03/26/2013 01:16 pm ET Updated May 26, 2013

Stop Tearing Families and Communities Apart: A New Narrative for Immigration Reform

One of the main tenants of U.S. immigration law is the idea of family reunification. As a result, one of the dominant narratives about the need for comprehensive immigration reform revolves around the idea of family. For example, activists attempting to curtail the rise in deportations have rallied about the theme that deportation "shatters families" or "tears families apart" as undocumented parents of citizen children are deported.

Additionally, critiques of the current visa quotas and petition system stress the excessive wait times that prevent the reunification of family members who are separated by borders -- children, parents, and siblings of citizens and legal permanent residents who are waiting in the home country for visas to become available. The Migration Policy Institute estimates it would take 19 years to clear the application backlogs. This is mainly because they are incredibly behind in processing applications from high-volume countries. For example, they are currently processing immediate-family applications from Mexico filed in 1993 and applications from the Philippines filed in 1998. Wait times are even longer for extended family members.

The underlying theme of these family reunification narratives is that intact families are critical for the health and proper functioning of a society. The deportation of a citizen child's parent(s) emotionally harms the child and also strains other social services and resource, like foster care, that now have to care for the child.

These narratives make sense and are producing the political capital needed to draw attention to these issues. A prime example: The U.S. Senate recently held hearings on the needs of women and families in immigration reform. However, this framing still limits the perceived reach of immigration reform to undocumented immigrants and their families. We need to recognize that a lack of immigration reform is not only tearing families apart, but tearing communities apart, too.

Undocumented immigrants are not only members of families but they are members of communities. Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of undocumented young adults who are members of classrooms and educational communities. In the current family-focused narrative, it's unclear how teachers, school employees, community educators, and organizers can declare their personal desire and need for immigration reform. While they may not necessarily feel the pain of our current immigration system within their own families, they do recognize the need for it within the communities they are creating.

A teacher friend of mine posted a comment on Facebook: "No Mother, No Father and No Child be Left Behind. Comprehensive Immigration Reform is needed to better our Educational System. As a teacher my Job is to create a safe environment for my students; a place where learning is not overshadowed by the fear of going home to an empty house." Drawing on the educational narrative of "No Child Left Behind," he was able to draw an educational connection to the popular family narrative. Similarly, a fourth-grade class in Berkeley has begun lobbying local and federal politicians to bring back their deported classmate.

However, for most allies, these family narratives make it hard to draw these narrative connections despite their desire for immigration reform. For instance, one of my friends is a community youth organizer in Los Angeles. While she is not directly connected to undocumented immigration through her family, she is through the youth she organizes. One of whom was recently forced to make a decision to leave the country with his family for months in order to attempt to legalize his status. Reaching for the dream of legal status, he left the country in his final semester of high school and likely will not return in time to pursue his bachelors degree at one of the many universities to which he was accepted.

My friend's frustration, tears, and renewed commitment to immigration reform cannot be captured by the popular family narrative; she is not a family member and, in fact, her student left with his family, rather than being separated from them. However, a community-based narrative would allow her, and the other students she organizes, to acknowledge that their community was invaded and left broken by an immigration system that does not have a clear path to legalization.

Even if you don't go to school with or work with undocumented immigrants, it is likely that there is an undocumented immigrant whose presence affects the sense of community you have built in your own life. While this point has been made time and time again (watch the film A Day Without a Mexican for a satirical look), my community was, once again, damaged earlier this month by current immigration law.

Upon moving to a new neighborhood more than a year ago I searched out a reliable coffee shop where I could go to get some writing done. Over time, I settled on one and the cashier got to know my drink and had it ready for me as soon as I walked in. While we didn't talk often and usually only about "why I was always writing" and what I was writing about, her presence kept me company as I struggled through whatever I was writing. Now, for the past few weeks, she has not been there. Maybe she was deported, or maybe she was just E-verify-ed out of the job. Either way, her undocumented status forced her to be moved out of my life and disrupted the sense of community we had built in the quiet coffee shop.

While this effect is obviously much less severe than the case of children being left without parents, my point is that our current immigration system affects all of us -- family members, teachers, friends, peers, neighbors, customers. Together we form a community and this community deserves to be respected rather than disrupted by immigration law.

While effective, headlines and narratives that focus on families run the risk of excluding invested community members and allies who are also, although differently, affected by the need for immigration reform. If we stand up together, as a community, and stress these ties, we can add another layer of strength and support to the debate for fair and comprehensive immigration reform.