As families celebrate Father’s Day, consider the case of Roxroy Salmon. The father of four U.S.-born children, Salmon has lived in the United States for more than 30 years. Yet the Department of Homeland Security now threatens to deport him to Jamaica, a country where he has not resided for decades, due to minor drug convictions from more than 19 years ago for which he served no time. This would effectively deny his children their father by permanently exiling him from his family and their common homeland.
Salmon’s story is hardly exceptional. Each year the federal government deports tens of thousands of non-citizens, many of them with U.S. citizen children, to countries to which they often have tenuous ties. By doing this, the federal government seriously injures children and families, and produces large numbers of a particular type of refugee.
With immigration reform on the table once again, we must restore basic human rights protections to would-be deportees and their children. This would help reverse the massive growth in deportations and divided families brought about by increasingly harsh immigration policing.
According to a report published in April by Human Rights Watch, deportations separated more than one million family members in the United States from a parent or spouse between 1997 and 2007. More than 70 percent of them were the result of non-violent criminal offenses, including possession of marijuana or traffic violations. One-fifth involved individuals who were lawfully present in the United States, sometimes for decades.
The vast majority of the deportees have been undocumented immigrants. An estimated five million children of unauthorized immigrants reside in the United States, more than three million of whom are U.S. citizens. By deporting many of their parents, according to a report released in March by the law firm of Dorsey & Whitney for the Urban Institute, the federal government is doing long-term damage—financial, emotional, psychological, behavioral and educational—to American children.
Although U.S. immigration law allows migrants to apply to cancel a deportation order, the standards are such that obtaining relief is “virtually impossible,” asserts Dorsey & Whitney. This renders the rights and interests of the children of individuals threatened with deportation, according to the report, “all but irrelevant.”
The result is that “citizen children increasingly find themselves separated from one or both parents, or effectively deported with their parents.” In both cases, the deportation apparatus compels parents to make a heart-wrenching choice.
One option is to divide the family by keeping their children in the United States. Another is to decide to keep the family together by uprooting their children from a community and lifestyle that is all they have ever known. In doing so, they often expose the children to socio-economic deprivation given the frequently under-resourced nature of deportees’ “home” countries.
Under both options, the outcome for families is to effectively turn them into refugees. By deporting parents and, often by extension, their children, the federal government is driving them from what is, for all intents and purposes, their homeland.
International human rights conventions indicate that a country cannot deport a non-citizen without carefully considering the violation of any rights. Among a state’s obligations—one affirmed in U.S. law—is to give primary consideration to the “best interests” of children who might be impacted.
In this spirit, international human rights conventions assert a fundamental right to live together with close family members, including minor children. The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld “the right to live together as a family,” calling it in 1977 an “enduring American tradition,” while noting that the right to raise one’s child has been deemed a basic civil right, one “far more precious than property rights.”
Nonetheless, Washington has upended the rights of families with immigrant members and their children through legislation signed by Bill Clinton in 1996. Adopted in the name of antiterrorism, crime-fighting, and national security, these laws—which mandate deportation for a host of legal transgressions no matter when they were committed—deny discretion to judges with rare exceptions.
Passage of the Child Citizen Protection Act (H.R. 182) would provide some significant relief. Introduced by Representative José Serrano, D-N.Y., the bill would allow immigration judges to consider the “best interests” of U.S. citizen children in deportation cases. Such consideration might prevent the Department of Homeland Security from exiling Roxroy Salmon, and denying his children their father. It would also provide some substance to the “family values” rhetorically embraced by Democrats and Republicans alike.
Joseph Nevins teaches geography at Vassar College. His latest book is Dying to Live: A Story of U.S. Immigration in an Age of Global Apartheid (City Lights Books).