Congress needs to understand something important as it works to pass a new immigration law: Neither a border nor even the threat of detention can keep a determined parent from trying to reach a child who needs her care.
To ignore this fact, when we have the opportunity to create an immigration system that truly meets the needs of our families and communities, would not only be a lost opportunity for good public policymaking, but also would put countless lives at risk.
I have spent the majority of my career working with immigrant victims of domestic abuse. Although it can be challenging, it has proven to be extremely rewarding and fulfilling work. For more than a decade, I have had the privilege to work with men, women, and children who have taught me how to persevere.
Harsh Laws Undermine Critical Victim Protections
Fortunately, in most of the cases I see, something can be done. I often can assist my clients with filing self-petitions under the Violence Against Women Act based on domestic abuse, or applying for U Visas based on being crime victims, or at the very least can refer them to counseling services and assistance to obtain orders of protection. I have learned to appreciate the many small steps it takes a person to move from a life of abuse, victimization, and dependence to a life of freedom and security. It is not easy, and dealing with the complex bureaucratic immigration system is a burden that often takes a backseat to the more urgent issues of personal safety, survival, and escaping abuse.
Despite progress in our laws to protect victims of domestic violence, the U.S. government’s focus on harsh enforcement practices and rollback of basic due process protections — including the chance to see a judge before being deported – have led to victims being denied true security. Deportation can be life-threatening for people who are forced to return to countries where they will not be protected from domestic violence, or for the children they leave behind in precarious situations in the United States. Deportation can mean death.
When Carmela’s* case came to me, she had recently been released from immigration detention. As a child, she was abused by her parents and older siblings. The abusive home life led her to get married at a very young age, but her husband also became abusive. Carmela fled her husband’s abuse and came to the United States. She eventually married again in the United States, only to be victimized again.
In 1995, an immigration judge granted Carmela voluntary departure. She left the United States to comply with the judge’s order. Unfortunately, the attorney she had at the time did not submit the appropriate paperwork so that the U.S. government would know that she complied with the departure order. Thus, her voluntary departure, which would have allowed her potentially to return to the U.S. lawfully at any time, turned into a deportation order, which permanently barred her from lawfully returning to the United States.
Carmela's Struggle to Be Near Her Children
Carmela’s abusive husband insisted that she return to the United States and arranged for her to return unlawfully. Carmela felt desperate, as if she had no other choice, because she needed to care for her children. She returned to the United States, only to again be caught by immigration officials, detained, and subject to reinstatement of her deportation order. Even after she was deported, the abusive cycle continued and Carmela’s husband once again arranged for her to return to the United States unlawfully.
Carmela eventually was able to leave her abusive relationship, but without legal immigration status, it has been difficult to provide financially for her family. Her 17-year-old daughter Magaly is an excellent student who has lived in the United States since she was one. Magaly is applying for temporary protection from deportation under the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Carmela also has helped to raise an “adopted” U.S. citizen daughter. Another daughter, Ariana, has become a naturalized U.S. citizen and begun a family of her own.
After a car accident in 2012, a police officer arrested Carmela and transferred her to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody. She was detained for three months, during which Magaly was left without her mother. Current immigration law denies Carmela a hearing in front of an immigration judge because of her prior deportation order. NIJC has helped Carmela file two applications for a stay of removal and a request for prosecutorial discretion, since she easily falls into what the Obama administration has designated as “low priority” for deportation.
However, with her prior removal order, Carmela does not qualify for any long-term immigration relief. If Carmela were able to qualify for permanent legal status, she would be able to solidify the roots she has established in her community, with her family. Carmela and Magaly would not be afraid that ICE could show up at their doorstep any day and take Carmela into custody again. Magaly would have the opportunity to become a permanent resident and be able to pursue dreams of a college education after she graduates from high school this year. Instead, the family lives in fear that Carmela can be deported any day.
Laws Should Protect, Not Punish, Families
Congress needs to rebuild our immigration system so that it includes people like Carmela and Magaly. Carmela should not be punished for returning to the United States to care for her children. She should be afforded a hearing in front of an immigration judge and an opportunity to share her story. She should not have to fear returning to immigration detention. She is not a criminal or a flight risk. Rather, she is a mother and a provider. She should be allowed to stay in the United States and obtain long-term immigration status to build a life with her family, free from abuse and fear.
And if my argument is not persuasive enough, read Magaly's own words from her DACA work authorization application, where she tells the U.S. government why she wants a chance for her family to build a future in the United States:
Trisha Teofilo is a legal supervisor and Board of Immigration Appeals-accredited representative for the Immigrant Legal Defense Project at Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center.
Rethink Immigration is a new blog series in which National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) staff, clients, and volunteers share their unique perspectives and specific recommendations on what Congress and the Obama administration must include in comprehensive immigration reform to create an inclusive, fair, and humane immigration system. We hope to show the profound impact that our country’s complex and outdated immigration laws and decades of draconian enforcement have had on everyone in our society. Click here to read more about NIJC’s principles and priorities for immigration reform.
*All names have been changed