These two special issues of Child Welfare revisit the topic of the intersection of immigration and child welfare 13 years after the journal’s first issue on this subject. Much progress has been made in the past decade in generating and disseminating knowledge and best practices surrounding the complex challenges of children and families who are immigrants and have ties to the child welfare system. Research has begun to identify specific risks for child welfare involvement among children in these families, as well as disparities in access to needed services. Model policies and best practices for child welfare agencies have been developed and implemented in some jurisdictions throughout the country. Over the past decade, the Center on Immigration and Child Welfare has evolved to produce and promote research and resources to improve conditions for, and practices with, children in families of immigrants who are at risk of child welfare involvement. However, the political context surrounding immigration in the United States continues to drive the need for innovation and sharpened attention to these issues, arguably more than ever before.

The proportion of children in families of immigrants continues to grow, as a full quarter of all children living in the United States now have at least one parent who is an immigrant (Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2018). More than 5.9 million U.S.-born citizen children have at least one undocumented parent (Mathema, 2017), and 90% of these children are themselves U.S. citizens (Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2018). A full half of children in families of immigrants live in four states: California, Texas, New York, and Florida (Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2018). The numbers of unaccompanied children arriving to the United States have also spiked in recent years, peaking in 2014 and rising again in 2016, with nearly 60,000 arrivals that year and 100,000 more since then (U.S. Customs and Border Protection, 2016; 2018). The greatest numbers of children encountered by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol are arriving from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, known as the Northern Triangle region of Central America. The vast majority of unaccompanied children released to family sponsors are going to California, Texas, New York, and Florida.

Between 2010 and 2013, the Department of Homeland Security removed roughly half a million parents of U.S. citizen children from the United States (American Immigration Council, 2018). Another nearly 90,000 parents of at least one U.S.-born child were deported between 2015 and 2017 (American Immigration Council, 2018). Although the number of children who become involved in the child welfare system as a result of immigration enforcement is not clear, much evidence points to the devastating impacts of enforcement activities on children (Capps et al., 2015; Koball et al., 2015; Rojas-Flores, Clements, Koo, & London, 2017). The principles that underlie the U.S. immigration and child welfare systems are evidence of our country’s complex and sometimes contradictory values in the ways in which deserving immigrant groups are defined and the best interests of children are determined. U.S. immigration policies are rapidly changing, creating circumstances for children and families newly arrived and seeking shelter in the United States that are traumatizing, overwhelming, and impose long-term challenges to their well-being and risk for child welfare system involvement. Recent increases in the detention and deportation of immigrants, and the accompanying anti-immigrant rhetoric, have destabilized many immigrant communities and families with longer residence in the United States. Following the 2016 presidential election, threats toward immigrants intensified a culture of fear and trauma among children and families and decreased enrollment in supportive social programs, which in the long run may result in negative health and mental health outcomes for many thousands of children.

Most children of immigrants who come to the attention of the U.S. child welfare system are reported for traditional reasons related to child abuse or neglect, a preventable problem with traumatic consequences that can persist into adolescence and adulthood. However, with the recent rise of immigration enforcement activities in the United States, a growing number of children who are immigrants and in contact with the child welfare system potentially may be unaccompanied minors and those separated from deported parents. While the circumstances that bring unaccompanied minors and children separated from their families to the attention of the child welfare system are different from more common reasons for child welfare involvement, many of these children are also traumatized by experiences that are often preventable.

This collaboration with the Child Welfare League of America represents a renewed commitment to expand the knowledge base and improve the workforce response to the rapidly changing needs of children in families of immigrants who become involved in the child welfare system. There remains a need for a deeper understanding of the unique needs of children in these families, their pathways into the child welfare system, and strategies and interventions to facilitate positive outcomes of safety, permanency, and well-being. This issue attempts to fill these gaps in knowledge by addressing specific topical areas identified in the Center on Immigration and Child Welfare’s framework for research (see that is based on the principles of prevention of child abuse and neglect. Research to inform the primary prevention of child welfare system involvement seeks to expose a broad segment of children who are immigrants and their families to prevention measures that reduce and prevent involvement before it ever occurs. Secondary prevention research aims to reduce negative impacts of child welfare system involvement after contact has occurred to mitigate further trauma and redress the circumstances that lead to involvement. Research on tertiary prevention strategies seeks to buffer the impact of child welfare system involvement in ongoing or unresolved circumstances by helping children of immigrants and their families find long-term solutions to stabilize and improve their functioning and quality of life.

The first volume of this double issue begins with three empirical articles that expand knowledge in the areas of primary prevention by focusing on risks for child abuse and neglect from different lenses using different units of analysis. The first two articles examine the impact and costs of immigration enforcement actions on household and child well-being. Gelatt, Koball, and Bernstein present an examination of state policies to show how differences in state adoption of federal immigration enforcement policies impact the experience of material hardship in the immigrant population, which has implications for risk of child welfare involvement. Roth, Crea, Zuch, Hasson, and Jani use a qualitative approach to interview staff at federal youth transitional shelters to examine the psychological and emotional impact of forced family separation policies on young immigrant children, exposing the harmful ramifications of separating children from their parents and family members at the border and its potential future consequences for child welfare systems.

The third article contributes to a growing body of work focused on the etiologies and typologies of child abuse and neglect among children of immigrants in the United States. Johnson-Motoyama and Wu present findings from advanced quantitative analyses that identify individual and neighborhood characteristics that contribute to heightened risk for neglect in children in immigrant families in California. Shifting from research on risks for child welfare system involvement, the next article is a unique piece that analyzes norms for law and policy involving immigration cases within the child welfare sphere. In practice over the past 15 years, child welfare systems have grappled with many more legal cases involving immigrant parents than previously documented. In this critical legal article, Beidler Carr describes key case law in various states throughout the United States that has involved immigrant parents facing detention or deportation. From these cases have emerged critical guiding principles for child welfare agencies, case workers and courts as they address situations where a parent’s detention or deportation may have implications for child welfare proceedings.

The next group of articles describe effective practices and child welfare system responses to support permanency for different subsets of the immigrant population. Beltran and Richie Cooper place a spotlight on issues for children raised by grandparents or other relatives who are immigrants, and the resources and supports available to them. Then, in the first article of the second issue, Cabrera and colleagues from Casey Family Programs offer a case study of their transnational immigration program, identifying lessons learned from common successes and challenges in implementing policies and practices aimed at improving outcomes for children and families with child welfare involvement. The next two articles document collaborative systems innovations in New Jersey that are effectively addressing the needs of children of immigrants. Gottesman, Mandelbaum, and Pindar describe the development of a statewide collaboration between Rutgers Law School and the New Jersey Department of Children and Families that provides immigration legal services to children in foster care, as well as lessons learned throughout the process. Hernandez-Mekonnen and Konrady discuss a novel approach to prepare child welfare professionals to serve families who are immigrants and are involved in the child welfare system using the New Jersey Title IV-E Child Welfare Training partnership. Citrin, Martin, and Houshyar highlight systemic challenges for youth who are immigrants in transition out of foster care and describe promising practices to better meet the needs of this population.

Finally, with a large increase in children who are unaccompanied flowing through the federal shelter and transitional care system, this issue closes with two articles aimed at increasing knowledge around their experiences, how they differ from the public state child welfare system, and how to best support them. First, Evans, Pardue-Kim, Crea, and colleagues describe a pilot study of the Unaccompanied Refugee Minor (URM) Foster Care Program, comparing the characteristics and experiences of enrolled youth to those of youth in the state public child welfare system. In the final article, Avrushin and Vidal de Haymes examine the experiences of children who are unaccompanied immigrants and their families living in Chicago from the perspective of the legal and human service professionals that accompany them. The authors provide recommendations for applying child welfare principles of safety, permanency, and well-being to the system that serves children who are unaccompanied and involved with the federal system.

The editors of this double issue wish to express our appreciation to each of the authors who contributed their work to this important project and to each of the expert reviewers for their knowledge, insight, and commitment to this topic. The editors also want to thank the Child Welfare League of America’s editorial team for their expertise and assistance in producing this issue and ongoing dedication to this important topic. It is our vision that these articles be used as resources for researchers seeking to advance the field of immigration and child welfare, and more importantly, for child welfare administrators, practitioners, and students to improve the child welfare system’s response to children and families who intersect with the immigration system.

 Megan Finno-Velasquez
Director, Center on Immigration and Child Welfare

New Mexico State University

Alan J. Dettlaff
Dean and Maconda Brown O’Connor Endowed Dean’s Chair

Graduate College of Social Work, University of Houston


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Capps, R., Koball, H., Campetella, A, Perreira, K, Hooker, S., & Pedroza, J. M. (2015, Sept). Implications of Immigration Enforcement Activities for the Well-Being of Children in Immigrant Families: A Review of the Literature. Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute. Retrieved from

Koball, H., Capps, R., Hooker, S., Perreira, K., Campetella, A., Pedroza, J. M., Monson, W., & Huerta, S. (2015). Health and social service needs of U.S. citizen children with detained or deported immigrant parents. Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute. Retrieved from

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