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Policies that tear apart immigrant families

By | February 5, 2012

Stoneleigh Fellow Liza Rodriguez authored an open letter to First Lady Michelle Obama that is published in The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Dear Michelle:

I hope you don’t mind the first-name basis. As one of many women around the country who have also worked to strengthen vulnerable communities, I have felt a special connection with you that goes back to the 2008 primaries. Your pre-White House work developing young people to lead social and economic change in their neighborhoods and your current efforts supporting the health and well-being of military families illustrate to me your understanding of the conditions needed for children and families to thrive in our communities.

For this reason, I am requesting your assistance with another severely traumatized group: the thousands of immigrant families who are being torn apart by our government through the deportation process.

Children and youth – born here or brought by their parents – are being needlessly separated from their parents due to counterproductive immigration policies and proceedings. These children are loved and cared for by parents whose only “crime” has been to dream of a better life in the United States.

President Obama’s immigration policies have been much harsher than his predecessor’s: The administration deported nearly 400,000 undocumented immigrants in fiscal year 2011, compared with 370,000 during George W. Bush’s final year in office. Out of those deported last year, 45 percent had not committed either a felony or misdemeanor. A large proportion – 46,000 between January and June alone – were parents of U.S.-born children. Yet, our government deported these parents and also, according to a study conducted by the Applied Research Center, placed about 5,000 of their children in foster care.

Having worked both with immigrant communities and the child-welfare system in Philadelphia, I am doubly aghast at these developments. It is deplorable that our government is tearing children away from their parents and inflicting trauma from which they might never recover. I am shocked at the sheer cruelty of placing children from safe and loving homes in foster care – a system designed as the last resort for children who have been abused or neglected.

Over the last decade, child-welfare systems around the country have worked very hard to reduce the number of children in foster care – from 559,000 in 1999 to 424,000 in 2009 – by investing in family support and violence-prevention strategies. Placing children in foster care due to the deportation of their parents goes against every principle enshrined in child-welfare policy and practice.

I personally know immigrant families who have taken great risks to provide safe and loving homes for their children and who, on top of their work and family responsibilities, have found time to give back to their community in the United States.

One couple work full time in restaurants and coordinate schedules to make sure someone is home when their daughter returns from middle school. They also take English classes one or two nights a week. A few years back, the dad started a community group to improve safety in his neighborhood. With the assistance of a local community-based organization, he and his group overcame longtime fears of law enforcement and reached out to the local police. They worked with the precinct’s leadership on civic projects designed to improve their community’s safety.

Another friend of mine came as an older adult to Philadelphia to join her sister’s family. When I first met her, she worked full time at a factory, took English classes twice a week, and trained at night as a peer health educator with a medical team from a local hospital. For years, she has had a full-time schedule during the day and provided cervical cancer prevention education to women in her community at night.

At least half of the people we are deporting are just like my friends. They are hardworking, loving caregivers engaged in their community. We are tearing children away from the kind of people we should be upholding as model parents. At a time of fiscal austerity, it defies logic to spend millions of public child-welfare dollars on foster care for children who come from safe and loving homes and whose parents not only hold full-time jobs, but also serve their communities.

As President Ronald Reagan once said, “I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and lived here, even though some time back they may have entered illegally.” Please help stop the forced separation of families. People like my friends need your help to preserve their families and fulfill the dream pursued by so many before them.



Originally published in The Philadelphia Inquirer.