Dan Detzner, Professor College of Education and Human Development, University of Minnesota
Researchers, policy makers, immigration lawyers, and social service providers often focus on the issues confronting individual immigrants while overlooking how embedded each individual is within communally oriented transnational families, tribal groups, and clans.
Those who study families make use of systems theories to understand that what happens to one individual or smaller group with the family (subsystem), affects the entire family system. Through such a multidimensional lens we can discern the basic elements needed in comprehensive immigration policy reform so that families and communities are not pulled apart by the process instead of reunited and integrated.
The importance of one person in the family getting a foot in the door to citizenship through military service has become obvious since 9-11 when it became possible for â€śnon U.S. citizensâ€? to earn the right to become citizens through active duty and honorable service. During the past 6 years, more than 37,000 â€śgreen card warriorsâ€? have achieved citizenship through this program; more than 7300 requests are pending the 7-10 month review process; and 20,500 non citizens are estimated to be currently serving in the armed forces. In some cases, soldiers have served 2-3 tours in Iraq and/or Afghanistan before making application.
Although one or more family members may be citizens, that does not guarantee that immigration laws and judges will treat other family members who are not citizens with the best interests of the family in mind. In a lecture focusing on this topic Professor David Thronson reports that some â€śmixed statusâ€? families, where a child has one parent who is not a natural born or documented American citizen, can be problematic when it comes to deportation. Although he argues that family and immigration laws are closely related, the family part is â€śoften missingâ€? from debates about immigration reform. When one aspect of immigration policy encourages family reunification and another aspect promotes family separation, it is clear that the systems are not working well together.
There are numerous examples in the news every day. Because Congress has failed to act on reform and it is politically popular in the post 9-11 environment, more than 40 states have been busy trying to crack down on undocumented immigrants whether they are parents or minors. Under the guise of the rule of law, families are separated when parents are pulled away from jobs, arrested, and deported. An estimated 2 million mixed families are living in fear that their breadwinner wonâ€™t be home for dinner if stopped for an auto violation or found to be working without appropriate documentation.
Another example of a family who has played by all the rules but still found themselves in a difficult situation is a South African family living in Ohio who were recruited to teach in the U.S. and later applied for permanent residency. Although the married coupleâ€™s application has been processed and their pathway to citizenship made clear, this is not the case for their 18 year old son. Due to immigration law stipulations, they were not able to apply for their sonâ€™s residency until after theirs was approved in 2005. Meanwhile, the son was becoming ineligible as a minor as he waited for the delayed paper work to be reviewed and approved. The parents are worried that he could be picked up and deported since technically he is no longer a minor and does not have documentation.
The problems confronting children and immigration agencies are the topic of a forthcoming conference in Chicago that is addressing the absence of communication and collaboration between child welfare and immigration systems. One sponsor of the program pointed out that â€śmany families today are dealing with both the immigration and the child welfare system - â€“yet the professionals representing these systems rarely work together.â€? The hope is that the conference will bring together both parties to stimulate dialogue and cooperation for the benefit of families and communities.
There are other ways that families and communities can benefit from dialogue about immigration and what kind of nation we want this to become. Since the winnowing of the more extreme candidates who were running for their partyâ€™s nomination for the presidency, we are less likely to be hearing nativist and reactionary rhetoric about immigrants from the remaining three candidates. In the absence of comprehensive reform some states (New Jersey and California) are trying to make a positive contribution by passing state versions of the Dream Actâ€”a proposal to enable children of immigrants to pay in-state tuition at state colleges and universities even if there parents are not documented. In other states (Minnesota is an example), the governor and some legislators are arguing against state Dream Act laws as a way of enforcing the rule of law while punishing the children of parents who came to work in the U.S. without papers. Depending on the outcome of the November elections, it may be possible to reintroduce a federal Dream Act that would make it possible for all children, regardless of parental heritage, residency, or legality to achieve a higher education.
In a op-ed column entitled â€śdisorder at the borderâ€?, Timothy Egan applauds the fact that the political demagogues have left the stage, leaving the three most moderate voices on comprehensive immigration reform still standing. This fact may well put an end to the seemingly futile and very expensive effort to build a wall across the Mexican-U.S. border. Property rights seem to conflict with where the wall needs to run and not many are seeking to have their agricultural land, back yards, or college campus divided by a wall topped with razor wire and patrolled by armed borders guards and minutemen vigilantes. The deportation of undocumented immigrants and the separation of families that results is also not going very well in Arizonaâ€”a state with an estimated half million undocumented workers. Although a new state law has been passed placing penalties on the businesses who hire them, not a single person has been found, despite numerous reports and profiles that have been followed up on by police. Whatever the results of the fall election, it is likely that persons from Arizona and the southwest will be involved in brokering a deal that leads to comprehensive reform.