By Raisa Camargo
Encarnacion Bail Romero, a native of Guatemala, was apprehended in a federal immigration raid in 2007 and torn from her then-seven-month son.
Romero had her parental rights terminated while in federal custody after a judge ruled "illegally smuggling herself into the country is not a lifestyle that can provide any stability for the child."
She has not seen her son in five years.
U.S. Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA) relayed this mother's story on the House floor last Thursday as an illustration of why there needs to be an immigration law to protect families who fall through the cracks in the country's lack of comprehensive immigration reform.
"What this case and so many more like it tells us is that, in the U.S., immigration status in itself has become grounds to permanently separate families," Roybal-Allard said. "This is absolutely, unquestionably inhumane and unacceptable -- particularly for a country that values family and fairness so highly."
Saying the child welfare system is "biased against undocumented caregivers," Congresswoman Roybal-Allard introduced the "Help Separated Families Act" last week seeking to prohibit immigration status from disqualifying a parent, legal guardian, or relative from placement consideration.
"People, regardless of their immigration status, deserve to know that their children are cared for, and when possible, children should be able to remain under the care of a family relative instead of becoming a ward of the state," she said.
Last year, two bills were introduced hoping to facilitate the process for family unification for parents who are undergoing deportation proceedings by requiring cooperation from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Considering the climate in Congress, immigration legislation continues at a standstill.
The Congresswoman's staff told VOXXI Monday that the bill was formerly introduced on Friday and that Roybal-Allard will be reaching out to members this week to gain support.
The bill would prohibit states from petitioning to terminate parental rights based on the deportation or detention of a parent, if other conditions are met. The Congresswoman added that this would protect the legal rights of parents and prevent child welfare agencies from permanently separating children from their parents based on nothing other than immigration status.
More than 46,000 parents of U.S. citizen children were deported from the United States during the first six months of 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. It is estimated that over 5,000 children in at least 22 states are currently living in foster care as a result of those immigration enforcement policies.
Roybal-Allard said she felt moved by the large number and it motivated her to move the legislation forward. Several other members of Congress have also denounced the administration's deportation policies and could be supportive of her bill. In March, Congressional Hispanic Caucus members called the deportation rate of parents "completely unacceptable."
Emily Butera, senior program officer at the detention and asylum program at the Women's Refugee Commission, said often times parents who are put in deportation proceedings can't participate in their child welfare case because the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) won't allow it.
"We meet a lot of parents that are desperately trying to participate," Butera told VOXXI, explaining that rarely do they find parents who are not in risk of losing their child.
Butera believes the immigration status of a parent should not be made the sole reason to terminate parental rights. Although there's been some progress made in terms of the administration's prosecutorial discretion, implementation still needs to be addressed through the child welfare system because it's "extremely difficult" for a parent in deportation to reunify with their child.
Sometimes, the parents are detained in different state, they are allowed very few phone calls and language may also be a barrier.
"It would significantly reduce the unnecessary separation of families by making sure that immigration status does not unfairly impede (the process) in the child welfare system," Butera told VOXXI, speaking about the bill.
The legislation would also encourage state child welfare agencies to grant waivers for requirements that would prevent a child from being placed with a relative on the basis of a minor legal infraction by the relative. There will also be a state plan requirement that would notify relatives seeking placement of a child that their immigration status will not be questioned.