Parents in exile

By Michelle Chen Apr 16, 2009

The threat of deportation has loomed heavily over immigrant communities for years, but the issue has never gained much traction in the mainstream immigration debate, perhaps owing to the stigma surrounding so-called “criminal” deportees. But research published by Human Rights Watch shows that the human impact of deportation is becoming harder to ignore. The sweeping 1996 immigration reforms drastically expanded the power of the federal officials and courts to have people deport for various violations—not just those illegally residing in the country but green-card holders as well. The laws have been touted as critical public safety measures. Yet the net effect, according to Human Rights Watch’s analysis, has been a huge number of non-citizens forced into exile for minor, nonviolent offenses, from drug possession to traffic violations:

In reality, 72 percent of those who were deported between 1997 and 2007 for whom we have crime data were expelled from the United States for non-violent offenses…. The top four crimes forming the basis for deportation of all types of non-citizens from the United States were: entering the United States illegally (comprising 24 percent of all deportees for whom we have crime data), driving under the influence of alcohol (7.2 percent), assault (5.5 percent), and immigration crimes (for example, selling false citizenship papers) (5.5 percent). In addition to these "top four," the relatively minor crimes for which non-citizens were most frequently deported include: marijuana possession (2.2 percent), traffic offenses (1.5 percent), and disorderly conduct (0.4 percent). Of course, non-citizens were also deported for more serious violent crimes, including robbery (2.2 percent) and aggravated assault (1 percent). But contrary to popular belief and fear-mongering about criminal behavior by non-citizens, a tiny minority, just 0.3 percent, were deported for any form of intentional homicide.

Activists say changes the 1996 reforms sharply narrowed legal avenues for people to defend themselves from deportation by demonstrating their family and community ties in the United States. In many cases, those facing deportation have grown up or raised families in the US and may have little connection to the language or culture of their country of origin. Overall, the government has separated more than one million family members through deportation since 1997—forcing families into economic and emotional devastation while costing taxpayers billions of dollars. In a testimony on the website of Families for Freedom, a New York-based advocacy group, a Chinese immigrant couple described their struggle to remain intact in defiance of ICE orders:

My wife and I have been here 10 years. We work and support our family together. Our children were born here. We deserve a chance at least to stay together. To be a family. I am here representing thousands of families with a similar situation. Lawyers tell us to hide until the law changes. They keep saying the laws are going to change any minute now. But I have been hearing those rumors for years. I am standing here today, even though I am afraid, because we have to be brave. I have been fighting my case since I came into this country. I came when I was 17. I got detained. I was put in a prison for children. After I was released, my deportation case continued. I think about it every single day for the last 10 years. And no matter how hard I try, there seems to be no solution.

The White House has promised to keep immigration reform on its agenda, but has remained relatively quiet on the issue of deportation. In Congress, Rep. Jose Serrano (D-New York) has introduced legislation to give judges more flexibility to exempt individuals from deportation policies to keep families together. The issue has gained more visibility in recent months in the wake of high-profile workplace immigration raids and struggles in the Haitian immigrant community against the loss of temporary protection from deportation. For now, countless families hope they can avoid a government crackdown long enough for lawmakers to realize that breaking families apart doesn’t constitute sound immigration policy. Image: Standing FIRM