Immigration (Shutterstock)

If President Trump follows through on his campaign promise to deport as many as 2 million to 3 million undocumented immigrants, we know that many of those being deported will be parents of children born in the United States. Consequently, child welfare advocates fear that the surge will prompt a spike in foster care admissions for those children left “abandoned.” What else is supposed to happen when a child gets home from school to find that his or her parents have been taken away?

There are 5.1 million children under age 18, both U.S. citizens and noncitizens, who are living with an undocumented immigrant parent. According to the Migration Policy Institute, more than one-third of undocumented immigrants within the country report having U.S. citizen children under 18 for whom they are responsible. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s own assessment of a two-year period from 2010 to 2012 shows 204,810 removals for parents of U.S. citizen children. Some of those children left with their parents; many others were placed with relatives; a small portion were placed into foster care. State welfare agencies don’t track the number of children who come into care due to parental deportation, but in a 2011 report, “Shattered Families,” by organization Race Forward, it is estimated that 5,000 children then were in the foster care system because of parental deportation. Race Forward also estimated that between 2011 and 2016, there would be 15,000 more children like this in the U.S.. But if the Trump promise is fulfilled, that number could be 10 times as many. The likely outcomes for these children are not good, due largely to abandonment, fear, anxiety and uncertainty.

Currently parents face many barriers to reunifying with their children. When a parent is detained, child welfare agencies may not be able to find them, and even if they are located, the parents often struggle to communicate with child welfare case workers or their families, because of the distance of the detention center from their home community or because of strict visiting guidelines. There are also barriers after the parent is deported, because there often are not the resources available that they need in order to complete case plans necessary to get their children back, like attending parenting classes and undergoing psychiatric evaluations. But even if a deported or detained parent can follow the plan, some state judges cut the family’s ties to the child just because the parent has been deported, relying on the illegal behavior that brought them into the country in the first instance. Other jurisdictions have designated immigration specialists to handle cases when a parent is deported and the child is in foster care, and some child welfare systems have agreements with foreign consulates to help reunify families.

Under Trump, there are other factors that could exacerbate barriers to reunification and lead to more children struggling as they enter the foster care system, including the de-funding of, and smaller budgets at, child welfare agencies across the country. Additionally, a possible dialing-back of immigration policies under the Obama administration, protecting families and children of undocumented immigrants, could contribute to the rise in children entering the foster care system. Trump’s 100-day plan also includes withdrawing some of Obama’s executive actions, including the “Parental Interests Directive” and a 2012 directive, “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals,” which allows undocumented immigrants who arrived as minors to get work permits and deferred deportation. Trump also pledged to cancel all federal funding to sanctuary cities. The possibility of losing key child and immigrant protection policies like these has left child welfare workers uneasy, and state governments equally anxious about the additional funding that will be necessary to raise and support what could be a burgeoning population.

The changes promised under the Trump administration will no doubt have all the aforementioned effects, and then some. The number of children left in the system because their parent has been detained or deported is going to rise. Although it is difficult to predict by how much, given the lack of data, we have seen that in some jurisdictions, in the last couple of weeks, the number of children in the foster care system with a parent who was detained or deported has already risen because of ICE workers in the field not following through with the U.S. immigration policy directives that they think are going to be reversed. In fact, early in February, when reporting in for her annual visit to immigration officials as she has done for the past eight years, Guadalupe García de Rayos, 35, mother of a 14-year-old daughter, was arrested by immigration agents and deported to Nogales, Mexico—the same city from which she crossed 21 years ago—despite protests and pleas from her friends and daughter.

We hope that child safety will remain a bipartisan issue in Congress, and that there will be bipartisan support for enforcing immigration law in a way that is not only humane, but that also upholds the safety and well-being of children.