“Families Belong Together” has become the battle cry of those denouncing the Trump administration’s now-ended — but not yet rectified — policy of forcibly separating children from their parents at the border. But the truth is that, in my 10 years of experience defending people from deportation, the tactic of separating families is nothing new. Our immigration system has been tearing families apart, over minimal objections, for decades.
Take “Enrique,” a 60-year-old husband to a U.S. citizen wife, father to four U.S. citizen sons and grandfather to two U.S. citizen grandchildren, who The Bronx Defenders represented in deportation proceedings from 2016 until 2018.
He lived in New York for over 30 years, becoming the patriarch and primary breadwinner of his family. He labored tirelessly as the manager of a national supermarket chain, filed his taxes and attended church weekly. He was described as “the rock of our household” by his adult son. Although Enrique was a lawful permanent resident for over a decade, a conviction for drug possession in 2016— after a 17 year period of sobriety — subjected him to deportation proceedings.
Enrique was thus arrested by ICE and then shipped off to an immigration detention center — housed inside a county jail — where he remained for 15 months as he fought to remain in the United States with his family.
Tens of thousands of immigrants with convictions like Enrique’s are subjected to “mandatory detention,” which means that they can’t be released on bail and thus remain incarcerated for as long as they fight their deportation cases. The jails where ICE detains immigrants are often far from their families, making visitation costly and difficult. Enrique’s family had to travel two hours each way by public transportation just to see him. For all that travel they, like everyone else who tries to visit their loved ones, were awarded with brief visitation hours, and sessions that often occurred through a pane of glass. Phone calls can be prohibitively expensive.
And, while court appearances at New York’s detained immigration court historically provided the few opportunities for immigrants facing deportation to be in the same room as their family members, ICE stopped bringing individuals to court to see the judge in June, electing to beam them in from the jails via televideo conference instead.
Enrique fought to remain connected to his family during his detention, frequently writing letters and helping his children with homework by phone. Still, his absence during this period unraveled the threads of the fabric of their lives. Due to his detention, his eldest son dropped out of college to help pay the bills, while his teenage twins’ grades slipped as they became plagued by emotional and behavioral struggles. His wife’s chronic health conditions worsened and she had to undergo surgery. The family sold their cars to try to make ends meet as the entire family fell months behind in rent, teetering on the brink of eviction.
Enrique kept fighting his deportation with the hope of one day being reunified with his family, but thousands of people who are separated from their families and confined to detention facilities simply agree to deportation, resulting in a more permanent rupture of the family unit.
Something as simple as access to counsel can help keep immigrant families together. A recent report by the Vera Institute of Justice showed that detained immigrants represented by counsel achieved successful outcomes 48 percent of the time. But most immigrants don’t have that access: A different study indicated that only 14 percent of detained noncitizens across the nation obtained counsel to defend against their deportation case.
Unlike most other detained people facing deportation, Enrique had access to our counsel through the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project, at no cost to him. Enrique’s defense team pursued all possible avenues for relief, seeking his release on bail, political asylum and a special waiver for long-term green card-holders. Notwithstanding his access to lawyers and eligibility for relief, Enrique still lost his case and was deported back to a country in Central America that he no longer knows, leaving his family behind.
The separation of families should not be a result of any enforcement scheme of our immigration laws. Whether it is ICE forcibly removing the children from their parents at the border, its mandatory detention policies or the administration’s expanded enforcement priorities, our immigration system has an unjust, punitive impact on families. This impact begs the question of whether the separation of immigrant families is intentionally designed to destroy people’s hope and break their will so that they forfeit their rights and leave.
There are certainly differences between the recent developments at the border and the everyday enforcement practices reflected by Enrique’s experience. But both center on an immigration system that has been tearing families apart for years on end. We can and must make this a turning point. The cry that families belong together must grow even louder and carry the pain of families like Enrique’s. The cries of those families must be ours too.
Sarah Deri Oshiro is the Managing Director of the Immigration Practice at The Bronx Defenders.