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While our government continues to brush immigration reform to the side this fall, millions of families wait to learn their fate. And even if the watered-down immigration reform - officially titled the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act - does pass this year, children all over the United States will live in fear of being separated from their parents.
Although the Obama administration stopped the deportation of some young undocumented immigrants, there is no sign that it will halt deportations altogether. The Obama administration has deported a record number of undocumented immigrants. In 2012, deportations totaled 409,849.
Additionally, the bill that recently passed in the Senate doesn't guarantee a way for undocumented immigrants to bring their family members who have been removed back to the US. Although current law does allow some unauthorized immigrants to avoid deportation by showing that a separation would result in "extreme hardship" to their US citizen or legal-resident families, and the Senate bill would allow judges to waive an immigrant's removal in light of the "hardship," the granting of such exceptions would be subject to the discretion of the courts. Moreover, immigrants applying for Registered Provisional Immigrant (RPI) status would have to be without a serious or recent criminal record. Those who had previously been deported would be at risk of being removed once again.
Nevertheless, the bill does offer respite for some immigrants, and if it doesn't pass or is consistently delayed, millions of families will continue to be inhumanely separated, despite the detriment to children and the danger deportees may face in their home countries.
This separation can happen at a moment's notice, with confounding justifications: On April 24, 2013, Gurmukh Singh, an undocumented Indian immigrant from Garden Grove, California, was separated from his wife and two daughters unexpectedly when he was detained at the immigration office in Fresno, California, while applying for a spousal petition to remain in the country. According to immigration officials, Singh failed to attend a court hearing he had been summoned for. But according to his family, Singh never received the letter.
Singh originally immigrated to the United States in 1998 seeking political asylum. The year after, he filed an affirmative asylum application with the former Immigration and Naturalization Service, an agency now reconstituted within Department of Homeland Security. Singh claimed that he sought asylum to escape the persecution being carried out by Indian security forces against the Khalistan movement, which aimed to establish an independent Sikh state called "Khalistan." According to Singh, he was persecuted, arrested and tortured on multiple occasions for organizing peaceful demonstrations in support of his Sikh political beliefs.
Despite the danger he faced in India, his roots in the US, and his wife and daughters, who are US citizens, his original petitions for asylum were denied three times. His case eventually was moved up to the Board of Immigration Appeals and is currently in the 9th Circuit Court. His family says they believe he may be deported at any time.
Children Must Advocate for Their Parents
Under the current immigration system, children often are forced to fight on their parents' behalf, holding the family together under grueling circumstances. Singh's oldest daughter, Manpreet Saini Singh, 14, is responsible for translating many of her father's court documents and explaining the case to her mother, Balwinder Kaur. Manpreet says she has had trouble concentrating at school as a result of the stress and has noticed that her health and her mother's health are deteriorating daily. Her sister, Navdeep Saini Singh, 11, also has been emotionally distraught.
"My goal is to right now, in his absence, make sure that I'm getting good grades, make sure my sister is on track as well, and make sure my mom is also taking care of her health," Manpreet told Truthout. "We are really in desperate need for help. We never know when things may go in our favor." In her father's absence, the young girl feels pressured to care for her mother and keep the household intact. Manpreet's mother, who is diabetic, must visit the doctor frequently.
Katherine Figueroa, of Maricopa County, Arizona, was placed in a similar position in 2009 at the age of 9, when she caught sight of her parents on the local news one afternoon: They were being rounded up in a workplace raid led by Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Figueroa's aunt, who was living in the trailer across from theirs, immediately contacted immigration activist Lydia Guzman to help her family. Guzman suggested that Katherine make a video asking the president to help her parents. The video quickly received media attention, and many news outlets began covering the case.
Fortunately, Katherine's parents were released from jail after three months and the case against them was closed by the federal authorities. The couple was offered a reprieve based on their strong family ties to the United States. Although Katherine was reunited with her parents and has now used the difficult experience to become an immigration activist, she says the trauma left a lasting impact. While her parents were detained, Katherine was unable to sleep because she feared Arpaio would send the police to arrest the rest of her family.
Experts assert that the emotional scars left by these kinds of traumatic experiences can be profound: Hirokazu Yoshikawa, the academic dean at Harvard Graduate School of Education and author of "Immigrants Raising Citizens," has found that having an undocumented parent harms cognitive and emotional development from early childhood to adulthood, with cognitive effects appearing in young children, and emotional symptoms like depression and anxiety manifesting in adolescence.
The study "Growing Up in the Shadows: The Developmental Implications of Unauthorized Status," by Yoshikawa and three colleagues, states that "an estimated 5.5 million children and adolescents are growing up with unauthorized parents and are experiencing multiple and yet unrecognized developmental consequences as a result of their family's existence in the shadow of the law." The authors state that if this immigration problem can't be solved, "we should at least face with eyes wide open what the status quo means for millions of children and youth caught in a situation not of their own making."
Families Torn Apart By the Immigration System
Alexis Teodoro, 25, says his undocumented single mother, Maria, struggled to make ends meet when he and his three siblings were children. When she decided to seek government aid for her family, the social services agency threatened her with deportation and putting her kids into foster care. This was in 1991, when anti-immigrant Republican Pete Wilson was governor of California. Out of fear of being separated from her children, Maria sent them back to Mexico later that year. Shortly after, she was detained and deported when immigration conducted a raid at her workplace. She was returned to Mexico.
After her deportation, Maria decided to return to the US to work, so Alexis and his siblings were separated from their mother until they rejoined her in 1998 in California. "When I was a child, I never understood why she couldn't be with us. I grew up with this fear of police. I grew up with fear of immigration," Alexis told Truthout, saying he felt angry and depressed throughout his childhood.
According to "Shattered Families," a 2011 report from the Applied Research Center, at least 5,100 children live in foster care because their parents have been detained or deported. Child welfare departments technically are required by federal law to reunify children with any parents who are able to provide for the basic safety of their children, but detention makes this impossible. If Maria had not sent her children to Mexico before her deportation, they most likely would have been forced into foster care.
Once parents are deported, families often are separated for long periods. Child welfare departments and juvenile courts often terminate the parental rights of deportees and put children up for adoption instead of attempting to reunite the family. The "Shattered Families" report found that "children in areas where local cops aggressively engage in immigration enforcement are more likely to be separated from their parents and face barriers to reunification." If these cases continue at the same pace over the next five years, 15,000 children of detained and deported mothers and fathers likely will be separated from their parents and end up in foster care.
Alexis' mother is still undocumented and susceptible to deportation, he said, but there is little he can do to help her because of her prior offense. In fact, he would be putting her in danger if he filed for a family petition. Because of his experiences, however, Alexis became an immigration activist in 2007 to help families like his. He is working with an immigrant youth group in Santa Ana, California, called RAIZ (Resistencia, Autonomia, Igualdad, Liderazgo), which is also helping the Singh family stop the deportation of Gurmukh Singh.
Lamentably, as long as stronger legislation isn't implemented, children will continue to be separated from their parents under an immigration system that seldom takes them into account. For Katherine Figueroa, the damage has been done, and she continues to fear for other families who will not qualify. Even if the immigration bill passes tomorrow, it will do little to help the Teodoro or Singh family. If Gurmukh Singh is deported to India, it's unlikely that he will ever be reunited with his family in the United States, which will be devastating for his young daughters. As they wait for the news of his deportation, thousands of other families sit with the same uncertainty while their relatives linger behind bars.