E.g., 06/08/2023
E.g., 06/08/2023
With More U.S. Children Having Immigrant Parents and Amid Rising Immigration Enforcement, Child Welfare Systems Are Adapting Policies
Press Release
Tuesday, April 23, 2019

With More U.S. Children Having Immigrant Parents and Amid Rising Immigration Enforcement, Child Welfare Systems Are Adapting Policies

WASHINGTON – The changing demographics of children who come to the attention of state and local child welfare agencies and the growing intersection of these protection systems with rising immigration enforcement is causing some adaptation of policies and practices. A new Migration Policy Institute (MPI) report that draws from interviews with 21 state, county and city child welfare agencies across the United States finds some promising approaches but significant variation in how child welfare systems address these issues.

The number and share of U.S. children who have an immigrant parent has more than quadrupled since 1970, with 26 percent of the child population as of 2017 having a foreign-born parent. Nearly 90 percent of these 18 million children were born in the United States. And one-third of all U.S. children living in poverty have an immigrant parent.

While most children of immigrants live in one of five states—California, Texas, New York, Florida and New Jersey—every state has experienced growth in the size of this population in recent decades. Alongside these demographic changes, rising federal immigration enforcement and other immigration policy changes hold key implications for state and local child welfare agencies across the United States. Of all U.S. children with a parent who is foreign born, one-fourth have a parent who is an unauthorized immigrant.

Beyond the traditional pathways for children to enter the child welfare system—reports of abuse or neglect by a parent or caretaker—minors can also cross paths with these agencies if a parent is arrested, detained or deported by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Removals of noncitizens claiming to be parents of U.S.-citizen children fell from 92,380 in 2011 to 28,860 in 2016 as federal immigration enforcement focused more on identifying and deporting criminals and other priorities. While the numbers held largely steady in 2017, at 27,080, the Trump administration’s decision to make virtually all unauthorized immigrants a priority for removal could drive those numbers back up again, as could terminating Temporary Protected Status (TPS) designations for six countries and ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

The report, Immigrant Families and Child Welfare Systems: Emerging Needs and Promising Policies, draws from interviews by MPI and American Public Human Services Association (APHSA) researchers with child welfare administrators in 14 states, six counties and New York City, as well as a review of earlier research. It examines approaches taken by state and local child welfare agencies in nine areas, spotlighting effective practices. Among the issue areas reviewed:

Organization: Some jurisdictions have no specialized staffing to address issues distinctive to children in immigrant families; others have created dedicated offices with immigration-related responsibilities or dedicated liaison or resource personnel. New York City and Los Angeles County, for example, have dedicated offices whose primary role is to support their agencies on immigration-related issues and to provide resources to caseworkers who encounter questions related to immigration. Texas has regional immigration specialists to coordinate between caseworkers and attorneys to address the immigration issues of noncitizen children, and border liaisons who specialize in cross-border cooperation with Mexican officials.

Screening for immigration issues:  Some unauthorized immigrant children in child welfare might qualify, for example, for asylum or for Special Immigrant Juvenile (SIJ) status in cases where they cannot reunify with a parent and have experienced abuse, neglect or abandonment. While some states screen for SIJ status, not all provide for comprehensive screening. New Jersey is distinctive because the state has contracted with Rutgers University School of Law to ensure screening and follow-through assistance for all immigrant children in the state’s child welfare system.

Language access: Immigrant adults and children with limited English proficiency may face challenges interacting with child welfare professionals. Some locations examined prioritize tapping the talents of bilingual staff, offering a pay increase for those with those skills. When filling paraprofessional jobs, Montgomery County, Maryland, emphasizes hiring foreign-trained professionals who are not yet licensed. Connecticut provides child welfare workers with guidance on how to work with families via interpreters and asks caseworkers to double the expected length of meetings that involve interpretation.

Policies when parents are in immigration detention: Detention and removal proceedings can make it challenging for parents to meet the conditions of their child welfare case plans and court proceedings. Strict visitation rules, costly phone calls and faraway detention can make it difficult for immigrant parents to communicate with lawyers, social workers and relatives. In addition, parents may face difficulties complying with a reunification plan because of detention conditions. An ICE directive addresses visitation, communication and participation in family court proceedings when a parent is in detention, but a number of interviewed jurisdictions were unaware of this directive. California is unique among studied jurisdictions in having passed a law that provides for services to support reunification when a parent has been detained or deported and for allowing additional time for reunification when parents are in detention or face other immigration-related barriers.

Child welfare administrators were interviewed in the following states: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York State, Texas, Virginia and Washington State. Interviews were also conducted with administrators in New York City and the following counties: Fresno County, CA; Los Angeles County, CA; Mecklenburg County, NC; Monterey County, CA; Montgomery County, MD; and San Diego County, CA.

Read the report here: www.migrationpolicy.org/research/immigrant-families-child-welfare-systems.


The Migration Policy Institute (MPI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit think tank in Washington, D.C. dedicated to analysis of the movement of people worldwide. MPI provides analysis, development and evaluation of migration and refugee policies at the local, national and international levels. For more on MPI, please visit www.migrationpolicy.org.