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Too Close for Comfort: President Obama Should Meet With Families of Unauthorized Immigrants

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Yolanda looks directly at the camera and pauses. What to say that hasn't already been said? How to weave into a short paragraph a lifetime of uncertainty, guilt, and fear as it relates to her 22-year-old brother's immigration status? Will her story sound maudlin, insincere, self-serving perhaps? Will all this be for naught? She clears her throat, grips her brother's hand, and begins to speak.

Back in mid-April 2011, the president of the United States swung open the doors of the White House to chat immigration reform with, among others, Rev. Alan Sharpton, New York City Mayor Bloomberg, LA City Councilmember Garcetti, Facebook's COO Sheryl Sandberg, and former LA City Police Chief Bill Bratton. A week later, the president met with a somewhat more chic crowd of influential Latinos, primarily television and radio personalities, actors, and producers. The topic of the gathering was immigration reform.

In early May, the president also met face to face with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. Although he meant to talk to them about immigration reform, it was the legislators who told the president what was on their mind. The meeting was probably not as fun as the two previous ones.

One after another, the distinguished White House guests would rush in with faint smiles and leave briskly, looking pensive, anxious. After their meeting with the president, the Latino celebrities worked particularly hard to both look interested and knowledgeable on the issue. A few of their collective comments would later become the message that would carry the day: the president is trying his best to pass immigration but he can't do it alone. And, by the way, Latinos have an image problem in America.

Floundering, in the midst of spin from all sides, were millions of immigrant families and their U.S.-born and US-citizen loved ones whose well-being and prosperity was the subject of much discussion and rancor. During the week or two that these highly-publicized meetings with stakeholders took place inside the White House, a little over 19,000 immigrants from throughout the land were deported from the only home most of them have known for much of their lives. In the first two years of the Obama Administration nearly one million immigrants have been detained or deported.

The families most impacted by the lack of action on immigration reform are not unlike your family or mine. Presently, eleven million unauthorized immigrants live and work in the U.S. They include asylum seekers fleeing persecution, students who overstayed their visa terms, workers who could not get a visa, and family members who came to join their loved ones. One-fourth of all children living in the U.S. are children of immigrant parents. Nearly four million U.S-born children have at least one parent who is an unauthorized immigrant. According to a 2006 study, 6.6 million families in the US have either the head of household or the spouse as undocumented.

On the other hand, close to 30 percent of all immigrants in the U.S. are legal permanent residents and nearly 35 percent of all immigrants living in the U.S. are naturalized citizens. As to Latinos in the U.S., the 2010 Census counted more than 50 million, 63% of whom were born in the U.S. and 37% were foreign-born.

These are not mere statistics. Yolanda, a US citizen, is a member of one such mixed-status family where mom is a permanent resident, dad is a US citizen, but the youngest brother is undocumented. Yolandas' brother is a university student but recently he received a letter indicating he may be sent back soon to a place in Mexico he does not know much about. To most of America, Yolanda's family saga is a perhaps a non-issue, a mere distraction, a nuisance. To her, it's about the most essential aspect of her life, having a united family to love and that loves her.

President Obama has often repeated his commitment to immigration reform. I believe him. My concern is that the president of the United States has heard too much rhetoric from both sides of the issue and has turned a deaf ear and a blind eye to an issue he himself acknowledged needs courage and political will. But President Obama cannot, above all, turn a cold heart to the real suffering of millions under his watch. Now that President Obama has met with stakeholders, influential Latinos, legislators, and community advocates, he should request a meeting with US-citizen families who live with unauthorized immigrant loved ones. The president needs to truly understand what life is like in immigration limbo hell.

These are five additional reasons why I think President Obama should meet with these families:

1) He's the president of the United States, not only of those who vote or donate, but of every resident of this great nation. Immigrant families in the United States are interwoven in the social fabric of this nation and so are there unauthorized immigrant loved ones. President Obama is their president too.

2) President Obama is a family man and fully understands how important it is to be able to tuck your children in bed at night, attend church with your family, play ball with your dad, to graduate from high school and hug your grandparents proudly afterwards. I do not think the president can, at this time, fathom the devastation left behind after a loved one is torn away by an immigration official.

3) President Obama must show the immigrant electorate that their vote was important in 2008 and that their vote will matter once again in 2012. He must convince a disaffected audience that on this issue, our president will stand above fear, politics, and division. He should intervene now to stop the pernicious impact of programs such as "Secure Communities" and I-9 audits.

4) President Obama owes himself the opportunity to hear, to feel the pain, from the most impacted stakeholders of all: immigrant families. The president has acknowledged the laws are broken, need fixing, and are complex. But has he given himself the chance to hear from an immigrant soldier, an immigrant grandmother, an immigrant doctoral candidate, each one who has loved ones he can no longer embrace because they were deported or remain in detention? Has President Obama heard directly from a mother whose son has been yanked directly from her arms in the late hours of night? Has the president heard the common-sense appeal of a sister whose brother, a main source of inspiration for her getting back on her feet, going back to college, and getting involved in her community? Has the president heard of a wife who misses her husband so much, even after two years of his deportation, she still keeps his clothes in the closet just as he left them and his favorite coffee mug just in case he returns?

5) President Obama is a man of values, a god-fearing man who recognizes the difference between what is right and what is wrong. Millions of people have crossed the border without authorization for reasons some may decry as rubbish. But deporting by the thousands, firing them from their only source of revenue, criminalizing them on a state-by-state basis, is not the answer. Treating human beings, even unauthorized immigrants, as if they were beasts is inhumane, inconsistent with our nation's values and principles, and is immoral.