02/07/2013 05:40 pm ET Updated Apr 09, 2013

Immigration Reform: Don't Leave Women and Children Behind

When I met Luz at an immigration detention facility in rural Pennsylvania, she was desperate to see her one-year-old son. Luz was about to be deported back to Ecuador with her teenage son, but she didn't want to leave without her baby, who, unlike the rest of the family, was a U.S. citizen.

Luz had last seen her baby a few months earlier when she left him with a friend while she went to pick up her 15-year-old son from a shelter in Arizona. The mother of two and her older son were questioned by Customs and Border Patrol agents as they prepared to board a bus to return home. When the agents discovered that Luz and her son were unauthorized to be in the country, they detained them, and transferred them to Pennsylvania with an order of deportation.

Luz was frantic to find a way to reunite with her baby. But in detention, and with no passport or travel documents for her one year-old, it was impossible for Luz to get her baby to Ecuador. She would be forced to leave her child behind.

As a parent and advocate, I continue to be haunted by Luz's story. I cannot forget the desperation in Luz's voice as she worried about what was happening to her baby boy. As a mother of two myself, I could not imagine how this could be happening in the America I know and love. Unfortunately, Luz's story is all too common. In fact, between 2010 and 2012, our country deported more than 200,000 parents of U.S. citizen children. That translates to thousands of broken families and thousands of U.S. citizen children who are forced to grow up without their parents. What I have learned since that fateful day is that many of those parents want nothing more than to be with their children -- whether in the U.S. or their home country. Forced separation also translates to thousands of parents who have every reason to enter the U.S. illegally again.

As we tackle yet another round of immigration reform, it is imperative that stories like Luz's are heard. If we are serious about getting immigration reform done right, then we must listen to the voices of the women, children and families who are so often shut out of the debate.

President Obama and the bipartisan "Gang of Eight" in the Senate have recognized that our system is broken, but they have not adequately recognized how the system fails women, children and families. This broken immigration system tears thousands of families apart every year. It fails to protect unaccompanied children who find themselves in this country alone and unprotected. And it fails to recognize the unique contributions and protection needs of immigrant women. This broken immigration system has also placed a myopic focus on enforcement, while failing to protect basic due process rights.

Proposals offered so far focus on labor and enforcement above all else. While meeting labor needs and securing our borders are both important goals, the exclusive focus on these goals threatens to leave women, children and families behind. Strengthening and improving our laws also means offering all those who have contributed to our country an opportunity to become full citizens. It means protecting those in need, especially vulnerable women and children. Enforcement and protection are not mutually exclusive. We can and should do both.

The Women's Refugee Commission urges Congress and the White House to think holistically about the needs of women and children, and to uphold our country's fundamental longstanding commitments to family unit, human rights and due process. With that in mind, we recommend that Immigration Reform follow four basic principles:

  1. Develop a Roadmap to Citizenship That Includes Women and Children Roughly 5 million undocumented women and 1 million undocumented children currently live in the United States. It is imperative that they are included in, and are eligible for, any citizenship program.
  2. Respect Family Unity Reform must put families back at the center of the immigration system and provide sufficient legal mechanisms to keep families together.
  3. Ensure Smart Border Enforcement Real border security must include security of the person. While simultaneously keeping our country safe from genuine threats, we must ensure migrants seeking safety in the United States are identified, treated humanely and afforded the right to seek protection in keeping with international law and child welfare law principles.
  4. Protect Due Process Reform of our nation's immigration laws must eliminate mandatory detention, require individualized determinations about decisions to detain, expand the use of alternatives to detention and ensure that all enforcement, detention and removal decisions are carried out with respect for due process and human rights.

As we move forward with immigration reform, I hope that the president and Congress will hear the voices of women like Luz. If we are going to take this round of immigration reform seriously, let's get serious about making sure that women, children and families like Luz's aren't left behind.