Rep. Gutierrez: Stop Deporting Parents as Reform Debate Unfolds

After new data reveals rapid pace of parental deportation, key congressional leader and advocates pressure President Obama to broaden his DREAM Act order.

By Seth Freed Wessler Dec 18, 2012

Following the release of figures showing the federal government carried out over 200,000 deportations of parents of U.S. citizens in just over two years, advocates and elected officials are ratcheting up calls for Congress to pass immigration reform and for President Obama to deploy his executive power to protect immigrant families. "As we deal with the ‘fiscal cliff’ and gear up for immigration reform and legalizing immigrants, we are pushing more than 90,000 parents of U.S. citizens per year off of the ‘deportation cliff’," Rep. Luis Gutierrez said in statement to The Illinois Democrat has been a key player in immigration reform debates in Congress. "Administratively stopping the deportations is an urgent matter that could be a catalyst for permanent, legislative reform," Gutierrez noted.

Yesterday, reported new figures we obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request showing that between July 1, 2010, and Sept. 31, 2012, nearly 23 percent of all deportees–or, 204,810 deportations—were parents who reported having citizen children. [See the full data set here.] Congressional leaders and the White House have promised a renewed push for immigration reform next year. But while advocates call for legislation, many say they’re not content to let tens of thousands more parents be deported as Congress deliberates over the shape of a new law. "We shouldn’t be deporting parents who we hope to legalize in immigration reform and leaving their children in foster care or in some other limbo," said Gutierrez.

Deferred Action for Parents

"We’re going to continue holding President Obama, the Democrats and Republicans accountable," said Carlos Amador, board co-chair of United We Dream, a national coalition of youth-led immigrant rights organizations that formed to pass the DREAM Act, a bill that would have granted a path to citizenship for young undocumented immigrants who came to the country as kids.

For years, the DREAMers, as the youth call themselves, pushed for a legislative fix to their immigration problems, but as it became clear no such bill would get through Congress, advocates and young immigrants pivoted to demanding the Obama administration halt deportations. This summer, they won. President Obama announced the "Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals" program in June, and in August, the federal government began issuing work permits for eligible young undocumented immigrants.

Federal authorities reported on Friday that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has granted deferrals to over 100,000 DREAMers since Aug. 15. The agency is still processing many of the 367,903 applications it has received. The Migration Policy Institute estimates that there are approximately 1.76 million young people who may be eligible for relief.

After the victory, United We Dream announced the group would shift from a strategy focused on young people to a broader immigration reform bill that includes their parents. But Amador acknowledges that an immigration reform bill may take time and says the group may also push the Obama administration to expand the "deferred action" initiative to include parents. "We’ve proven that administrative action is something the president can do," Amador said. "If he’s stating now that he’s committed, we should not rule out that we can put pressure to get the administration to use its power to help keep our parents and other parents here." Gutierrez also said that the administration should "extend the pro-active deportation relief of DACA to the parents of U.S. citizens who can show they are productive members of our community."

For children left behind, the loss of a parent can be shattering. Eliza Morales, a 19-years-old woman from Los Angeles whose mother was deported, spoke at a press conference on Capitol Hill last week, as part of the We Belong Together campaign, which is calling on Congress to pass immigration reform. "In 2008, when I was 14, my mother was stopped at an immigration checkpoint while she was driving to pick me up at school," Morales said. "Two days passed by with no sign of her and then I finally got a call from my mother. She was in Tijuana, and she told me she had gotten deported. There is no feeling that can compare to what I felt that night besides death. I felt totally empty and alone."

Some children whose mothers and fathers are deported end up stuck in foster care. A 2011 investigation by estimated that there were at least 5,100 children in foster care who face barriers to reuniting with their deported mother or father.

ICE Actions Not Enough

Many immigrants and advocates held hopes that new deportation guidelines announced last year would slow the deportations of parents. In June 2011, Immigration and Customs Enforcement chief John Morton issued a "prosecutorial discretion" memo, calling on agents to weigh factors like whether an immigrant has U.S.-citizen kids before making deportation decisions. But the numbers we reported yesterday show that rates of deportation have remained nearly unchanged from the period before the discreation memo, with a small decline in the most recent few months. ICE officials say most of the parents whom they deport are not eligible for relief because they’ve been convicted of crimes or were previously deported. And agency officials tell that ICE is proactively implementing policies to protect parents in deportation proceedings. "ICE works with individuals in removal proceedings to ensure they have ample opportunity to make important decisions regarding the care and custody of their children," ICE spokesperson Gillian Christenson wrote in a statement.

Officials also tell that the agency plans to work with community groups to disseminate resources to detained parents about their parental rights and will provide transportation up to two hours away from detention centers to family court proceedings if detainees’ children are in foster care. Further, officials say ICE will allow some parents to return after deportation to fight for their parental rights in court. They point to the case of Felipe Montes, a deported Mexican father who lost his children to foster care and who ICE allowed to return to the United States on a humanitarian parole so that he could attend family court hearings in North Carolina. That permit was granted after Montes’s case drew national attention, including a petition with 20,000 signatures demanding the family’s reunification. After two years apart from his three U.S.-citizen kids, a state judge last month granted Montes custody of his children.

ICE staffers acknowledge that Montes is the only parent so far who has been allowed to return on a similar parole. And advocates note that while such allowances may help a handful of parents, it’s unlikely that enough of them will be granted to significantly shrink the number of kids in foster care. So some immigrant rights groups argue the only way to stop the mass deportation of mothers and fathers is to halt deportation programs that target them. "As the president prepares to push Congress for immigration reform, he would be right to push his own agencies to clean up their practices and reverse the policies, like Secure Communities, that have led to so many shattered families," said Pablo Alvarado, executive director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, in a statement released yesterday.

Secure Communities is a program that targets immigrants held in local jails. While the Obama administration claims it targets serious criminals, over 40 percent of immigrants with convictions picked up through the program were charged with low-level crimes including traffic violations. Additionally, a quarter of people deported through the program were not convicted of crimes but rather violated immigration laws.

"Our children and families simply cannot wait any longer for relief," said Wendy Cervantes, vice president for Immigration and Child Rights at the D.C.-based group First Focus. "These alarming numbers highlight the urgent need for Congress to work together to pass immigration reform that provides a pathway to citizenship and that keeps families together," she added. Like Amador and Rep. Gutierrez, Cervantes says the president should act. "The Administration will also need to consider what immediate action can be taken in lieu of immigration reform to prevent the continued separation of families at record-setting numbers."