Torn Apart, Families Struggle to Stay Together

By Seth Freed Wessler Oct 22, 2009

This piece was co-authored by Seth Wessler and Julianne Hing. In recent months, the Obama administration has announced plans to expand the 287(g) program despite widespread abuses and racial profiling. It’s also pouring money into "Secure Communities," a program that puts immigration agents into local jails. Meanwhile, more beds are being added to the vast and notoriously flawed detention system. The White House officially put immigration reform on the back burner at the same time that they’re heating up enforcement tactics on the side. Families are being torn apart by deportation at the treacherous intersection of immigration enforcement and the criminal justice system. ColorLines went on the road from the US to Jamaica to report their stories. In Kingston, Jamaica, Marlene Brown labors tirelessly with the Family Unification and Resettlement Initiative, also known as FURI, an organization that helps ease the adjustment of deportees who arrive on Department of Homeland Security’s weekly charter flights into Norman Manley International Airport. Brown was deported herself, after being found guilty by association when her boyfriend at the time was caught driving her car with drugs inside. She’s been gone for three years now and longs daily to be back with her two sons who are growing up without her. Since her deportation, Brown’s older son graduated from West Point, and her younger son from high school. She was absent for both ceremonies. All her fire to change the future for other families, if not for her own, is poured into counseling newly deported people to help them find footing in a country many have not seen since their childhood and where they have nobody. Obama’s enforcement tactics, taken from Bush’s toolbox, exacerbate a law passed back in 1996, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Individual Responsibility Act. With the bill’s passage, any non-citizen, even if they’ve lived in the U.S. for almost their entire lives and have families, homes and businesses to worry about, are vulnerable to detention and deportation if they come into contact with the criminal justice system. Deportation is now the mandatory result of a long list of convictions including many low level misdemeanors, overwhelmingly for drugs. According to the Schriro report commissioned by Homeland security, 60 percent of the 380,000 people who have already been placed in immigration custody this year were sent there by state and local police and jails. Meanwhile, the report finds that two-thirds of those picked up by local police under 287(g) had committed no crime. Families of color are hit the hardest because the criminal justice system targets Black and brown communities, profiling, arresting and locking up far more people of color than whites as a proportion of the total population. Families are in crisis. In Washington, D.C., Yvonne Johnson’s house is at risk of slipping into foreclosure since wiring all her disposable income, of which there was almost none, to her son Christopher in Kingston. Christopher Johnson, who turned 40 this year, was deported to Kingston this summer and has no family who will take him in. His mother worries that he will become homeless. She has good reason to be concerned. Her son is mentally disabled and stays for the time being in a temporary shelter on the outskirts of the Jamaican capital. He has no idea where he is going to go and fears joining the hundreds of deportees who end up living under bridges. In Jamaica and in the US, families are organizing for more fair policies while they support each other after deportation’s blow. In New York, Kathy McArdle is an active member of Families for Freedom, a network of families who have faced the trauma of deportation. Four years ago her partner Calvin was deported. Having lost the family’s main breadwinner, she and their now 11-year-old son Josh live in a homeless shelter. McArdle’s partner Calvin James lives a solitary life in Jamaica, where he works a series of contingent jobs and longs to be with his family. Families for Freedom is organizing around the Child Citizen Protection Act, which would give discretion back to immigration judges in instances when a person facing deportation has children. The act is a simple solution to avoid the devastating collateral effects of deportation. As we wait for immigration reform, the Obama Administration quietly bolsters its immigration enforcement agenda. The effects of this are wrecking lives and families of color will continue to be leveled. Congress should immediately terminate the 287(g) and "Secure Communities" programs. Meanwhile, Congress should pass the Child Citizen Protection Act to keep families together. Our families hold us up. We must rectify the harmful policies that tear them down. Julianne Hing is co-editor of the ColorLines magazine blog, RaceWire, and editorial assistant of ColorLines magazine. Seth Wessler is a writer and Research Associate with Applied Research Center. They coauthored a ColorLines magazine investigative series on families torn apart by deportation from New York to Jamaica. The Torn Apart article series and multimedia project is available at