Unheard Voices: Immigrant Children
WASHINGTON—Many voices are speaking loudly on the immigration crisis at the Southwest border. Strongly held opinions are voiced for and against immigration reform. Other voices, though, that you don’t hear often are much more affected by U.S. immigration laws and policies—namely, the immigrant children.
Mainstream media doesn’t typically quote these children.
To rectify this omission, a briefing was held July 9 on Capitol Hill to hear American kids tell their stories of family separations. Titled, “Since My Mother Left,” the event was sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee and Senator Robert Menendez (D-N.J.).
About 185,886 children were affected by the deportation of a parent in 2012—in just one year, according to Human Impact Partners, an immigrant advocacy organization that measures the health and psychological impacts on children who have had their homes disrupted by the loss of a parent or of both parents.
“This year, the Obama administration reached 2 million deportations, tearing apart countless families and communities,” said Amy Gottlieb, program director of the American Friends Service Committee Immigrant Rights Program in Newark.
Gottlieb said she has been working the immigration issue for 18 years and that this was the third briefing of this sort. “We keep coming and families keep being torn apart. Something is wrong, desperately wrong here,” she said at the conclusion of the briefing.
After the briefing, children and families met with members of Congress to request their support for more humane immigration policies.
The Stories of Children Separated From Parents
Fifteen-year-old Javier Rodriguez’s story is typical of the stories that were told. He misses his stepfather, Rafael, whom he said was hard working and a responsible parent. Javier is from Dover, N.J., and is the eldest of three brothers. Rafael treated all the boys as his own, although only the 3-year old was his biologically. Javier’s biological father had left the family long ago. Javier said that after Rafael entered their lives six years ago, the family had changed for the better.
Rafael was held in the county jail for two months and then transferred to a detention facility. Without understanding what he was signing, he signed a voluntary departure form and was deported a month ago, said Javier.
“I don’t know how we are going to make it without Rafael. My mom has no job. I am applying for jobs but not many 15-year-olds get hired. All I ask every day is to have him back in our house. I get sad to see my 3-year-old brother cry and ask for his father and when he is coming back … Congress should fix [the immigration system] and no one should be detained and deported from their families.”
The moderator of the event was Kadi Cissi, 22, who spoke of the trauma she experienced when her mother was deported in 2002. “As a 9-year-old, to hear that your mother is in jail … it’s an unexplainable feeling because you can’t explain it and you don’t understand it. And no one is able to explain it to you. You’re forced to suffer the fate on your own and spend the rest of your life wondering why you had to experience something so big for a 9-year-old to experience.”
Jennifer Anandarajah, 21, spoke of her separation from her father, and the imminent possibility of his deportation. She witnessed the pain and humiliation he suffered from having to wear an ankle brace monitor all the time.
“My father was detained for two and a half years in New Jersey. It left me and my mother feeling helpless every day. We constantly lived in the fear that my father would be deported back to Sri Lanka where he knew he would face torture and death as a minority,” she said.
Her father was able to get a delay in deportation proceedings for one year but still faces deportation. After four years, Jennifer said the ankle brace was finally removed.
‘Call Them Refugees’
Rush Holt (D-N.J.) said immigrants fleeing Central America and elsewhere and coming to the United States is “not a sudden crisis,” but has been building up for months and years.
“If the House of Representatives had acted on comprehensive immigration reform a year ago, there would already be in place a way to deal with the problem,” he said.
Many of the tens of thousands of children—some little kids and even toddlers—”are finding themselves alone and scared in the United States. They are refugees and we must call them refugees. That’s how we start, by using the appropriate language. And we have to recognize that this is the responsibility of the United States of America. There are things we can and should do to look after these children with their best interest first. They are not numbers or objects,” the congressman said.
Holt expressed disgust with the immigration practice of placing many children in small holding cells for weeks.
Holt spurned the frequently mentioned comment that the children should be turned around at the border. “Send them back to what? To violence and inhumane conditions? We in good conscience can’t do that.”
It’s also illegal to send a potentially trafficked child back at the border, as several Republican leaders advocate. The William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, signed into law by President George W. Bush, states that unaccompanied alien children (except from Mexico and Canada) caught by Border Patrol must be transferred within 72 hours to Health and Human Services, which becomes responsible for the child’s care and housing. The law requires that if the child does not qualify to stay, that the child must be safely repatriated. That provision would preclude turning the child away unattended at the border.
Sen. Menendez could not attend the briefing where he was scheduled to speak, as he was called away to chair a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. At a June 19th news conference, Menendez was in agreement with Holt on the importance of refugee status for most immigrants. Menendez’s 20-point plan released at the June press conference says that immigrants should have the ability to raise asylum claims and deserve due process.
The 20-point plan stated, “According to UNHCR data, 58 percent of unaccompanied minors may have a viable claim to refugee protections under international law.”
On children, it states, “Our immigration laws do not provide for a child to have an attorney or guardian appointed on their behalf. Small children are being put in front of judges with little to no assistance. No child, whatever age, should face immigration court alone.”