Immigrant Children Tell Congress Their “Wish for the Holidays” - Keep Our Families Together

 Izamar is asking Congress for one holiday wish: to keep her family together. 

The18-year-old from Waukegan, Ill., is facing a daughter’s worst nightmare: the prospect of losing a parent to deportation. Her father was arrested in February for driving without a license and is now in deportation proceedings.

“Sometimes I can’t sleep, I can’t eat, I can’t do anything,” she writes. “I don’t know if I will be OK without him.”

Over 5,000 Letters

Izamar’s letter is one of more than 5,000 letters from young people across the country that were delivered to Congress last week, with one simple message: To keep their families together. 

The letters were part of the national campaign, “A Wish for the Holidays,” organized by We Belong Together, a project of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum. 

“Children feel strongly that they have a voice in the policies made in this country, and the best way for them to have a voice is through letter-writing because they can’t vote,” said Andrea Franks, a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher in New York City. She spoke to journalists from the ethnic media during a teleconference hosted by New America Media and We Belong Together. Franks mobilized her students to send in more than 200 letters to Congress.

In one of the letters, Gabriel Santos, 11, of Portland, Ore., says his family, originally from the Philippines, is “lucky enough to have citizenship papers.” But in his letter, speaking for all children who are not so lucky, Santos stated, “I think it would be horrible to wake up and see that my parents weren't there and I had to go to a foster home.” 

In the first six months of 2011, 46,000 parents were deported from the United States, according to the report “Shattered Families,” released last month by the Applied Research Center. More than 5,000 children of detained or deported parents are currently living in foster care, the report found. Some 15,000 children could face the same fate in the next five years.

Another report released last year by the Women’s Refugee Commission, called “Torn Apart by Immigration Enforcement,” found that families often face permanent separation, and in some cases parental rights are terminated. 

“[Women] and our children are impacted disproportionately by deportations,” said Miriam Yeung, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum.

Women who are undocumented may be afraid to go to the hospital or walk their children to school, said Yeung. Those who are victims of domestic violence are too afraid of immigration authorities to call the police. 

Undocumented mothers live in “constant fear of being separated from their children,” said Yeung, and their children live with the same fear. 

HELP for Separated Children Act 

In June 2010, U.S. Sens. Al Franken, D-Minn., and Herb Kohl, D-Wisc., introduced the Humane Enforcement and Legal Protections (HELP) for Separated Children Act in an attempt to ensure children’s safety during immigration raids.

This year, a Department of Homeland Security memo on prosecutorial discretion noted the importance of taking family ties into consideration -- such as parents who have U.S.-born kids -- when determining who is a low-priority case for deportation.

Wendy Cervantes, vice president of immigration and child rights policy for First Focus, a national bipartisan organization based in Washington, D.C., called for the quick implementation of the guidelines outlines in the memo. She said policies need to be revised to “ensure that detained and deported parents retain due process rights.”

“Keeping families together is a value we should all uphold,” said Cervantes. “The bottom line is that [immigration policies] can be enforced in a way that prevents families from being separated.”

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