Children’s Stories of Family Seperation: “They took My Dad”

A young child’s account

A teacher in Immokalee sent us the following from one of her students in class. It is heart wrenching to see what is said.

Here’s a brief excerpt of the context from the teacher: ‘I wanted to share with you another story that my student wrote for me today…the assignment was to write about whatever they wanted.  after she wrote this I asked her what her and her sister wrote in their note and she said “we put in words that told him we loved him.”   Again, I do not know exact details but i talked with her teacher today and her father has already been sent back to mexico.’

This little girl adds:

This is the impact of FAMILY SEPERATION from the words of our children. 

Children’s Stories of Family Seperation: Rosie

Rosie’s Story

Rosie is a young 11 year old girl living in Immokalee, Florida. Her first language is Spanish and so her story is shared in Spanish. Translation was done in English by Grey.

This is Rosie, pictured on the left.

Rosie is cared for by her grandparents and her aunt in Immokalee, Florida. She is a United States citizen.

This is an excerpt from Maria, Rosie’s aunt on their family situation:

“For 7 years my nephews lived in Mexico. Yet due to a near death experience that involved my brother’s family and a dangerous drug cartel, My brother decided it was no longer safe for Rosie and her elder brother to be in Mexico. Although my sister-in-law would long to be with her 2 eldest children, in Mexico her and my brother conceived 2 children. Thus she spoke to my mother and father about her distress to keep her family together. Yet, we all knew that it was not safe for Rosie and her brother to be in Mexico anymore. As a result my parents and I took on the responsibility to look after my 2 nephews.  We do not regret any of the choices we have made. Yet I see the difficulties my parents being older adults face in having to be parents again and help raise 2 pre-adolescents.

It is heartbreaking to see my nephews attempt to live a “normal” lifestyle without their parents. I see the sadness my nephews have to celebrate holidays such as “Mothers day and upcoming Fathers day” without their parents.  I see the distress they go through after a phone call from their parents. I see the hesitation my little nephews in Mexico have in saying “good-bye” to Rosie and their elder brother. Nevertheless I see how this separation has affected my entire family’s emotional and social well-being.

I always say that the United States forgets who they are affecting as these U.S. born children will someday grow up. They will remember “everything” this country did to them as children and they will long for change and the United States will regret all they have done.”

Pictures are Worth 1,000 Words

Below is Rosie’s pain in her own words.

Top Caption reads: “United Family”

Body Reads: ” I was very happy in this drawing because we were one united family and we were very happy. Nothing could happen but then after me and my brother came to the US, we were seperated. I share my story because I want to hear what you have to say. ”

Rosie compares her above picture with this one where she states:

Above caption: “Incomplete Family”

Middle caption: Siblings without parents

Bottom caption: In this drawing I show you how I feel now

Rosie adds in a seperate letter in Spanish: Yo digo que la otra cosa que no me gusta es que los Estados Unidos separan a familias de sus seres queridos. Yo digo eso porque a mi las leyes de los Estados Unidos no me dejo vivir mi niñez cerca de mis padres.

I also think that i don’t like that the United States seperates families from their loved ones. I think this because to me the laws in the United States don’t let me live my childhood close to my parents.

Por esa razón cuando sea grande yo quiero ser abogada para poder pelear para que este cerca de mis padres.

For this reason, when I grow up, I want to be a lawyer so that I can fight so I can be close to my parents.

Recuerdo todos los días el dia que yo me vine para los Estados Unidos. Mis padres se pusieron a llorar y también mis hermanitos se pusieron a llorar. Yo estoy muy triste porque nunca me había separado de mi mama y mis hermanitos.

I remember every day the day that I came here to the United States. My parents started to cry and I did too and so did my brothers. I am very sad because I have never been seperated from my mom or my brothers.

Yo no se porque ponen “unidos” si no puedo estar “unida” con mi familia.   

I don’t know why they put “united” if I can’t be “united” with my family.

Encounter with the First Lady

Post by Maria Cardenas

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once said. “Magic is believing in yourself, if you can do that, you can make anything happen.” Such words a week ago would not have had such an impact on me as they do now. As I was fortunate to have a once an a lifetime experience. On April 27th, 2012 I attended the Golden Gate Community Center and heard the first lady Michelle Obama give a speech about public education, job creation and what the president has accomplished so far.

Although her speech was inspirational to many, when I agreed to go to this event I went with a goal in mind. That goal was to question the first lady on a critical issue that affects many within our community. Such as the issue of “immigration.” I was hopeful that the first lady would talk about such issue yet she did not. I was not about to let it be that way. Once she was done giving her speech I knew I had to approach her and question her on the issue not just for me but for the many families who are “separated” because of this broken immigration system. Needless to say I was TERRIFIED! To some point I believed that I would “back down” and not do it. However I knew that I would be advocating for many families. As a future social worker a strong fundamental we abide by is “advocacy.”  Thus I knew this would be my opportunity to be an advocate for the many families who are living in this situation. Before I attend I made a few questions and one similarity was the emphasis that my question had in regards to the “separation of families.” Nonetheless I knew that I had to be the advocate for others but especially for my nephews. That due to this broken immigration system they are going up without their parents. Thus I have seen the emotional affects that such a separation has caused to both parties.

As I waited for Michelle Obama to finish her speech I still questioned if I would have the courage to confront the first lady and at that question her. At moments I felt that I would not go through with it. Nevertheless as I watched the first lady come off the stage and shake peoples hands I knew it was now of never. I attempted to make my way to her. Eventually I was able to make my way to her. As I saw her approaching I was still hesitant. I thought that I would be attacked by all the Obama supporters if I question her. Yet as Michelle Obama approached me I went for it. I put my hand out and shook it. I had noted that the first lady was shaking peoples hands and hardly paying attention. However what I did was as she shook my hand I held on to hers and yelled “wait.. wait I have a question!” Saying that opened up my path to her and those around me seemed to want to hear my question. Then I asked, “What should I tell my niece about deportation and how her father my brother isn’t with us what should I tell her?” The first lady was shocked with the question and did not have a response ready you could tell by her non-verbal reaction. I held the first ladies hand so tight because I did not want her to leave without saying anything. So after a pause and some stuttering she then stated, “th-that is why we have to VOTE President Obama into office for 4 more years so that there can be a Immigration Reform.” Although I was not thrilled with her response I know I made her THINK and in the end that was my goal!

This experience will serve as a learning experience to me and is due in huge “thanks” to the Collier County Neighborhood Stories Project. As it is due to my participation with such organization that I was able to experience this and thus advocate in favor for the individuals we serve.


The Feds and Immigration

Jose Barahona says that he would have been killed had he refused to open his door when the armed guerillas occupying his town demanded he let them use his kitchen and sleep on his floor. He says that’s what happened to his father. Dead. And he says it was because of the fear of death during the war raging between the FMLN guerillas and the Salvadoran government that at the age of 24, with his new wife and baby boy, he left his Salvadoran mountain village and came to the United States where the couple would have two more children and where he’d spend the next two and half decades. He thought he’d left all the violence behind.

Twenty six years after that departure, on March 22nd 2011, now 51-year-old Barahona was shuttled from a Virginia immigration detention center to an immigration court where he listened in astonishment as a lawyer for the Department of Homeland Security argued that when he opened the door all those years ago for the armed Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front guerillas, he’d acted in support of terrorism. He “provid[ed] material support for a group engaged in terrorist activities,” the Department of Homeland Security attorney said. And then Barahona listened as the judge ordered his deportation to El Salvador.

Barahona, who will appear in a federal appeals court on Tuesday to challenge the immigration court’s ruling, has found himself the target of the government’s reaching application of counter-terrorism laws to compel the deportation or exclusion of immigrants and asylum seekers. Using laws meant to stop people who would do the country harm from entering or staying in the United States, Barahona and an unknown number of others who pose no threat to the country are treated as terrorists on the grounds that they’d provided “material support” to terrorist organizations. The laws often flip reality on its head, casting the terrorism appellation far beyond a reasonable scope and treating victims as victimizers, the terrorized as terrorists.

A Widely Cast Net

For most of the last 27 years, Barahona lived in the United States as a documented immigrant. He was granted permission to stay in the county in the late 1980’s when he applied for Temporary Protected Status, a kind of immigration relief available to people from designated countries to which a return would pose a safety risk. For years he worked in the construction business, as a carpenter, and in restaurants, supporting his children, who are now in their 20s. In 2010, things turned for the worse for Barahona when he lost his authorization to stay in the country after he was convicted of a misdemeanor. Without permission to work, he fell on hard times, was cited for domestic violence, separated from his wife and after he was ticketed for trespassing by Prince William County, Virginia cops he found himself detained in an federal immigration jail facing deportation proceedings.

Barahona applied for relief from deportation under the NACARA law, which created a pathway to legal residency for asylum seekers from eligible countries including El Salvador. His case should have been a strong one. He’d lived in the US for two and half decades and the judge agreed that Barahona showed “good moral character” and that his deportation would cause him and his family significant hardship.

But the government’s attorney was not having it. She arrived in court committed to Barahona’s expulsion from the United States and she pulled no punches. To Barahona’s astonishment, the attorney argued that his interactions half a lifetime ago with the FMLN guerillas “rises to the level of material support” for terrorism and that he was therefore ineligible to remain in the country.

A decade after September 11, 2001, the government is continuing to wield it’s broad counterterrorism powers against people who pose no threat. Material support laws have led to the prosecution of people alleged to have the most negligible connections to groups designated as terrorist organizations, the criminalization of human rights groups that have engaged with designated terrorist groups and to the intentional circumvention of the justice system when no crime has occurred but the government nonetheless seeks punishment.

In the context of immigration and asylum, material support laws have had major implications for non-citizens applying to enter or for the right to stay in the United States.

In the 1990’s, Congress added specific provisions to immigration law that barred anyone who provided “material support” to a terrorist group from gaining lawful immigration status. Material support was defined broadly— providing a “safe house, transportation, communications, funds, transfer of funds or other material financial benefit, false documentation or identification, weapons.” The laws were meant to be applied to people who posed a real threat to the United States. But after September 11, 2001 the legal landscape changed when Congress vastly expanded the kinds of groups and activities treated as material support.

“2001 is the watershed year,” according to Anwen Hughes, an attorney with the group Human Rights First and an expert on the material support bars in immigration and asylum law. She explained that the PATRIOT Act, the behemoth counter-terrorism law passed by Congress just six weeks after September 11, 2001 changed everything. “At that point, Congress swept a whole new range of organizations into this terrorist category,” she said.


The PATRIOT Act and a set of other laws passed several years later including the Real ID Act of 2005 changed the rules so that people who’d had even a remote association with a group construed as a terrorist organization became a material supporter of terrorism. And the law was applied to people who acted under duress.


“By 2004,” said Hughes, “we started seeing cases where DHS implemented the material support bar systematically, applying it to everyone—people who were coerced.” Medical providers who’d cared for wounded insurgent soldiers were denied their asylum claims. Child soldiers who were forcefully conscripted, Iraqis who in the 90’s battled Saddam Hussain with the express support of the United States, Cubans who resisted the Castro government and countless others were denied asylum, relief from deportation or a green card.

The ironies in the application of the laws are endless.

At almost exactly the same hour of the same March day that the immigration judge told Barahona that he was to be deported because of his previous involvement with the FMLN under force, President Barack Obama was in El Salvador where he was visiting Mauricio Funes, the new Salvadoran President who hails from the FMLN political party.

Unused Discretion

In the March decision, the immigration judge in Barahona’s case explained that his hands were tied by the Department of Homeland Security’s seemingly arbitrary use of the material support bar.

“I want to make it clear,” said the judge, “were it not for this material support issues I would have found the respondent meets the criteria of relief under … NACARA.”

In other words, the judge would have allowed Barahona to stay in the United States and to become a permanent resident were in not for the government’s claim that he’d acted in support of a terrorist group. The judge admonished federal immigration authorities to change course.

“I would urge whoever is making the decisions, Department of Homeland Security, to allow the duress exception.”

Asylum seekers and immigrants like Barahona whose cases have been viewed favorably by immigration courts are then put into legal limbo when the Department of Homeland Security asserts their past activity amounts to material support. Data released to advocates who attended a Department of Homeland Security meeting in March shows that as of the end of February, over 4,600 people had their immigration cases on hold, awaiting a decision from immigration authorities on whether they’ll be eligible for an exemption to the material support bar.

Barahona is represented in court by the immigration clinic at the University of the District of Columbia law school. Kristina Campbell, the director the clinic, says that if Barahona did not have legal support, he’d already have been deported. The clinic appealed the immigration court’s decision to the Board of Immigration Appeals, the appellate authority in the immigration system. In September, the Board agreed with the lower court that he must be deported as long as the government’s material support bar remained.

Anwen Hughes says the use of the material support bar in a case like Barahona’s reflects little more than the impulse on the part of “Federal agencies… to retain as much power as they can.”

“Immigrants in this dynamic are collateral damage and causalities of a desire of the government to have very broad enforcement powers,” says Hughes.

Congress provided federal immigration authorities vast discretion to exempt from the material support bar anyone who acted against their will but without an express exemption the courts are bound. In 2007, in response to outcry from advocates, the federal government did begin issuing exemptions in some cases where people acted under duress and against their will. But according to Hughes, “the discretionary process continues not to reach a lot of applicants.”

“Though the statute gives broad authority to Secretary of Homeland Security to give discretionary exemptions to anyone who did not voluntarily have connections, it’s not always applied. You would think that involvement under duress with the FLMN” would fit the bill for an exemption.

According to Campbell there is no way for those pegged with a material support bar to formally appeal to the Department of Homeland Security for an exemption. “I don’t really know who makes the decision about who gets an exemption,” she said. “The process is arbitrary and capricious.”

Two months ago, on March 22nd, exactly one year to the day that the immigration judge first ordered Barahona deported on material support grounds, the Department of Homeland Security’s Terrorism Related Inadmissibility Grounds Working Group, which apparently makes discretionary decisions about the material support bar, sent Barahona a letter. It reaffirmed that his interactions with the FMLN guerillas amounted to material support and there would be no duress exemption.

“Although we have determined that you provided this material support under duress,” the letter read, the government has “determined it will not exercise favorable discretion in considering your case.”

What’s To Come

Barahona will appear today in the 4th circuit federal appeals court in Richmond, Virginia where a panel of judges will hear arguments in his case.

Kristina Campbell plans to argue in court that what Barahona did cannot be construed as material support for terrorism, but that even if it could, the court should find that because her client had no choice in helping the FMLN, the bar should not be applied. If argument prevails, the decision could have significant implications for the breadth of the government’s power to use the material support bar. If Barahona loses and the government gets its way, the case could help cement the government’s ability to widely cast the material support bar in immigration cases.

The government’s unyielding insistence on Barahona’s deportation raises a set of questions about the possible misuse of the material support bar.

Campbell suspects that the working group charged with material support decisions denied Barahona an exemption because of his earlier misdemeanor convictions. “My clients crime was extremely minor,” she said, “but the attorney wants him gone.” What a few misdemeanor offenses have to do with support for terrorism is unclear.

Questions about the department of Homeland Security’s use of discretionary power have been on the front burner of immigration debates recently. Memos from the head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement instruct immigration agents and attorneys to consider dismissing deportation for immigrations who are clearly eligible to gain lawful status in the United States. Though Barahona initially faced deportation proceedings only because of his undocumented immigration status and the immigration judge was clear that were it not for the material support bar he’d be on his way to legal residency, federal officials have continued to pursue his deportation.

“They don’t want to concede anything on my client,” said Campbell. “The government’s position is that any conduct makes you inadmissible on the material support grounds.”

At the close of his March 2011 hearing, Jose Barahona asked the judge if he could say one last thing.

“We didn’t lend our kitchen to the guerillas. I mean, we were forced to do that. … We had no choice.”

Sympathetically, the judge responded, “Sir, I clearly understand that.”

The federal government seems not to care.

A Nightmare for Undocumented Youth

Undocumented Latino youth who migrate to the United States face futures clouded by limited rights and the constant fear of deportation, according to a new report from the University of Chicago and the University of California, Irvine.

Many don’t fully realize the constraints of their status until they become older teenagers and young adults, the report finds.

“Rites of passage common to American youth — getting a driver’s license, traveling, working and applying to college — are either denied, unattainable or dangerous to pursue for undocumented immigrants,” said Leo Chavez, professor of anthropology at University of California, Irvine. “It’s at this point that many undocumented Latino youth realize society sees them as discardable, as easily castaway. Yet, rather than merely give up, many become involved in campaigns to change the law.”

In a paper, “Awakening to a Nightmare,” which appears in an early preview site for the June issue ofCurrent Anthropology, Chavez and co-author Roberto Gonzales, assistant professor at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration, shed light on both tangible outcomes and lived experiences of undocumented Latinos in Orange County, Calif., who came to the United States as children.

Using in-depth interviews and phone surveys, the researchers obtained detailed information on income, work, education, residence, family, discrimination, immigration status, political engagement, use of medical services and health of undocumented immigrants in comparison to documented immigrants and citizens.

Survey participants included 805 Latino and 396 white men and women with both listed and unlisted phone numbers. Interview participants included 80 Latino men and women.

“Much of today’s scholarly and policy debate focuses on outcomes, but our research shows that shrinking rights for undocumented immigrants and increased enforcement efforts narrowly constrain everyday life and cause a great deal of stress for undocumented youth and young adults,” Gonzales said. “Even mundane acts of driving, waiting for the bus and traffic stops can lead to the loss of a car, prison and deportation.”

According to one interviewee:

“I know I can do so much more, but I can’t because … I can’t choose where I live.  I can’t choose where I work. And the worst thing is that I can’t choose my friends. In high school I was able to do that. I can’t anymore. I can’t even hang out with my high school friends anymore ,and that hurts a lot. Yeah, they want to do grown-up stuff. I can’t do anything that is 18 and over. I can’t do anything. I can only hang out where little kids hang out. I can’t hang out with them. I can’t travel with them.  I can’t go out to dinner with them.” 

In addition to social constraints, survey data revealed that 24 percent of undocumented Latinos surveyed who immigrated to the United States as children had a family income of $35,000 or higher, compared with 68 percent of legal Latino residents from the same age group. Similarly, only 30 percent of undocumented young Latinos had 13 or more years of schooling compared to 50 percent of their legal resident counterparts.

“As adults, these young people wind up making less money, are less likely to own their homes and have less schooling — discrepancies which are directly linked to their immigration status,” said Gonzales.

For many, political and civic engagement has provided an outlet for frustration and a potential path for change, particularly through the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM Act). First introduced in Congress almost 11 years ago, the proposal seeks to reconcile the untenable circumstances confronting undocumented immigrant youth, said Gonzales. A majority of those interviewed acknowledged having taken part in marches and demonstrations in support of the DREAM Act, risking social ramifications and possible deportation by exposing themselves publicly.

“For them, they believe the risks are worth it for a chance to advocate for legislation that would allow an opportunity for residency, even citizenship,” Gonzales said.

“As political debate continues to ensue over who deserves to be American, the young people we surveyed and interviewed are struggling to find ways to make something out of their lives,” said Chavez. “Until Congress acts, undocumented youth will continue to live with uncertain futures.”

The Ford Foundation and the UC Irvine Center for Research on Latinos in a Global Society funded the study.

Immigrants without Legal Representation Not Benefitting from PD

Excerpted from this article 

After ICE Director John Morton issued a memo last June outlining how and when ICE officials should exercise prosecutorial discretion in immigration cases, many were optimistic that the memo’s implementationwould relieve backlogs and help the agency focus on higher priority immigration cases. Months later, however, folks are finding that one large group of people has limited access to this review process—immigrants without legal representation. In fact, nearly half of all immigrants in removal proceedings appeared without legal representation in 2011, also known as “pro se.” While immigration attorneys often explain the effect of these prosecutorial discretion policies to their clients, pro se immigrants may be unaware that new policies are even in effect.

Unlike immigrants who have legal representation, pro se immigrants do not have access to information specifically directed at them explaining the exercise of prosecutorial discretion, how to obtain it, or what it means. This compounds the already serious problem that most pro se immigrants do not have access to information about what relief might be available to them. Moreover, whether or not they are aware of possible options for relief, they may be unaware of the implications of either accepting or foregoing an offer of prosecutorial discretion from ICE.

Underlying all of these deficiencies is a fundamental inequity—immigrants who cannot hire or find scarce pro bono attorneys are not entitled to government-provided representation in a deportation process that has devastating consequences, including separation from family for decades or forever.

To prevent pro se immigrants from falling through the cracks, immigration authorities can take a number of steps to ensure they understand what prosecutorial discretion is, how they can seek it, and what they should do after receiving (or not receiving) an offer of it. First, ICE should advise pro se respondents prior to reviewing their files and explain how to submit documentation for agency officials to consider. Second, if ICE declines to offer a favorable exercise of discretion, agency officials should inform pro se respondents how they can “appeal” the decision to higher agency officials. Third, when ICE offers a favorable exercise of discretion, the agency should provide information explaining the consequences of accepting such an offer. And finally, prior to approving a favorable exercise of discretion, Immigration Judges should affirmatively confirm that pro se immigrants understand these consequences.

By adopting these recommendations, immigration officials can help alleviate one of the most fundamental inequities of the removal process: that the government does not provide attorneys to immigrants who cannot afford one.