So why do we have immigration laws that are specifically, almost devotedly, anti-family?
Many right-wing critics of American immigration policy are fond of saying that current policies would work just fine if the government would "just enforce the laws that are on the books."
It seems never to occur to them that the main reason the government doesn't do so, at least not on a massive scale, is simply that the laws as written are largely unenforcable -- or perhaps more to the point, that enforcing them actually creates larger problems, to the point of atrocities, than those they were intended to address.
The chief problem with immigration law in America is the misbegotten nature of the laws themselves. Much of this has to do with their nakedly racist origins, the legacy of which has never been erased.
This could not be any clearer than the effect of immigration laws on families. Sadly, the story of Tony, Janina, and Brian -- one in which we can watch a family being ripped apart -- is replicated every day in America. Those laws, seemingly designed to actually discourage immigration rather than deal with it both thoughtfully and helpfully, have for many years now had a devastating effect on immigrant families.
First and foremost, legal immigrants are not permitted to bring their families with them as fellow green-card holders; this has the fairly obvious effect of separating and dividing families, and in the end encouraging these immigrants to return to their home countries. And if they try to bring their families to America legally, they face a mountain of red tape and interminable waits. As a 2006 study of the issue notes:
- A spouse or minor child of a legal resident (green card holder) from Mexico has a 7 year wait (a 5 year wait from other countries). A married child of a U.S. citizen must wait 7 years to immigrate (11 and 15 years, respectively, if from Mexico or the Philippines).
Moreover, as Celeste Fremon at Witness L.A. observes, the immigration law passed 10 years ago, supposedly intended to force officials to deport criminals, has had a widespread and devastating effect on immigrant families:
- The new law was a doozy.
It subjected every non-citizen to mandatory deportation for committing an "aggravated felony" -- which the IIRIRA, defined so broadly that convictions ranging from murder to minor, one time drug possession all qualified. Even the theft of a $10 video game, with a one-year suspended sentence, met the definition. Worse, the law was retroactive. This meant that old convictions that had been legally expunged were suddenly treated as "active" under the new law.
The very worst thing about the IIRIRA was that removed all judicial discretion. In other words, even if a judge found that an immigrant father had extreme extenuating circumstances and there was every practical reason to allow him to stay in the country, it was impossible. There was no legal recourse. No due process. The law couldn’t distinguish between those who deserved deportation and those whose removal would do far more harm than good. And the banning from the US was forever.
Immediately upon the law's passage, horror stories of lives ruined and families destroyed began to surface There was the Vietnam Vet with three medals who was deported for an 11-year-old burglary conviction, leaving behind a wife and seven children, all U.S. citizens. People adopted as children by American couples were deported. One former child refugee from the genocidal Pol Pot regime was deported back to Cambodia for urinating in public on the construction site where he was employed. Hard working little league dads who'd been caught with a few ounces of weed in their youth were deported.
And these examples aren't anomalies. When I was researching an article on the subject for the LA Times Magazine a few years ago, I ran across scores of such cases—some exotic, most ordinary. All sad.
Fremon notes that legislation -- dubbed "the Anchor Baby bill" by the nativist right which opposes it -- has been proposed giving judges the discretion to consider the effect of a deportation on American citizen children. It's currently working its way through Congress.
Even more significant, though, has been the significant increase in raids on employers of illegal immigrants in the past year by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials. What's happened, of course, is that many of these undocumented workers have spouses and children who are either citizens or legal immigrants. In rounding up massive numbers of these immigrants, and ostensibly concerned about keeping families together, ICE has been sweeping up entire families and placing them in euphemistically titled "family detention centers" that are really nothing less than modern concentration camps. And in doing so, they effects of the incarceration on families has been predictably awful:
- The report lauded the goal of keeping families together but urged DHS to close the Hutto facility, saying that "prison-like institutions" are not appropriate for families. "Family detention is not one that has any precedent in the United States, therefore no appropriate licensing requirements exist," the report said.
... The report recommended that ICE parole asylum-seekers while they await the outcome of their hearings. It also said that immigrant families not eligible for parole should be released to special shelters or other homelike settings run by nonprofit groups and be required to participate in electronic monitoring or an intensive supervision program that would use a combination of electronic ankle bracelets, home visits and telephone reporting.
The 72-page report also criticized the educational services for children; the food service and rushed feeding times for children; the health care, especially for vulnerable children and pregnant women; the therapeutic mental health care as insufficient or culturally inappropriate; and the recreation time as inadequate for children. The review said that families were being held for months in Hutto and for years in the case of the longer-established Berks facility.
The report also cited inappropriate disciplinary practices used against adults and children, including threats of separation, verbal abuse and withholding recreation or using temperature control, particularly extremely cold conditions, as punishment.
Moreover, in many of the sweeps being conducted by the ICE, families are also being torn apart as parents are sent off to be deported while their children are left behind. This was pronouncedly the case this spring in an immigration raid in Massachusetts:
- Massachusetts social workers will travel to a Texas detention center to check on scores of workers from New Bedford accused of being in the country illegally. They were flown there before Massachusetts authorities determined whether all their children were receiving adequate care.
Patrick, at a press conference, and later in a private conference call with Homeland Security officials, protested the decision to fly 90 of the detained workers from Massachusetts to Harlingen, Texas, before state social workers had a chance to inquire about their child-care needs, potentially leaving many children with inadequate care. Two young children were hospitalized yesterday for dehydration after their nursing mothers were taken away, state officials said. Another 7-year-old girl called a state hot line seeking her detained mother. It was unclear last night where their mothers were.
"What we have never understood about this process is why it turned into a race to the airport," Patrick said. "We understand about the importance of processing; we get that. But there are families affected. There are children affected."
The two sides spent the day arguing with each other over the treatment of the detained women and their families, with Patrick's comments prompting a sharp rejoinder from a top Bush administration official.
Immigration agents "worked closely with DSS both before the operation commenced and at every stage of the operation, to be sure that no child would be without a sole caregiver," Julie L. Myers , the assistant secretary of homeland security, wrote in a letter to Patrick.
Myers, as well as a spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said that each of the 361 detainees was asked about child-care needs several times. They pointed out that 60 women who were found to be the sole caregivers to their children have since been released, though they will still face a court hearing.
But Massachusetts officials said some of the women -- most of whom were from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Portugal, and Brazil -- may not have been as forthcoming with federal agents as they might have been with state social workers.
"When you come from nations that have a history of violence against women and a history of a government being repressive, what can you expect?," said US Representative William D. Delahunt, Democrat of Quincy. "You have to have people with the ability to connect with these detainees."
State social workers who arrived late Wednesday at the interim detention site at the former Fort Devens army base in Ayer found 20 detainees, whom federal agents had not identified, and who they determined should be returned to New Bedford: four pregnant or nursing mothers, nine single mothers, and seven detainees who were minors under age 17. But by the time they were given access to the detainees, the 90 others who were sent to Texas had already left on a plane.
DSS Commissioner Harry Spence said he expected a team of social workers to be en route today to Harlingen.
"We expect to find some number of pregnant women, minors, and sole caregivers," said Spence.
Of the detainees who have not been returned to New Bedford or sent to Texas, 116 were flown yesterday to a detention center in Albuquerque, with the other 75 placed in various New England jails.
The debate and logistical issues underscored the complexities of the politically charged immigration issue, with tensions emerging between social service and law enforcement needs. Adding confusion was that most children left behind are US citizens because they were born here, and reuniting them with parents sent back to their native countries may be difficult, state officials said.
... Patrick arrived at the church in the early evening, meeting with several emotional families and advocates. "What you see in this room is a human tragedy, where policy touches people," he said. "There were stories of humiliation, fear, anxiety, uncertainty. It reflects , for me, not what this country is about."
South Coast Today has been maintaining a section front on the raids, in no small part because of the devastating local effects of the raid. Among the stories it features is one explaining what befell a local family because of the raid:
- Lilo and Maria, illegal immigrants, were working at the factory the day of the raid. According to Lilo, by the time federal agents recognized the couple was married and had children at home, Maria had already been fingerprinted. So they released Lilo to care for the children and gave him an order to appear before an immigration judge May 16 in Boston.
Maria was detained and sent to the Bristol County House of Corrections in Dartmouth, where she awaits her release.
"Minute to minute she is thinking about the children," Lilo, who speaks Spanish, told a reporter through an interpreter.
Lilo has spoken to his wife on the telephone, but he has yet to visit her at the jail that is less than 8 miles from their home.
Lilo, Maria and their children are one of 98 families who were divided during this month's raid at the South End factory, according to data collected by Ondine Galvez Sniffin, an immigration attorney with Catholic Social Services. She said the number may be higher since some detainees might be afraid to tell federal officials that they have children or spouses.
Ms. Sniffin estimated that 21 of the 98 families remain separated, while 70 families have been temporarily reunited. Parents who were reunited with their children must still appear in court for deportation hearings. If the court rules in favor of deportation, families will face a difficult decision: Should the family leave the United States together or should family members, including children, who are U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents stay behind?
Fortunately, there is at least an investigation into the ICE's behavior in this case:
- A federal judge has agreed to allow a team of immigration lawyers to continue investigating whether flying more than 200 illegal immigrants to Texas denied them due process under the law.
But U.S. District Court Judge Richard G. Stearns stopped short of the main demand of the federal lawsuit filed by the Guatemalan consul and the lawyers, which was to return those detainees to Massachusetts.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement raided the Michael Bianco Inc. factory two weeks ago, arresting 361 illegal immigrants as well as the owner and several managers. The owner and manager were released on bail the next day, whereas the immigrants were bused to Fort Devens in Ayer. A total of 206 were flown on two separate flights to detention facilities in Texas, where 178 remain in custody.
“The recent ICE actions against hundreds of people in New Bedford, many of whom were sent out of state without due process, raises serious questions about U.S. support for human rights and access to civil legal services,” according to a statement from the attorneys, which includes Greater Boston Legal Services and a number of other private lawyers, all working on the case for free.
But ICE, in declarations made to the court and through its spokesman, asserts that the agency has treated its detainees fairly.
"ICE is fully committed to the legal process for detainees in our custody," said ICE spokesman Marc Raimondi. According to court documents, about 30 detainees have been released after posting bonds, and as many as 60 other detainees have had bond hearings in court. While a number of detainees held in Massachusetts have posted bail and been released, bail has been denied to all but two or three detainees in Texas.
The lawyers claimed that from the day of the raid, ICE has done everything in its power to move the detainees away from their support networks and have denied them access to attorneys, the right to due process and the right to a fair hearing.
"We have very serious concerns about how they went about this," said Harvey Kaplan of the Boston law firm Kaplan, O’Sullivan & Friedman, one of the lead attorneys in the lawsuit. ICE "has done everything they can to rush these people out of the country, everything they can to deny them access (to attorneys)."
Even more disturbing is that the ICE is applying Guantanamo-style tactics to interrogate the detainees:
- John Wilshire Carrera, an immigration lawyer with Greater Boston Legal Services, said that in the initial days after the raid, detainees were denied sleep and interviewed in the middle of the night by ICE agents.
He said ICE agents tried on several occasions to get the detainees to sign a form agreeing to be deported.
"They're being pressured into signing documents. That's something I believe is going on," he said. "They have papers where a box is prechecked to waive your rights, and they’ve been asking them to sign it."
Mr. Raimondi, the ICE spokesman, said detainees have been asked to sign voluntary removal orders.
"I stress the word voluntary," he said. As to the other document alleged to exist by Mr. Wilshire Carrera, Mr. Raimondi said he would need more specific information before he could comment.
This was followed by a hearing in Boston in which it became clear that the ICE's behavior resembled nothing so much as a rogue elephant:
- The "humanitarian crisis" of families being torn apart because of a federal immigration raid could have been avoided, officials testified at the Statehouse yesterday, if federal authorities had taken the state's concerns seriously from the beginning.
The heads of three state agencies appeared before the Joint Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities to discuss the impact of the March 6 raid on New Bedford's children.
"Children were placed in significant jeopardy as a result of the decision not to allow us access," said Harry Spence, commissioner of the Department of Social Services. "All we were asking was that the law be enforced in a way that ensured the safety of the children."
... Gov. Deval Patrick has called the raid's impact on families a "humanitarian crisis."
And the trauma is continuing, according to Dennis Gauthier, head of the DSS office in New Bedford.
His agency discovered two days ago that a 16-year-old girl, "living in fear," had been cared for by a landlord for the past two weeks.
DSS has also placed three teenagers who were swept up in the raid in foster care, he said, because ICE would not allow them to be released to parents who are illegal immigrants.
DSS is still pressing ICE to release 10 parents to care for children, including the mother of a 4-year old boy who is not eating and is severely underweight.
"This child needs his mother back," said Mr. Spence, noting that the child is living with his father. "This child is not safe. This child is at risk. Release the mother with a monitoring bracelet, that's what we've asked."
In the days and weeks before the raid, ICE agents met with state officials. ICE wanted help with traffic, namely a state police escort from the factory to Fort Devens in Ayer with bus loads of detainees. ICE also wanted New Bedford police to shut down the roads around the Rodney French Boulevard factory.
What ICE did not want, according to state officials, was any help or advice in dealing with the families of those arrested.
"The impact on the children and families was an issue that was constantly raised," said Kevin Burke, secretary of the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety. "ICE assured us they had policies and procedures in place, that they had done this many times before . . . We kept asking how they were going to deal with all the children."
ICE turned down two requests from the state for access to those arrested before the raid, and numerous requests afterwards, Mr. Burke said. Only when Gov. Deval Patrick, and U.S. Reps. William Delahunt and Barney Frank began making demands of ICE the day after the raid were state social workers allowed to interview detainees.
When asked by state officials for ICE's written policy on what constituted a "humanitarian release," ICE agents responded that they have no written policy, Mr. Burke said.
Recently, Judge Stearns ordered a hold placed on the ICE's deportation plans, at least until the status of these detainees and their families has been determined. Today, he ruled that those who signed the pressured papers cannot be deported.
What's clear is that these effects are the clear result of anti-immigrant agitation that has placed increasing pressure on the Bush administration to act. And when they have acted, the results have been predictably atrocious, especially for families:
- Arrests of undocumented immigrants have grown 750 percent between 2002 and 2006, going from 485 arrests to 3,667. That dramatic increase in scale and frequency has produced far more visible humanitarian consequences than ever before, an immigrants' advocate said .
"This is the hidden underbelly of immigration enforcement," said Christopher Nugent, a Washington-based immigration attorney. "This is nothing new. It happens all the time."
Nugent and others said families are separated and children left with friends or relatives every day in the course of normal ICE immigration detentions. But the welfare of children affected by immigration raids has become a bigger issue in recent months as the scope of the immigration raids has expanded.
... "America is going to see more and more of this," said John Keller, a Minneapolis immigration attorney who represented some of the 239 Swift & Co. workers detained in Worthington. The raids are "a very blunt tool that is being applied to family situations."
Children can be separated from detained parents for months, while parents await bond hearings, or deportation. Parents who leave the United States face the choice of taking US citizen children with them, or being separated from them permanently in the hope of giving those children better opportunities here. Social service workers in other cities where raids took place told of scrambling to try to get passports for the US citizen children whose parents chose to take them back to the countries they left.
ICE is not obligated to provide for the children of undocumented workers they arrest, or to go easier on those with children, said Victor Cerda, a former ICE general counsel and a 10-year veteran of immigration enforcement.
And as Mark Silva observes, Bush's own proposed immigration reforms will actually have even more devastating effects on immigrant families:
- Under the "guest worker" program that Bush proposes to allow employers to temporarily bring workers into the country, [Sen. Robert] Menendez maintains that workers "would be separated from their children and spouses as they will not be allowed to enter lawfully with the worker."
And under a "temporary worker" plan that Bush proposes to allow millions of undocumented immigrants already here to remain and work, provided they pay fines and learn English, and eventually seek citizenship, Menendez complains that the fines which the president proposes are onerous -- "Under this scheme, a typical family of five would have to pay up to $64,000 in fees and would have to wait up to 30 years in order to finally become U.S. citizens."
The American conservative movement has made an outright fetish in the past 20 years or so of pretending to stand for "family values", wielding such supposed values as a political club to bully their position on everything from abortion to gay marriage.
But while no one has ever adequately explained how allowing gays and lesbians to marry actually undermines families (logically, one would assume that it actually would help families), these same rabid right-wingers have been foaming at the mouth about illegal immigrants and the need to deport them immediately -- with the clear-cut effect of actually devastating many millions of real-life families.
What's become obvious, of course, is that conservatives care no more about real family values than they do "patriotic" values. They just like to wrap themselves in the symbolism and words, while their actions speak much, much louder.
[Note: This is an updated and revamped version of an earlier post.]