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UC Study Finds Deportation of Lawful Immigrant Parents Harms U.S. Children

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday April 01, 2010 - 05:56:00 PM

A new study by the UC Berkeley and Davis law schools concludes that forced deportation of lawful immigrant parents convicted of minor crimes can be harmful to U.S. children. 

The report, “In the Child’s Best Interest?” shows that in the last decade, the U.S. has deported lawful immigrant parents of almost 88,000 children born in America. 

It finds that “forced removal of lawful permanent resident parents (or green card holders) convicted of relatively minor crimes can lead to psychological harm, behavioral changes, and disruptions in the health and education of tens of thousands of citizen children.” 

Based mainly on new analysis of data provided by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the report is a joint project of the International Human Rights Law Clinic and the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Race, Ethnicity and Diversity at Berkeley Law and the Immigration Law Clinic at the University of California, Davis, School of Law. 

According to the report, dramatic revisions to U.S. immigration laws in 1996 have resulted in large numbers of deported lawful permanent residents, who make up nearly 10 percent of immigrants deported from the U.S.  

The report says that more than 68 percent of members of this group are sent back to their countries for minor crimes such as driving under the influence, simple assault and non-violent drug offenses. 

Local immigrant groups in Berkeley are examining the report carefully. Belen Pulido, lead organizer for Berkeley Organizing Congregations for Action, says that her group helps documented as well as undocumented immigrants in Berkeley to fight deportation. 

BOCA played a significant role in supporting the Latino community in May 2008 when U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents detained a Berkeley couple who were unable to show the officers their licenses while driving to the BART station, and subsequently failed to provide documentation to prove their legal immigration status.  

Estrella Caballero, a second year student at UC Berkeley and a BOCA youth leader, who went to Washington D.C. with BOCA last month to take part in the March for America, said that comprehensive immigration reform is extremely important. 

“During our trip in Washington D.C., representatives from Barbara Lee, Dianne Feinstein, and Nancy Pelosi’s offices repeated again and again how significant families are in our lives,” Caballero said. “Nancy Pelosi’s representative even hugged one of the leaders that was giving his testimony on how both of his parents were deported and how he hadn’t seen his mother in seven years. The boy is thirteen years old. It is because of these happenings that we need immigration reform. Our current immigration system is allowing for the deportation of legal residents as if it weren’t already enough that families of undocumented people are being separated.” 

It gets us thinking then, Cabarello said, whether under the current legislation, legal residents are second rate residents. 

“How is it that our legal system deems it acceptable to separate families when the foundation of our society is based on the family structure?” Cabarello asked. “Families are what make our communities, communities shape our society, and our society makes our world what it is today. If our foundations are broken, how can we possibly function properly? 

The revised immigration laws currently restrict the ability of judges to take into account the impact of deportation on children. 

“In the Child’s Best Interest?” recommends “restoring judicial discretion in all cases involving the deportation of lawful permanent residents with U.S. citizen children.” 

“As Congress considers immigration reform, it’s time to focus on how the current system tears apart families and threatens the health and education of tens of thousands of children,” said Aarti Kohli, director of immigration policy at Berkeley Law’s Warren Institute. “This report makes a strong case for restoring judicial discretion so immigration judges can weigh the best interests of children when deciding whether to deport a parent.” 

The report found that the deported legal residents had lived in the U.S. for an average of 10 years, and that more than half of them had at least one child living at home.  

Approximately 50 percent of the children were younger than age five when their parent was deported. 

“Parents who are deported on the basis of criminal convictions are being punished twice for the same mistakes,” said Raha Jorjani, clinical professor at the Immigration Law Clinic at UC Davis. “Even after successfully completing their criminal sentences, they are subject to penalties within the immigration system—and risk losing their families. It’s often the children in these families that suffer the most. This nation should take into consideration the impact on families of uprooting individuals with such strong ties to the U.S.” 

Families who were interviewed as part of the study reported negative health impacts such as depression, sleeplessness and anxiety while children were found to have low grades, behavioral problems and an inclination to drop out of school to help their families. 

“The rights to health and education are firmly entrenched in international human rights law, and nearly every major human rights treaty recognizes the need for special protection of children,” said Laurel Fletcher, director of the International Human Rights Law Clinic at Berkeley Law. “The U.S. should consider revising its policy to mirror European human rights standards, which permit judges to balance a nation’s security interest with the best interests of the child when considering deporting a parent.” 

The report recommends the following to U.S. lawmakers: 

• Restoring judicial discretion in cases involving the deportation of lawful permanent residents who have U.S. citizen children 

• Establishing clear judicial guidelines in these family deportation cases 

• Reverting to the pre-1996 definition of “aggravated felony” 

• Collecting data on U.S. citizen children of deported lawful immigrant parents to gain fuller understanding of impact of deportation laws.