Obama administration roils immigration debate with new policy

Maria changes a diaper for Christopher as her children, Jennifer (from left), Cesar, Sophia and Olga play in their bedroom. The father of the family voluntarily left the U.S. this year under threat of deportation. Meanwhile, the children worry what would happen if their mother is apprehended and deported. She is undocumented. The two youngest daughters were born in the U.S. and are therefore U.S. citizens. The older siblings are undocumented, though Lilia has been granted a two-year reprieve from deportation.
Caption
Maria changes a diaper for Christopher as her children, Jennifer (from left), Cesar, Sophia and Olga play in their bedroom. The father of the family voluntarily left the U.S. this year under threat of deportation. Meanwhile, the children worry what would happen if their mother is apprehended and deported. She is undocumented. The two youngest daughters were born in the U.S. and are therefore U.S. citizens. The older siblings are undocumented, though Lilia has been granted a two-year reprieve from deportation.

Credit: KENT D. JOHNSON / AJC

Credit: KENT D. JOHNSON / AJC

The Obama administration has quietly issued a controversial directive that could soften enforcement against immigrants living illegally in the U.S. with children.

The policy says federal authorities should give special consideration to parents when deciding whether to detain and deport them. It also would permit some deportees to return to the U.S. to attend court proceedings involving their parental rights.

Critics have blasted the policy as a move by the White House to relax immigration enforcement. One top congressional Republican said it “poisons the debate” on overhauling the immigration system. Supporters say the new approach is more humane and will prevent children from being traumatized and placed in taxpayer-funded foster care.

It’s unclear how many people could be affected by the policy, which took effect late last month. But since 2010, the government has carried out more than 204,800 removals of parents who claim to have U.S.-born children, according to federal records obtained by the Applied Research Center, a think tank that focuses on racial justice.

Many of those expulsions were apparently connected to the Southeast. Between July 2010 and October 2012, federal authorities working in the Atlanta field office — which covers Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina — obtained 8,790 final orders to deport people who said they have children born here. That represents the largest number of these removal orders over that period for all of the government’s field offices nationwide.

Elizabeth Gomez is among many children in Georgia who have been separated from their parents by deportations. She said the government expelled her mother in 2011 after she was charged with driving in South Georgia without a license. In 2006, her mother was charged with misdemeanor battery in Florida but was not convicted, court records show.

Gomez’s stepfather and younger sister left to reunite with her mother in Mexico, leaving Gomez in the care of her godfather in Ty Ty, a rural town west of Tifton. Gomez said she chose to stay so she could graduate from Tift County High School. Gomez spent last Christmas alone with her Chihuahua Duke when her godfather traveled to Mexico for the holidays.

“It was a horrible experience,” said Gomez, 18, who was granted legal permanent residency after her mother was deported. “It still hurts me because those days don’t come back.”

It’s the parents who are putting their families in jeopardy by entering the country illegally, said Bob Dane, a spokesman for Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington-based organization that supports tougher immigration enforcement.

“The solution here is illegal alien parents could maintain custody of their kids — complete control over their kids and the process — if they respect the law and return to their home countries if they are caught,” he said. “Nobody is at the border saying, ‘You can’t go home.’ ”

The Obama administration has gradually softened its approach toward parents and immigrants such as Gomez who were illegally brought to the U.S. as young children. Meanwhile, the administration has shifted the focus of its enforcement toward deporting criminals.

In May 2011, for example, President Barack Obama told an audience in El Paso, Texas, that the government was focusing on “violent offenders and people convicted of crimes — not just families, not just folks who are just looking to scrape together an income.” The following month, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement issued a memo about “exercising prosecutorial discretion,” saying federal immigration authorities should give special consideration to parents and their children.

Building on that memo, the directive ICE issued Aug. 23 is aimed at preventing the agency from unnecessarily disrupting parental rights. It says the government should detain illegal immigrants as close as possible to their children, allow them to visit each other and transport detainees to family court proceedings.

ICE issued a prepared statement saying its new policy clarifies that it may use alternatives to detention, “particularly when the detention of a non-criminal alien would result in a child being left without an appropriate parental caregiver.”

In a November 2011 report, the Applied Research Center estimated at least 5,100 children of detained or deported parents were in foster care at the time. There are 21 children of deported parents now in foster care in Georgia, according to the state’s Division of Family and Children Services. That represents a sliver of Georgia’s roughly 7,700 children in foster care.

In some cases, the state agency said, children have been placed in foster care because one of their parents had been deported and the remaining parent was neglectful or abusive. In other cases, children of deportees were left in the care of relatives who later decided they could no longer care for them. It costs taxpayers $88 a day for each child in foster care, according to the state agency.

Many children of deported parents avoid foster care by moving in with older siblings or other relatives in the U.S. Georgia officials said they don’t keep statistics on such cases.

Meanwhile, immigrant rights groups cheered ICE’s new policy.

“It is something that will go a long way in helping make enforcement of current immigration practices more humane,” said Michelle Brané, the director of the Women’s Refugee Commission’s Migrant Rights and Justice program.

Several immigration bills pending in Congress also touch on this issue.

For example, an omnibus Senate bill passed in June would let some deportees — spouses, children and parents of U.S. citizens — apply for legal status in the U.S. Another provision in Senate Bill 744 would require authorities to focus on keeping families together when they apprehend people at the border. The same bill would require states to attempt to reunify children with parents who are being held in immigration detention centers or who have been deported.

House Republicans have refused to take up the Senate legislation, calling it flawed and dismissing it as an “amnesty” bill. They say they will instead focus on smaller and more narrowly focused bills, some dealing with immigration enforcement. House Republicans are also considering legislation that would give legal status to immigrants who were illegally brought to the U.S. as children.

Much of the immigration legislation is now flowing through the U.S. House Judiciary Committee led by Republican Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia. Goodlatte criticized ICE’s new policy for parents, saying it shows the Obama administration “is not serious about fixing our broken immigration system.”

“President Obama has once again abused his authority and unilaterally refused to enforce our current immigration laws by directing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to stop removing broad categories of unlawful immigrants,” he said in a prepared statement.

Maria Guadalupe Contreras hopes Congress passes the Senate bill so her family can remain together in Dalton. She came to the U.S. from Mexico years ago on a tourist visa and overstayed it. She now has two U.S.-born daughters, one teenage daughter who has received a two-year reprieve from deportation and other children without legal status here.

Contreras’ husband left the U.S. voluntarily amid the government’s efforts to deport him after he was charged with driving without a license this year, his family’s attorney said. In 2006, Jose Guadalupe Acosta-Martinez was charged with trafficking in methamphetamine and possession of a firearm during a crime in Whitfield County. Court records show authorities dropped those charges in April because the case was old and he had cooperated with law enforcement officials.

Acosta-Martinez was the family’s main breadwinner. Contreras said she is now working seven days a week to make ends meet for the family. She worries her young children are left home alone too often. Her 16-year-old son, Cesar Acosta, said he is pitching in by cooking for his younger sisters, baby-sitting them and cleaning the family’s apartment. He constantly keeps tabs on his mother.

“I’m scared sometimes,” said Cesar, who was brought to the U.S. when he was 9. “I’m afraid they will stop her somewhere and then they will just deport her, too. … I’m always checking on her.”