Immigrants fight for family values

Though most observers have concluded that immigration reform is dead until after the 2008 elections, many immigrant rights activists are continuing to fight. They are especially fired up by the sharp increase in immigration raids and deportations, which are shattering families nationwide.

On July 17, several hundred U.S. citizen children and other relatives of immigrants facing deportation rallied in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., where a class action suit on their behalf has been submitted, and then marched to the White House to demand a moratorium on deportations.

The children and their adult companions also met with congressional leaders, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), chair of the House Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship, to call for action to protect their rights.

Among the organizers of the actions were La Familia Latina Unida/Sin Fronteras from Chicago and Families for Freedom from New York.

In 1996, Congress passed and President Clinton signed two draconian bills that have had a devastating impact on families with immigrant breadwinners: the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRAIRA) and the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act.

These laws have stripped away due process protections from documented immigrants and their citizen families.

• They greatly increased the types of criminal convictions that could lead to deportation of a documented noncitizen. Some are relatively minor things which often get young people into trouble: low-level drug possession, possession of stolen property, shoplifting, charges arising from youthful fights and so forth.

• They made this retroactive, so that a crime committed, and atoned for, as much as 30 years before, which at that time would not have triggered deportation, now does. Immigration agents have been arresting and deporting people who were convicted decades ago, even if they have been pillars of the community since.

• They reduced immigrants’ ability to appeal their deportation because of legitimate fear of persecution in their country of origin, damage to their family or longstanding ties in the United States.

A recent Human Rights Watch report — “Forced Apart: Families Separated and Immigrants Harmed by United States Deportation Policy” — reveals that the number of deportations per year nearly tripled from 1997 (just after IIRAIRA came into force) to 2005, from 37, 724 to 90,426. In that period, 672,593 legal immigrants were deported.

Since IIRAIRA was passed, at least 1.6 million spouses and children of legal noncitizens have been impacted by the deportation of a family member. At least 540,000 of these spouses and children are citizens. They face a choice between leaving the U.S. with the deported relative or seeing their family broken up between two countries.

Commenting on the situation of Elvira Arellano, the Mexican undocumented immigrant who since August 2006 has taken sanctuary in a Chicago church to protect her 8-year-old U.S. citizen son, anti-immigrant commentators have breezily claimed, “After all, he can always go to Mexico with her.” But it is not so simple.

First, it is not necessarily true that the country to which a parent is deported has to accept the U.S.-born children also. Usually they don’t automatically accept a U.S. citizen spouse. In Mexico, which does accept the U.S.-born children of its emigrant citizens, the living standards are likely to be drastically lower for the children than in the U.S., with a much greater chance that the child will have to drop out of school to work and help support the family, often at dangerous marginal jobs such as street peddler or street performer.

Back in the USA, families divided by the arrest and deportation of a breadwinner usually find themselves in financial crisis. The remaining parent has to go out to work or work extra hours, and the children thus find that both parents have virtually disappeared. The family may have to move to worse housing in a worse neighborhood, with increased chances that the children will be sucked into trouble.

Far from constituting a solution to the problem of crime in this country, indiscriminate mass deportations may well exacerbate it because of the mayhem they wreak on the family and community structure.

All these things are documented in the Human Rights Watch report and in the testimony of the families who demonstrated in Washington.

Both call for the Bush administration and Congress to live up to the rhetoric about “family values,” which Bush famously said “don’t stop at the Rio Grande.” They demand passage of legislation such as HR 1176, the Child Citizen Protection Act, which would restore judges’ ability to take the impact on citizen children into account when deciding on deportations, and a moratorium on raids and deportations until this country’s immigration dilemma is fixed.

Emile Schepers is an immigrant rights activist.