The little girl paused, then answered my questions: "I'm 7." "Second grade." Her hair was in braided pigtails. She wore a fancy dress.
The girl had taken a seat in the folding chair next to mine after guards led another small group into the brightly lit room.
We were in the post-security visitation area of the Stewart Detention Center, a privately run federal immigration facility in south Georgia. Behind us was a plain wall.
In front were five sparse booths, open to the room, offering little privacy. Each booth had a chair and a large black telephone. Thick glass separated the booths from men who milled about on the other side. The men wore different colored jumpsuits: some blue, some orange, some red.
Like the older woman, an aunt perhaps, who accompanied her into the room, the little girl to my right was visibly nervous. This was her first trip to the detention center. I told the girl about my own second-grader in an effort to get her mind off our surroundings. I'm quite certain I failed.
After several minutes, a man in his late 20s sat down on the other side of the glass. He picked up a phone. The little girl walked up, studied another phone for a moment, and carefully raised it to the side of her head. Her greeting was straightforward: "Hi, Daddy." I couldn't hear what her father said in reply. I could see his wistful smile, though, and tears rolling down his cheeks.
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Every day, our immigration laws are breaking apart families of many citizens living in the United States.
It's good news that, as a bipartisan group of U.S. senators seeks consensus on a plan for comprehensive immigration reform, one focus is on so-called "family reunification" preferences in our law. The senators are debating whether, and to what extent, our immigration policies should give priority to admitting family members of immigrant citizens -- their spouses, children and siblings -- still living abroad.
But while family reunification is an important consideration, that issue avoids the larger point dramatized at the Stewart Detention Center about the harmful impact of U.S. immigration policy on families already here.
More than 1.5 million unauthorized immigrants have been removed from the United States since President Obama took office in 2009, according to the federal government's statistics. Approximately 410,000 were removed last year alone.
These numbers present an important question: Who are the immigrants we are deporting? Yes, some are dangerous criminals who need to be arrested, prosecuted and removed through deportation. Living in the United States without legal status does not, however, amount to criminality.
The Supreme Court noted this last year when it wrote, "As a general rule, it is not a crime for a removable alien to remain present in the United States." Overstaying a visa, for example, is a civil violation and not a criminal one.
The offenses that can trigger incarceration at detention centers like the one I visited recently include traffic violations such as driving without a valid license. This may seem like a matter of semantics to some, but incarcerating nonviolent immigrants carries real costs to the country and to the immigrants' family members who are, in many cases, U.S. citizens.
Many present-day immigrants live among us in what researchers call "mixed status" households. Approximately 9 million people live in these modern American families that include both citizens and unauthorized immigrants. The result is that U.S.-citizen family members are frequently left behind when immigrants are deported.
Contrary to popular belief, marriage to a U.S. citizen does not automatically confer legal status on unauthorized immigrants. While marriage can provide a pathway to legal residency, that path is often long and can be overrun with bureaucratic pit stops.
In many instances, our laws require immigrant spouses to return to their home countries and remain there for as long as 10 years before reunification is permitted. These extended bars to re-entry apply, for example, to Mexican nationals who arrived in this country after 2001 without authorization even if they are married to a U.S. citizen. In that way, our current immigration laws give some U.S. citizens a distressing choice: Either extended separation from their immediate families or extended separation from this country.
An emerging bipartisan consensus acknowledges that our immigration laws are broken and need to be reformed, in a comprehensive way, at the federal level.
As Washington tackles this issue, we should acknowledge that reform can benefit more than the immigrants living among us. It can benefit American children who attend school with our kids, American men who share pews at our churches, and American women sitting beside us in office cubicles, by keeping their families together. Done right, immigration reform can strengthen our economy, uphold our values and preserve the family units of many U.S. citizens.
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