Last week, Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) became the first 2008 presidential candidate to co-sponsor a bill that protects U.S.-born children from being forcibly separated from their parents who face deportation.

The Child Citizen Protection Act, HR 1176, was introduced in February by Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.). The bill seeks to remedy the damage done by a piece of 1996 legislation, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRAIRA). Before IIRAIRA was enacted, immigration judges had much more discretion than they do now to stop deportation proceedings against noncitizens. One of the grounds on which such proceedings were stopped in the past was the damage that would be done to children of the immigrant who were born in the United States and thus are U.S. citizens.

The situation of Elvira Arellano, in sanctuary in a church in Chicago after being ordered deported in spite of having a U.S. citizen child, plus those of an estimated 4 million other U.S. citizen children of undocumented immigrants or other immigrants facing deportation, would be addressed by Serrano’s bill.

In addition, IIRAIRA and another 1996 law, the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, greatly increased the number of things for which a noncitizen living legally in the U.S. could be arrested and deported. Under these laws, convictions for relatively minor crimes (e.g. minor drug possession in some cases) now are cause for deportation, even if the crimes were committed and paid for years ago and the individual has lived an exemplary life ever since. People who have been free of all legal worries for 25 years or more have suddenly been whisked away from their families and put on an airplane out of the country as a result of these laws.

The 2003 Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride called for “Fix 96” — the repeal or serious modification of the two 1996 laws — as one of its major objectives. However, most “comprehensive” immigration reform bills introduced in Congress in 2006 or 2007 have not included this.

HR 1176 gives immigration judges the right to give people facing deportation a break based on the interests of their minor U.S.-citizen children, but it does not guarantee that a judge will act mercifully or responsibly. But as the situation currently stands, a judge who wants to do the right thing cannot; his or her hands are tied.

The bill is not only directed toward children of undocumented immigrants, but also those of legal immigrants who are facing deportation and the difficult choice of either breaking up their families or taking their children into what would often be a dangerous and impoverished exile.

The bill’s limited nature suggests that it might have a chance in Congress. The conventional wisdom is that no comprehensive immigration reform bill can pass before the 2008 elections, so only small parts of the immigration reform wish list, such as the DREAM Act, which would legalize some undocumented college students and members of the military, or the AgJobs Act, which would deal with agricultural workers, can pass.

However, to date, besides Kucinich and Serrano, there are only 28 co-sponsors, mostly members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and a few other progressive Democrats. This is not nearly enough, and supporters of the bill stress the importance of adding new co-sponsors before Congress reconvenes in September. (The full list of co-sponsors, plus the text of the bill, can be looked up at thomas.loc.gov.)

The Families for Freedom organization, based in New York, is coordinating support for this legislation. Supporters of immigrant rights are urged to call their House members to ask them to sign on as co-sponsors and support the bill. A search is under way for a sponsor for a Senate measure.

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