Why Is the Federal Government Orphaning Children?

In June 2011, under pressure from immigrant organizations in the wake of the collapse of the last round of immigration reform legislation, President Obama announced a new policy designed to prevent the deportation of parents of U.S. citizen children and other immigrants who posed no threat to the community.

The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, known as ICE, has long claimed that it focuses on deporting criminals. But the numbers show that the vast majority of people detained and deported by ICE have either no criminal record or have been detained on charges related to their legal status or minor traffic infractions, not serious or violent crime. This includes hundreds of thousands of parents whose children are American citizens. In some cases, children have been orphaned as a result and placed in foster care.

Rather than focus its resources on finding and deporting people engaged in criminal activity, ICE has taken the easy route to meeting detention and deportation quotas by rounding up people who are easy to find because they are living and working in the community.

That hasn't changed much since the new policy -- called Prosecutorial Discretion -- was adopted. While a small number of regional immigration courts in Seattle, Tucson and Los Angeles have applied the policy to stop some deportations, new data analyzed by researchers at Syracuse University shows that almost no one detained directly by ICE is benefiting from prosecutorial discretion. And overall, it is still the case that less than 15 percent of immigration detentions are of people who pose a threat to public safety, the people ICE says it is prioritizing.

The consequence for American families is devastating. For example, last week ICE decided to move ahead with the deportation of Carlos Oliva-Guillen, a parent of three U.S. Citizen children. His youngest child, Jencarlos is 7 months old and is being treated at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia for a rare life threatening condition. ICE refused to allow doctors to obtain a needed blood sample from Carlos and instead moved him from a private prison in New Jersey to Louisiana, a final step before deportation.

Carlos has lived in the United States for 10 years, has no criminal record and is the father of children who are American citizens. If the prosecutorial discretion policy, and a related 2013 policy focused on parental rights, should apply to anyone, they should apply to Carlos, yet he may never see his children again.

Two weeks ago Nayelly Sandoval, a 12-year-old American citizen and a star of her local basketball team, had her father taken away from her family. Josue Sandoval has lived and worked in the United States for 16 years, had no criminal record, was the parent of two children and a member of St. Anthony's Catholic Church, which rallied to defend him from deportation. Josue was detained after a workplace raid on January 15, 2014 and held at a local facility where he was denied the ability to shower or change his clothes for over a week. He developed a painful infection and was refused proper medical treatment until he was transferred to an ICE detention center on January 23rd.

The organization I work for, PICO National Network, and our local affiliate Communities Creating Opportunity rallied the Kansas City community to stop Josue's deportation, holding a 350 person rally and having a delegation of pastors appeal to ICE. Nonetheless, ICE transported Josue to Brownsville, TX and sent him over the border into Matomoros with nothing more than the clothes on his back and his wedding ring.

We now know from obtaining ICE records on the case that the ICE Field Office Director who handled the case out of the Chicago office, ignored the Administration's Prosecutorial Discretion policy, failing to even mention the fact that Josue was a parent of a citizen child and had strong community ties through his church and community organization.

The experience of families and the numbers from ICE show that Prosecutorial Discretion has been a failure. ICE is effectively thumbing its nose at the White House.

The solution is not difficult. A year after announcing Prosecutorial Discretion, the president adopted another policy designed to protect people who were brought to the country has children. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals -- commonly known as DACA -- has been a big success. From a human impact standpoint, it may well be the most important policy initiative of the Obama Presidency. More than half a million young people have received temporary legal protection that has allowed them to move forward with their lives. DACA took the power over whether people would be able to stay or be deported away from ICE and put it into the hands of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which has run the program with great efficiency. It also created a front door for people to step forward and request legal protection, rather than waiting for people to be detained.

The main argument against adopted a DACA program for adults is political. The President does not need Congressional approval or even an Executive Order to set rational priorities for whom among the millions of immigrants in the country should be detained and deported. Yet, Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Republican politicians have hammered the president for allegedly not enforcing the laws. This is a simple political trap. Republicans are aware that President Obama has deported more immigrants than any other president in history. Their transparent goal is to shift attention back to the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, and to continue to stir up hatred for the President among their base.

The president should ignore the political theatre and focus on getting things done for the American people. Moreover, falling into the trap set by Republicans misses a basic rule of politics, which is to define the terms of the debate. Despite everything that has been done to secure the border, anti-immigrant interests still want us to see people climbing over fences when we hear the words immigration reform. Much truer and better is for the debate to revolve around whether fathers like Carlos and Josue should be ripped away from their children. No one on the right or the left should be comfortable with a federal government with that much unchecked power over families.

It is long past time for the president and his new Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson to change course and do what is right by children and their families.