Gregg Krupa, ‘Illegal immigration's fallout: Families split as deportations grow,’ The Detroit News, June 8, 2009
Maria Mena and her husband, Felipe Angelus, were driving home from the grocery store with their three children on April 30, 2008, when federal agents brandishing guns surrounded the car, ordered Angelus out, handcuffed him and led him away.
It was the last time the children saw their father.
"All " they ever said to him was, 'We are taking you home -- to Mexico,' said Mena, a legal resident. "I was eight months' pregnant. The kids were crying. They are still afraid of the cops."
Angelus had entered the country illegally 17 years before his arrest, and Mena said he never committed another crime.
Similar stories across Metro Detroit have prompted calls from officials in Congress, the Catholic Church and advocacy groups for more leniency toward illegal immigrants who pose no threat to public safety or national security.
Critics say parents knowingly place their children at risk when they enter the country illegally.
"Theirs is an argument for open borders," said Bob Dane of the Federation for Immigration Reform, which advocates for increasing enforcement and slowing legal immigration.
"Having children is not instantaneous immunity from facing the consequences of breaking the law."
Leaders of immigrant communities say the recent escalation by federal agencies in deporting illegal immigrants is unraveling the social fabric of these neighborhoods and could start affecting police blotters and government relief rolls in the next decade.
Since the deportation of Angelus, who worked in highway construction, his family has had to turn to Supplemental Security Income to stay afloat. Mena now worries about losing the family home and says school counselors tell her the children need emotional help.Four years after attempts at immigration reform floundered, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of spouses in Metro Detroit are involuntarily separated and their children left without one or both parents.
Four Democratic U.S. senators recently proposed the Reuniting Families Act, to reduce the time deportees are kept from their loved ones. It usually takes years, often a decade or more, before they receive permission to return -- if they ever do.
President Barack Obama says he wants reform by the end of the year.
Weighing the law's effects
Failure to have current residency documentation is a civil violation, punishable by deportation, but some say deporting those who are otherwise law abiding is a harsh penalty that will lead to more social problems.
"We definitely need reform of the immigration system, especially in a way that is respectful in keeping families together," said Bishop Daniel Flores of the Archdiocese of Detroit. "We in the archdiocese have amicable relationships with law enforcement, and a lot of them are doing exactly what the law asks of them. But, particularly when there is a family involved, we ask them to be sensitive and to apply the law with respect for the family situation as much as possible."
Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano has said enforcement should refocus on employers, while other officials in the department stress that laws will be enforced.
"Immigration and Customs Enforcement ... enforces laws as they are written," said Matt Chandler, a spokesman. ICE has been given new direction, Chandler said, but "that is not to say that illegal workers found in these raids will not be arrested."
Until reform is accomplished, advocates for civil rights say, federal investigators should attempt to differentiate between illegal immigrants who have committed further crimes or who pose threats to the national security and undocumented workers who support families.
"No one disputes the right of our government agencies to do their job to the fullest," said Imad Hamad, regional director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.
"However, minor immigration violations cannot be treated in a totally heartless and blind process."
Changing the focus
When the current removal initiative was launched in 2003, it was aimed at fugitives who committed crimes or who were subject to court-ordered removals. But a study by the Migration Policy Institute and the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law determined that immigrants with criminal convictions accounted for only 9 percent of deportees in 2007 -- down from 32 percent in 2003. And 40 percent of the deportees in 2007 had no removal order.
"In the vast majority of the families, a parent or the parents have come only to improve their lives and make a contribution to our country -- they are not here to hurt us," said Viviana Lande, director of Community Immigration Services for the Archdiocese of Detroit.
"Right now, the emphasis is on enforcement, and inevitably the families are going to be affected."
Amid heartbreaking anxiety, deportees sometimes choose to leave their American-born children behind, in a country that offers more opportunity.
Edgardo, 14, and Sixto, 13, have lived with guardians since their mother and father returned to Guatemala in February 2008.
Their two younger sisters live with an aunt and six cousins in Chicago, and the two brothers live in Michigan with friends of their parents.
"My parents both cried and cried," said Edgardo, whose guardians asked that his last name not be used. "We all talked about it for a long, long time.
"We are Americans. We've never been to Guatemala. My dad just said, 'You will have no life where we are going, and we won't be able to support you.'
"But we still don't really understand why they had to leave."