Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.) has reintroduced legislation to help reunite thousands of families that are being broken up by U.S. immigration laws every day. He is seeking support for the Child Citizen Protection Act, HR 213, from his colleagues in Congress and from the public.
Families for Freedom (www.families-forfreedom.org), a New York-based organization that advocates for the rights of families facing breakup due to the deportation of one or more of their members, has issued a request to organizations of every type to endorse the legislation and ask their congresspersons to sign on as co-sponsors. Also important, activists say, is finding a senator to sponsor a parallel bill in the Senate.
This past year, the case of Elvira Arellano, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, and her 8-year-old son Saul drew the attention of the public when Elvira, faced with a final order to report for deportation, took sanctuary in a church in Chicago.
Arellano and activists around the country who work with immigrant families have pointed out that hers is by no means an isolated case. There may be as many 4 million U.S.-citizen children who are facing either separation from a non-citizen parent threatened with deportation or the prospect of being forced to leave the country where they were born in order to be with a deported parent.
These situations arise not only with undocumented immigrants but with “legal” immigrants who are being deported for other reasons, mostly because of certain criminal convictions.
The problem has been greatly exacerbated by 1996 legislation (the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, and the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act) which, among other things, took away from immigration court judges the right to give relief to immigrants in deportation proceedings based on damage that would be done to their U.S.-citizen children.
The 1996 legislation also mandated deportation for legal resident immigrants convicted of crimes, including very minor ones, committed decades before the law was passed, even if the immigrant had a completely clean record ever since.
Deportation of a working parent often plunges the family, including children, into severe economic privation, and forces the remaining parent to work two or more jobs to make up for the lost wages, creating greater suffering for the children.
The harshness of the 1996 legislation is attested to by 6-year-old U.S.-born citizen Alejandra Barrios, whose undocumented father was deported to Mexico last month. “I love my father,” she said. “I’m very sad that they came and took my papi away in handcuffs and deported him to Mexico. My papi never got a parking ticket, he never gets drunk, he works every day. I want to tell the judge how good he is, but they won’t let me. I want Santa to give me back my father.”
Serrano’s bill would restore the ability of judges to consider the interests of U.S.-citizen children when deciding whether or not to deport an immigrant.
The bill would not give undocumented parents a new immigration status, but would at least prevent families from being broken up. For immigrants who are legal residents but are facing deportation for other reasons, it would create the basis for them to remain legally in the U.S. (There is an exception for people who are deemed threats to national security or are involved in human trafficking).
So, while only a modest step, the bill if passed would give relief not only to many non-citizen immigrants, but also to potentially millions of their U.S.-citizen relatives also.
A bipartisan group in Congress is expected to introduce a comprehensive immigration reform bill shortly. Whether it will protect the unity of immigrant families depends on how much the senators and representatives hear from the public demanding it. Meanwhile, Rep. Serrano believes that HR 213 has a good chance of passing, and will help to educate the public about how current U.S. immigration laws hurt innocent children, including thousands of U.S. citizens.