Broken system, broken families

by Tammy Alexander

Matthew Lester/MCC

In a speech on immigration in El Paso, Texas in May of this year, President Obama said, “I don’t believe the United States of America should be in the business of separating families. That’s not right. That’s not who we are.” Yet thousands of families are separated each year under his watch.

The stories are heart-wrenching. A teenage girl describes through tear-soaked eyes how Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents came in the middle of the night and took her mother. She now helps to care for her younger siblings, including an infant sister.

A man with a work visa who has lived in the country legally for over a decade misfiles a change of address form. Agents come to his house, take him away, detain him, and eventually deport him. He is no longer able to help care for a sick family member in the United States.

A young man who has lived in the country since he was a small child is deported after being picked up for misdemeanor drug possession. He leaves behind a pregnant wife.

A young woman is swept up in a raid at her workplace, leaving behind a 4-month-old daughter.

Families separated

These stories are repeated over and over again in communities throughout the U.S. (see Fernanda’s story). A record number of immigrants were deported in fiscal year 2010–more than 392,000. About half had criminal convictions, including minor offenses such as traffic violations.

Policymakers charge such deportations are necessary to keep U.S. citizens safe. Are we really made safer by taking mothers from babies?

An estimated four million U.S.-born children currently live in mixed-status families where at least one parent is an undocumented immigrant.  One young man visiting a congressional office was heard to say, “As a U.S. citizen, don’t I have the right to live with both of my parents?” As a human being, he should have that right.

A culture of unwelcome

Although the Obama administration has promised to focus immigration deportation efforts on those with serious criminal convictions, ICE raids continue to target those with no criminal history and those convicted of minor offenses.

In January, ICE agents in Michigan made 77 arrests over four days. The majority of those detained had no criminal background. In February, a raid in Ellensburg, Washington, swept up a longtime church pastor, parents of young children, and a woman seven months pregnant. The only charges against the 30 people held in the raid were immigration violations.

In Detroit, Michigan, in March ICE agents followed parents walking their children to and from school–an action contrary to stated ICE policies.

All across our country, there is a culture of unwelcome. If you travel on Amtrak or Greyhound within 100 miles of the border, you may be asked to show proof of citizenship. Several members of Congress would like to repeal the portion of the 14th amendment that provides for birthright citizenship. There is even talk of requiring proof of citizenship for children to receive free and reduced priced lunches in schools.

Gabe Schlabach/MCC

Waiting for reform

When President Obama took office in 2009, pledging reform of the broken immigration system, there was hope that comprehensive reform might finally be within reach. Instead, anti-immigrant rhetoric in Congress turned uglier and, with few exceptions, the Obama administration largely continued the immigration policies of the previous administration.

Attempting to mollify critics, President Obama points to increased border security since 2008. Rather than challenging the premise that we can solve our nation’s immigration problems through increased enforcement, he has reinforced that premise with his words and actions.

But no matter how many miles of walls we build and thousands of people we deport, no matter how many National Guard troops we send to the border, the appetite for more border security will never be satisfied.

What you can do

While members of Congress and the administration point fingers at each other and punt the problem down the road to at least 2013, immigrant families continue to needlessly suffer. Here are three things you can do to help:

  1. Call for administrative relief

While President Obama insists that any changes in current immigration policy must come from Congress, there is actually much the president can do to prevent families from being separated.

To start with, the administration can direct ICE to make liberal use of alternatives to deportation in cases where families would be separated and where the individual in question has good moral character and would otherwise be eligible for a visa.

Also, President Obama can hold ICE agents accountable to focus activities solely on those involved in serious criminal activities.

Finally, the administration should discontinue programs like Secure Communities and 287g which enlist local police officers to enforce immigration laws. Such programs use scarce resources, increase distrust of law enforcement in immigrant communities, and sweep up those with no or minor criminal offenses.

  1. Take action in your state

Faith groups, immigrant advocacy organizations, and business owners in several states are speaking out against local and state-level anti-immigrant proposals and calling for immigration reform at the federal level. Through joint efforts such as the Pennsylvania Compact and the Indiana Compact, such groups are reframing the discussion around immigration.

  • Get involved in state-level advocacy (resources)
  1. Encourage dialogue

Currently most members of Congress overwhelmingly hear negative messages about immigration – in the form of angry phone calls and letters from their constituents, urging them to build more border wall and deport more immigrants. Immigration reform will not be possible until more moderate and positive voices are heard.

You can help by educating yourself and by facilitating dialogue with members of your church and the wider community. Workshops and small group studies are a good way to encourage such discussions.

You can also write letters to the editor responding to myths and outright lies about immigrants and immigration policy. Another benefit of such letters is that members of Congress monitor what their constituents are saying in local newspapers.

  • Write letters to the editor
  • Organize forums and small group discussions

(Topics and resources for dialogue)

Remember Jesus’ words in Matthew 25–blessed are those who welcome the stranger because, in doing so, they welcome Jesus himself. Make your voice heard.

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