biases or because the country's immigration enforcement and child welfare systems don't communicate properly. In recent years the issue has wound its way to the Supreme Court in several states, but still, immigrant advocates argue that parents whose children are sent to foster care when they are detained by immigration authorities face a number of barriers in reunifying with their children.
"We are not telling the government not to enforce the law," said Emily Butera, senior program officer for detention and asylum at the Women's Refugee Commission. "The law is the law. We just believe we can enforce the law in a way that is more respectful of the sanctity of the family."
Lugo's father, a single parent, didn't tell anyone about his 16-year-old son after he was taken to Weber County Jail. Lugo, who came to the country as a seven-year-old, didn't have papers either. Even as he agonized over how the boy was getting by alone in their Ogden apartment, he worried that if he said anything authorities would also arrest the boy. So, while Dad sat in detention, Lugo dipped into a savings account the two had set aside "just in case" and fended for himself. A month passed before family friends noticed Dad was missing and got the Department of Child and Family Services involved.
"My dad brought me up to be able to take care of myself," Lugo said. "From the time I was little, he taught me to cook, to pay the bills, everything. He knew something could happen and he wanted me to be OK."
Lugo's story is just one example of how immigrant children are separated from their families. Sometimes parents lose their children for traditional reasons, like drug abuse. But many times, according to ARC's research, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement will arrest the parents outside of the home without making accommodations for them to arrange for someone to look after their children. ICE sometimes places children in foster care directly when parents are picked up. Friends and family who are also undocumented immigrants are not allowed to take custody.
"Parents are often not part of the vital decisions that get made about what's best for the children or their families," said Seth Freed Wessler, author and principle investigator of ARC's report.
Many children end up in foster care when police respond to complaints of domestic violence against their mothers, Wessler said. Often, because of their undocumented status, both the victim and the perpetrator are taken into custody.
It's unclear how long the children stay in foster care because of immigration enforcement, said Ajay Chaudry, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute. Some are there for just a few months. Some are eventually put up for adoption. But even a short stay away from home is hard on families. During a long-term study of children separated from their parents because of a work-place raid, Urban Institute researchers found kids were still feeling the emotional and development effects of the trauma a year later.
"The children's behavior changed," Chaudry said. "Children scored really high on scales of depression and anxiety. Young children tended to be clingy. Older children tended to withdraw. Kids were less verbal and less engaged at school."
The struggle to reunite
Immigration policies and laws are built around the assumption that families will, and should, be reunited, said Virginia Kice, western regional spokeswoman for ICE. As of June 2010, the agency embraced a policy not to detain primary caretakers unless they have a criminal history or at risk of flight.
"Our agency does work with individuals in removal proceedings to ensure they have ample opportunity to make important decisions regarding the care and custody of their children," she said.
But, in practice, ARC's report suggests, undocumented immigrants face a number of barriers in reuniting with their children.
Child Protective Services often requires parents to complete parenting classes or substance abuse treatment programs in order to get custody of their children, Wessler said. Detained in local jails while their lawyers fight deportation, parents don't have access to such programs. ICE doesn't provide transportation to and from custody hearings, either, so many parents are penalized for "not showing up." In several cases, parents were deemed unfit because they did not speak English or because they were poor, he said.
Once immigrants are deported, it's even more difficult to keep in touch. Child Protective Services often consider the children abandoned, Wessler said. Unless a foreign consulate gets involved, Wessler said, few children are reunited with their families at that point.
Yadira Garcia, 25, lost her 15-day-old baby to the Utah foster care system in 2007 when police found drugs in her dishwasher. While her husband had a history with drugs, Garcia maintains she is not a user. During her time in prison, though, she took all the parenting classes and substance abuse training Child Protective Services prescribed. After she was deported to Mexico, she said she pestered DCFS with inquiries about the child but never heard back.
Her mother, Rosaura Garcia Murillo, 52, travelled to the United States from Mexico in an attempt to gain custody of the baby. On at least one occasion, the court did not provide Murillo with a translator. Ultimately the judge ruled in favor of the child's foster parents who had expressed interest in adopting.
"My daughter lost her daughter because the system took advantage of a Mexican and undocumented woman," Murillo said in an interview from Mexico with the help of a translator. "If she had not been deported, she would have been present in court to fight for her own daughter and not have to rely on a poor, old woman like me who doesn't even speak the language."
Because the child was an American citizen, the judge classified Murillo's request as a case of international adoption. Four years later, Murillo, who lives in a different city than her daughter to up her chances of success, is still fighting to get the child back.
"The judge said the girl could not leave the country because she was an American citizen," Murillo said. "I think if an American bore a child in Mexico nobody is going to tell her she can't bring the child to the United States."
Caseworkers, judges and attorneys often make decisions based on the assumption that a child is better off in the United States, even if they are in foster care, Wessler said.
Several state agencies concluded it was best for Lugo to stay in the United States. Lugo's memories of Tijuana, where he is from, are filled with violence and fear. In a few weeks, he will be an American citizen — something his foster father fought for tooth and nail.
"Safety and permanency are our two priorities," Liz Sollis, public information officer for Utah Department of Human Services, told the Standard Examiner shortly after Lugo entered foster care. "Living in a safe place and knowing you can legally and permanently call it 'home' is important for everyone."
Lugo's father signed away his parental rights right before he loaded up on the Greyhound. It was the first time Lugo saw his father cry.