Torn Apart: Immigration and the American Family

We are a compassionate nation. We look back with sadness and horror at parents and children separated in centuries past, and then turn our heads when it happens in our day. The separation of parents and children is not confined to history.
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I am the first person to complain about my kids and the trials of parenting. I am more than happy to indulge in over-analyzing my over-parenting. But, just for a moment, I want to give thanks for the opportunity to nag, to break-up sibling fights, to worry, to cuddle, to comfort and to simply watch. Because along with the gift of parenthood, I was given the gift of having my children grow up in my home, day in and day out, year in and year out. And for that I am grateful.

American history is replete with stories of parents and children forever separated. Slaves were sold as individuals and families were wrenched apart to suit their owner's needs. The tide of 19th century European immigration brought children to America on their own or parents without their kids hoping that family members would one day follow.

We are a compassionate nation. We look back with sadness and horror at parents and children separated in centuries past, and then turn our heads when it happens in our day. The separation of parents and children is not confined to history.

This is not a political post. Yes, I have strong views on immigration and serve on the board of Neighbors Link, an organization dedicated to immigrant integration in our New York community.

But this is not about that. This is about parenthood. This is about the firm conviction that we hold in our society, courts and homes, that children are always better off with an able parent. Unless, it turns out, we deem that parent should be deported. Then, we suspend what we know about parents and successful child-rearing as we tear apart families to comply with our broken immigration system.

At this moment, when our nation is once again looking at our immigration laws in the hopes of overhauling a system that many agree has been a failure, let's look at what happens in the very real lives of parents and their children when they are faced with a most agonizing decision.

The Mejias are like so many immigrant families that have gone before them. In 1992, Sam and Elida Mejia were young parents who fled the Guatemalan Civil war with their 1-year-old son, Gilbert. They lived and worked in the U.S., had two daughters, paid taxes and bought a home. They were deeply involved with family, community and surrounded by people they love. In 2007, their home was raided in a bout of mistaken identity and the couple were found to be undocumented, with no criminal record, and subsequently deported.

Photo Credit: Theo Rigby

The Mejias, faced a parent's worst nightmare with a very young American daughter, an American teenage daughter and a teenage son who was also undocumented. The teenagers were ensconced in their education, thriving in the only country they had ever known as home. Their youngest, shown above as she waves goodbye to her brother and sister, was far too young to be separated from her parents. Who among us can imagine themselves enduring such a situation without our heart being torn in two?

Theo Rigby, in a beautiful Student Academy Award-winning short documentary entitled Sin Pais (Without Country, 2010) lets the family tell their story. Rigby made the film, he explains, because, "I thought (and still do) that the human side of immigration issues often gets lost in the heated political rhetoric of Washington and simplified sound-bites of the mass media -- the real and devastating effects of deportation that fall on families and communities across the country, are often not seen."

The short, not-to-be-missed film, which airs on PBS Online Film Festival all this month and can be seen here, is wrenching to watch and, as a parent, excruciating. Elida is every mother, a woman who wants nothing more or less for her children than that they grow up surrounded by their parent's love and venture into a world filled with opportunity. The film reminds us that, although we hold the parent-child bond sacred, we have found no way to see beyond our poorly constructed laws to preserve the sanctity of a family.

Immigration is surely a political issue, but it is also a parenting and family issue. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, approximately 17 million people live in families with an undocumented family member. About 4.5 million children who were born in the US have at least one undocumented parent.

Janet Napolitano, U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security, acknowledged the overarching question in an interview when she said. "The number one concern all of us should have is, 'Where are the children? What's going on with the children? But the plain fact of the matter is, having a child in and of itself does not bestow citizenship."

Those who have torn families apart have rarely been on the right side of history and as a nation, that is not company we want to keep. Our President agrees that something must be done: "When nursing mothers are torn from their babies, when children come home from school to find their parents missing... when all this is happening, the system just isn't working and we need to change it," President Obama stated in 2008. He has said that deportation should target "violent offenders and people convicted of crimes; not families, not folks who are just looking to scrape together an income."

In the ten years between 1998 and 2007, approximately 100,000 parents of U.S. citizens were deported. Yet in the first six months of 2011, Immigration and Customs Enforcement removed 46,486 undocumented parents who had at least one child who is an American citizen. These parents were fully 22% of the total number of people deported during that time.

Academics from Harvard and NYU wrote in the New York Times, "The extraordinary acceleration in the dismantling of these families, part of the government's efforts to meet an annual quota of about 400,000 deportations, has had devastating results. Having a parent ripped away permanently, without warning, is one of the most devastating and traumatic experiences in human development."

As parenting bloggers we spend much time writing about our children. Alternatively, I extol the virtues of motherhood and the next moment vent my frustrations with modern parenting. But now, as our country considers the important issue of immigration, it is time to pause. We want to take this moment to remember that is both a privilege and a gift to be able to wake our kids every morning, and that it is a privilege every parent deserves.

Photo Credit: Theo Rigby

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