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Separation Anxiety: How Immigration Laws Fail to Keep Families Connected

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What happens to a family after one of its members, the chief breadwinner, is deported? For those who are left behind, what are available options for supplemental income? When minor children are involved, how are they affected? Earlier today, the Post-Deportation Human Rights Project released a report that addresses all these issues.

The Post-Deportation Human Rights Project is part of Boston College's Center for Human Rights and International Justice. Its stated mission is "to reintroduce legal predictability, proportionality, compassion and respect for family unity into the deportation laws and policies in the United States", using research, direct representation, legal and policy analysis, among other tools.

Keeping Families Connected/Mantiendo a las Familias Conectadas is a critical analysis of the impact of deportation on families. In minor children, the impact of deportation manifested itself in the form of "academic problems, sadness, crying, sleep and appetite loss, insecurity about the future, worry, fear, nightmares, speech difficulties, withdrawing and tantrums." Forty four percent of families interviewed reported that actual or threatened separation from deportation impacted their children's well-being. Seventy eight percent of the families interviewed described the experience and/or threat of detention and deportation as creating disruption to their families.

One family in particular exemplifies the reality of disruption due to detention and deportation. In October 2004, Elary Jeffers was deported from Boston to the Caribbean island of Nevis, the country of his birth. Mr. Jeffers left behind his four-year old son, Dontel, for whom he was the primary care-giver. After Mr. Jeffers was deported, Dontel's mother assumed custody of the minor child. But Dontel was soon placed in foster care, since his mother had a substance abuse problem. Four months later, Dontel made headline news in the Boston Globe -- he had allegedly been beaten to death by the foster parent.

The findings of the report by the Post-Deportation Human Rights Project re-inforces those made by Human Rights Watch almost a year ago in Forced Apart (By the Numbers). Using census data and figures from the Pew Hispanic Center, Human Rights Watch report estimates that just over 1 million family members have been separated from their loved ones by deportation.

Given the impact of detention and deportation on families, immigration laws should be amended to allow legal immigrants faced with deportation to ask a judge to permit them to remain in the United States, particularly when their crimes are comparatively minor and they have long-standing family ties to the United States.

Arlene M. Roberts is the author of The Faces of Detention and Deportation: A Report on the Forced Repatriation of Immigrants from the English-speaking Caribbean.