Keeping children with their families should be a priority regardless of immigration status, says Congresswoman Karen Bass. (Photo/Getty Images)

Opinion: Immigration reform must keep families together, protect children

A core principle of immigration reform must be a focus on protecting children of undocumented immigrants, who through no fault of their own can end up being ripped away from a loving home or denied the right to see a parent they primarily rely on to have their basic needs met.

This week marked a great leap forward as the Obama Administration began implementing a new federal immigration rule aimed at keeping “mixed status” families together.

Under the rule, certain undocumented immigrants who are immediate relatives of a U.S. citizen can apply for a waiver from a 10-year ban for being in the United States unlawfully.

For a spouse who may be an undocumented immigrant, the rule gives them one more pathway to continue caring for their children and families who rely on their emotional and financial support.

The rule was first initiated by President Obama last year, in keeping with his pledge to take executive action on comprehensive immigration reform if Congress was unwilling to tackle this critically important issue.

Congress and the Administration must continue working together on a comprehensive immigration reform package, particularly a plan that keeps families together.  This new rule is another step in the right direction but more must be done as the debate continues around immigration reform.

Every effort should be made before families are torn apart to make sure undocumented immigrants have access to their children and are able to continue providing for their families, who oftentimes would be left in dire straits if a loved one were to be deported or detained.

When an immigration arrest occurs, law enforcement sometimes refuse to allow detained immigrant parents the opportunity to properly ensure their children will be taken care of.  This can result in unnecessary placements into the foster care system, needlessly taking children away from families who otherwise are more than capable of providing a loving home.

For undocumented immigrants who have experienced the horror of having a child ripped away from their family, they know all too well how difficult the current system can be to navigate.  For example, the hearings and proceedings that determine where a child will be placed tend to take place far from the detention centers where immigrants are held.

This makes it incredibly difficult for caseworkers to maintain contact with undocumented immigrant parents, further reducing the likelihood they will be able to properly care for their children who by now may have been placed in the foster care system.

Unable to care for their children because of their detention, undocumented immigrants face the risk of having their parental rights inappropriately terminated, resulting in permanent family separation.

For parents fortunate enough to be released, the system isn’t much more helpful in helping them to keep their families together. Several roadblocks continue to exist, such as undocumented immigrant parents being forced to meet requirements of a child-welfare case plan that is almost impossible to complete.

Parents may be asked to prove they can meet the healthcare needs of their children but programs such as Medicaid and other services are not available to these parents because of their immigration status.

The odds of these parents being unable to reunite with their children become much greater once a deportation has occurred.  Foreign consulates aren’t always able to get involved with reuniting families and some social workers and family court judges may believe that children of deported immigrants are better off living in the foster-care system here in the United States than they would be living with their parents in another country.

Implementation of new regulatory rules like the one the Obama Administration began this week, in addition to passage of legislation making it more difficult to terminate parental rights based solely on immigration status, would go a long way toward helping to keep families together while we sort out comprehensive immigration reform.

It is possible to reform our broken immigration system and keep families together at the same time. Children should be placed in the best homes for them, with loving and caring families regardless of the immigration status of their parents.

Families being raised by a spouse who, in some cases has spent years in the United States working hard to provide for their children shouldn’t have to live in fear that every day a loved one goes off to work they may not return home for fear of being detained or deported.

America can and must continue striving for a better immigration system that keeps families together.

Congresswoman Karen Bass represents California’s 37th Congressional District and is a member of the House Judiciary Committee.  

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