“Failing Families” op-ed in Baltimore Sun

Mont­gomery Coun­ty, MD, where the SAALT offices are locat­ed, is a vibrant com­mu­ni­ty with immi­grants from around the world. This op-ed from Dr. Lavanya Sithanan­dam, a pedi­a­tri­cian and trav­el doc­tor based in Tako­ma Park, shows how immi­gra­tion raids have neg­a­tive­ly impact this com­mu­ni­ty, par­tic­u­lar­ly its most vul­ner­a­ble mem­bers: chil­dren. Read the excel­lent piece here:

Failing Families

Immigration enforcement policies unfairly hurt many children who are citizens

by Lavanya Sithanan­dam

When I walked into the exam room, I knew some­thing was wrong. My 8‑year old patient, usu­al­ly an extro­vert­ed, charm­ing boy, was angry. He sat with his arms crossed and refused to look at me. His exhaust­ed moth­er recount­ed how one week ago, her hus­band, after arriv­ing home from a 12-hour shift at work, had been arrest­ed in front of his chil­dren and tak­en away in hand­cuffs. He was now sit­ting in an Immi­gra­tion and Cus­toms Enforce­ment (ICE) deten­tion cen­ter in Fred­er­ick. The moth­er asked me to eval­u­ate her son for a one-week his­to­ry of poor appetite, dif­fi­cul­ty with sleep­ing, and wheez­ing.

As a pedi­a­tri­cian work­ing in Mont­gomery Coun­ty, home to the largest immi­grant com­mu­ni­ty in Mary­land, I have seen first­hand the dev­as­tat­ing effects that aggres­sive immi­gra­tion enforce­ment poli­cies can have on fam­i­lies. Many of these chil­dren are cit­i­zens, born in the Unit­ed States to at least one undoc­u­ment­ed par­ent. Yet these chil­dren often expe­ri­ence what no U.S. cit­i­zen (or any child, for that mat­ter) should. They live in con­stant fear of aban­don­ment because they have seen and heard of neigh­bors and fam­i­ly mem­bers being picked up and deport­ed with­in days.

My patient, a “cit­i­zen child” him­self, was exhibit­ing symp­toms of depres­sion, and like oth­er chil­dren who have lost a par­ent to deten­tion cen­ters, he per­ceives his father’s arrest as some­how being his fault. His moth­er, who must now take over her hus­band’s 15-year role as the fam­i­ly’s bread­win­ner, is strug­gling to pay the bills, to make the lengthy dri­ve to see her hus­band, and to take her son to the doc­tor. These par­ents are good peo­ple: hard­work­ing and hon­est immi­grants from West Africa who pay their tax­es and take good care of their chil­dren. They strug­gle to make a decent life for their fam­i­ly, despite a gru­el­ing, 70-hour work­week.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, their sto­ry is not unique. There are more than 5 mil­lion cit­i­zen chil­dren in this coun­try — and sad­ly, the like­li­hood that one or both of their par­ents will be deport­ed is increas­ing. In order to meet arrest quo­tas, ICE agents are increas­ing­ly going after “soft tar­gets”: immi­grants such as my patien­t’s father, with no crim­i­nal record and for whom ICE had not issued a depor­ta­tion order. Some of these peo­ple are picked up by chance, at work or at home. Some are vic­tims of “res­i­den­tial raids” where immi­gra­tion author­i­ties knock on door after door with no evi­dence that the inhab­i­tants are undoc­u­ment­ed until they can get some­one to admit that he or she is here ille­gal­ly.

Some­times, racial pro­fil­ing is an issue — as in the case, recent­ly revealed, of a Jan­u­ary 2007 raid on a 7‑Eleven in Bal­ti­more. Offi­cers detained 24 Lati­no men, few of them with crim­i­nal records, in an appar­ent effort to meet a quo­ta for arrests.

The future for fam­i­lies like my 8‑year-old patien­t’s looks grim. My patien­t’s suf­fer­ing will prob­a­bly have no influ­ence on his father’s depor­ta­tion pro­ceed­ings, giv­en the high legal stan­dards of “extreme hard­ship” that must be met in order for his father to stay with his fam­i­ly. The boy will most like­ly be forced to start a new life in a coun­try he has nev­er even vis­it­ed.

Immi­gra­tion pol­i­cy is com­pli­cat­ed and emo­tion­al­ly charged, but pun­ish­ing cit­i­zen chil­dren should be at the bot­tom of ICE’s pri­or­i­ties. It is time to once again con­sid­er a fair and com­pre­hen­sive approach to immi­gra­tion reform. One promis­ing pro­pos­al is the “Child Cit­i­zen­ship Pro­tec­tion Act” (intro­duced this year by Rep. Jose Ser­ra­no of New York), which would autho­rize an immi­gra­tion judge to pre­vent depor­ta­tion of an immi­grant when it is in the best inter­est of his or her cit­i­zen chil­dren.

It is essen­tial to enact laws that will pro­mote fam­i­ly reuni­fi­ca­tion, fair­ness and dig­ni­ty over cur­rent enforce­ment tac­tics that tear fam­i­lies apart.

Dr. Lavanya Sithanan­dam, a pedi­a­tri­cian in Tako­ma Park, immi­grat­ed to this coun­try from India at the age of 4. She is a mem­ber of South Asian Amer­i­cans Lead­ing Togeth­er (SAALT), a social jus­tice and advo­ca­cy group. Her e‑mail is drsithanandam@gmail.com.