Children Take their “Wish for the Holidays” to Capitol Hill
By Emily Butera, Senior Program Officer for Migrant Rights and Justice, Women's Refugee Commission and Kate Kelly, Washington College of Law Distinguished Fellow, Women's Refugee Commission
“Children need to be with their parents so they can succeed. I just want to be with my family. Please don’t take my parents away, and I promise I will be a productive member of society.”
—Letter from a young boy from Florida, read at the Wish for the Holidays press conference
Over the past few months, thousands of young people across the country have written letters to Congress as part of the A Wish for the Holidays campaign. Each letter expresses one shared wish: an end to immigration policies that separate children from their parents. Last week, a delegation of over 50 children and youth—accompanied by staff from Women’s Refugee Commission’s Migrant Rights and Justice program—visited Capitol Hill to hold a press conference with Representative Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA). They hand-delivered the letters to the members of Congress who will play a key role in upcoming immigration reform efforts.
The children’s letters are often heartbreaking and show the true cost of immigration policies that tear families apart. They reveal what it is like to grow up without their parents and the fear many children have that their parents will be taken away from them. Many expressed the belief that children need love and care from their parents to do well in life. The themes articulated in the children’s letters form the foundation of the Children’s Declaration on Immigrant Rights and Family Unity, which the delegation presented at the press conference and sent to every member of Congress.
The courageous youth who spoke at the press conference gave the letters a moving, human face. A young Florida boy whose father is in an immigration detention facility talked about missing his father’s goodbye kiss when he leaves for school in the morning. A California teenager who is separated from her mother, who was deported more than five years ago, spoke about her struggle to adjust as she was moved from relative to relative. And a young U.S. citizen from Florida, Brenda, shared her story of crossing the Rio Grande with her mother when she was four years old. She now lives in fear that—after everything they have been through—she will lose her mother to immigration authorities. As Brenda so poignantly said, “I don’t believe people in Congress understand what family separation is really like. If they did, they would stop the policies that are tearing our families apart.”
The Women’s Refugee Commission is proud to amplify the voices of children who have been touched by immigration enforcement. Today, 5.5 million children in the U.S. have at least one undocumented parent. And, 4.5 million of these children are U.S. citizens. Between July 1, 2010 and September 31, 2012, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) issued 204,810 deportation orders for parents of U.S. citizen children. By the end of next summer, nearly 100,000 more parents could be deported unless serious efforts are made to reform our immigration system in a way that protects and respects the well-being of children, women and families. These children have suffered for too long, with the constant threat of permanent separation from their parents.
Current policies fail to acknowledge that the majority of women and children migrate to be with family, or to make a better life for their loved ones. These families desperately want to live without the constant fear of deportation and separation, yet our immigration system offers them few legal ways to migrate and even fewer pathways to citizenship. The collateral effects of these poorly calibrated policies are devastating and lasting.
Take the case of five-year-old Jenny, whose mother Maria is desperately trying to reunify with her. Jenny was luckier than many children because Maria was able to arrange care and maintain contact with her from Mexico. But Jenny is still confused about why her mother cannot be with her even though she has tried three times to make the dangerous crossing. When she speaks to her mother, Jenny tells her, “Mami, I want to be with you. I will give you papers when I grow up.”
Maria had lived with her family in North Carolina for many years but returned to Mexico because her father was dying. She was able to take care of him and attend his funeral, but had no legal way to get back to her family in the United States afterwards. “Many people cross to seek riches, a truck, a new house,” she said, “but mothers need to be with their children out of necessity. I am only crossing to see my daughter again, nothing more. She [Jenny] has to sacrifice her mother’s love to stay in her country. But, children don’t only need education; they need their mothers to care for them too.”
Jenny and her mother, like the thousands of children who wrote letters, need meaningful immigration reform that offers them a way to stay together.