Immigration reform should protect families

The vast majority of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States have US citizen relatives. Yet they live in fear -- "fear of being deported...of heartbreak...of suffering...worrying about if they can go to the store, [or] do they have to stay home?” as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) recently put it.

I think of people like Sonia D., an undocumented restaurant owner, living in the US for 12 years, with two US citizen children and one US citizen grandchild, who feared losing her business permit due to her immigration status. Or Sara M., brought to the US at seven and now mother to two US citizen children, who feared taking her daughter to the hospital for fear of being stopped while driving. Or Leticia M., living in the US since she was one and mother to a US citizen child, who was having difficulty getting water service for her home due to her lack of documentation.

All three stories,  described in a Human Rights Watch report, are all about families in Alabama, all in the US for more than 10 years – going to church, sending their American children to school, earning a living and in some cases starting their own businesses, and paying taxes.

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The Senate bill contains provisions that would reduce the fears of many families like these. It would allow immigration judges to stop a deportation proceeding if it would result in hardship to a US citizen parent, spouse or child. And it permits the government to waive prohibitions against entering the country if doing so would cause hardship to a US citizen child.

The bill also recognizes that under the current system injustices have piled up over the years. People with strong family ties in the US have been deported, and young people who could have qualified for the DREAM Act, which would grant a path to legal status to undocumented immigrants brought to the US as children, have also been deported. So the bill gives the Homeland Security Secretary discretion to allow some of these people to apply for provisional immigrant status under the bill, and rejoin their families in the US.

Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions (R), one of the most vocal opponents of these measures, dramatically warned that, if passed into law, they "would all but ensure mass litigation and the end of immigration enforcement in America.” One amendment to the bill, proposed by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), strips out the section that allows people to return to reunite with family.  These attacks ignore the value of these reunification provisions: to strengthen the US by putting families first, and to consider the needs of US citizen family members before deporting a spouse or parent or child. 

I often think about an undocumented teenager I met at a community meeting in south Seattle 11 years ago. He was 15 or 16 – he was born in Peru and had arrived in the US around the age of 12 with his parents, who had later decided to overstay their visas and try to make a life for themselves in the US. I remember he had a particular aptitude for math and was far advanced for his age. That was 13 years ago – he’s now nearing his 30th birthday.

I wonder how he’s lived this last decade, whether he made it to college or couldn’t get loans, how he’s paying his bills, how he’s tackled the challenge of living more of his life out of immigration status than in -- or whether one missed turn signal later he was deported back to Peru, far away from home.

He and his family have lived in the grip of fear and uncertainty for the last 13 years. The bill before the Senate acknowledges that this is no way to live, and its family unity provisions would end the suffering inflicted on families by decades of harsh immigration enforcement and congressional inaction.

Sessions and like-minded senators want to strip these provisions from the bill. Democrats and Republicans who believe in creating a fairer, more effective, and more humane immigration system that respects the rights of families should fight to keep them in.

Ginatta is advocacy director for the U.S. program of Human Rights Watch.