Viewed in a certain context, the disruptions that 4-year-old Emily Ruiz suffered when she was unwittingly caught up in an immigration debacle were tame compared to the treatment of many other families with mixed immigration status.
To refresh your memory, Ruiz, a U.S. citizen, was traveling home to New York from Guatemala with her grandfather, who was detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents because of a two-decade-old infraction on his temporary work visa.
Emily's father, Leonel Ruiz, living in the U.S. illegally since 1996, said he was not given the opportunity to come pick up his child. CBP continues to dispute his account, saying that the father declined to pick her up himself and freely chose to return Emily to Guatemala with her grandfather.
Emily's story was not a happy one but at least had a tolerable ending: She flew back to her family home in Guatemala with her grandfather but was reunited with her parents on Long Island within three weeks. This is, sadly, a walk in the park compared to what happens to others.
Once families find themselves in the immigration system, they are frequently separated and face severe impediments to keeping track of each other. Parents sometimes spend years struggling with limited resources to regain custody of their children.
In an article to be published in the Connecticut Law Review this fall, author Nina Rabin, director of border research at the University of Arizona Southwest Institute for Research on Women, chronicles what she describes as the "quiet, slow-motion tragedies (that) unfold every day in immigration detention centers throughout the country."
During interviews with detainees, judges, attorneys and child welfare system case workers in the Pima County, Ariz., Juvenile Court system, Rabin and her staff found heart-wrenching examples of the dire challenges that families face in detention or deportation systems not equipped to process mixed-status families.
With approximately 5.5 million children in the U.S. living with at least one illegal immigrant parent -- 4.5 million of these children are U.S. citizens -- the issues go well beyond Arizona and are best summarized by Rabin's finding that no formal policies or mechanisms are in place to guide humane treatment of parents and children in detention or deportation proceedings.
Child welfare personnel say parents routinely "disappear" because they are so difficult to track down once they are apprehended by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Out of fear, detained immigrants are often reluctant to provide information to allow a child to be placed with another family member, so children are more likely to wind up in the foster care system instead of with relatives. And parents who are able to remain on the radar in detention fare worse than incarcerated parents because of lack of family services routinely available in jails or prisons.
Illegal immigrants with no criminal record -- living in the U.S. without authorization is a civil offense -- are often perceived and treated as criminals. So even when detained parents choose to fight deportation, which means months or years in detention, personnel in the child welfare system are likely to "write off" those parents and assume that they'll be unable to regain custody of their children.
Child welfare systems unaccustomed to the needs of families caught up in this process often can't cope with long, unpredictable immigration hearing timelines that keep parents from complying with reunification plans. These cases can't possibly conform to detailed statutory timelines that must be met once a child is in state custody. Additionally, few personnel seek assistance from consular offices to help children by identifying, evaluating and communicating with family members in the parents' home country.
Rabin's suggested reforms, condensed in a recently released briefing called "Disappearing Parents: A Report on Immigration Enforcement and the Child Welfare System," urge collaboration between immigration and child welfare agencies, increased prosecutorial discretion for families, coordinated support for parents and children who are trying to reunite, and programs devoted to educating immigrant detainees about defending their parental rights.
Obviously, not every family can garner the headlines and top-shelf pro bono legal support that assisted the Ruizes in reuniting. But all families deserve respectful, humane treatment in all interactions with immigration law enforcement agencies, especially when children and their guardians are separated.
With comprehensive immigration reform out of reach for the foreseeable future, improving the way families are treated in the existing system can't happen soon enough.
Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.