Encarnacion Bail Romero was arrested in 2007 at a Missouri poultry processing plant along with 135 other undocumented immigrants. She was charged with federal aggravated identity theft and sentenced to two years in prison for using a stolen Social Security number to find work. She was sent 1,000 miles away to serve her time.
Now Missouri state officials are seeking to impose a second, even harsher penalty on Romero. This month, a state court judge concluded that she had “abandoned” her son while she was incarcerated and had thereby terminated her parental rights, clearing the way for a Missouri couple to adopt the boy, who now speaks only English. Romero never agreed to the adoption. Neither federal nor state officials provided her with any help in reuniting with her child.
Romero’s troubles began when the Department of Homeland Security detained her at the poultry plant. At that time, she wasn’t given an opportunity to transfer custody of her son, Carlos, to relatives. Once she was in custody, officials never reached out to help her understand what was happening to her son or that he might be put up for adoption.
Many people swept up on immigration charges face similar problems. A study by the Applied Research Center, which studies the intersection of immigration enforcement and the child welfare system, found that some 5,000 children in more than 20 states were put in foster care after their parents were detained or deported by immigration authorities. Experts say parents who are detained or face immigration-related prosecutions often face obstacles communicating with family courts or accessing foster care systems, making it difficult to keep track of their children or assert their rights.
Tearing families apart isn’t in anyone’s interest. A new proposal in Congress, the Help Separated Families Act of 2012 written by Rep.Lucille Roybal-Allard(D-East Los Angeles), would make it far more difficult for state and local agencies to use immigration status to terminate parental rights. The bill would also eliminate rules that prevent undocumented relatives from being awarded temporary custody while a parent’s immigration case is being resolved, or jail time served.
Roybal-Allard’s bill is a sensible start, but ultimately, the real problem is a dysfunctional immigration system and a cowardly Congress that refuses to undertake comprehensive reform.