“Since My Mother Left”: Stories of Separations

Children of Immigrants

Three years ago, Jamil Sunsin woke up and noticed his mother was visibly upset —U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials had detained Jamil’s father overnight. Later that year, his mother was also arrested. For Jamil, a 13-year-old U.S. citizen, the deportation of both parents forced him to accompany his family to Honduras. There, he faced the violence that has been responsible for the migration of thousands of unaccompanied children to the United States in recent months.

Jamil’s story is not unique. An estimated 1,000 immigrants are separated from their families and communities every day across America. These detentions and deportations threaten the livelihood of their children, mainly U.S. citizens, who are forced to grow up without their loved ones. On July 9, I had an opportunity to listen to Jamil and other immigrant youth share their stories. The “Since My Mother Left” briefing was sponsored by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ), and five organizations committed to protecting immigrant families.

Fortunately, Jamil was able to return to the United States and is currently living with relatives. But he has a hard time understanding why he was separated from his parents. “I can’t believe my country is doing this to my family,” he said. “Why does this have to happen to me?”

In recent weeks, the humanitarian crisis on our border has left politicians and Americans criticizing the Obama administration’s handling of immigration. Many have argued that the current policies are too relaxed. But according to data released by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the government has deported more immigrants during this administration than during any previous presidency— over 2 million. I was surprised to learn that private interests and an inexplicable immigration bed quota are partially responsible for the detentions of so many people.

According to the National Immigrant Justice Center, an interpretation of appropriations language by DHS and some members of congress has caused ICE to fill a mandatory detention quota of 34,000 beds. This statutory quota is unique to ICE and no other law enforcement agency in the country follows a similar policy. Additionally, close to 60 percent of detention facilities are run by private prison corporations, which are profiting from the incarceration of immigrants. People like Jamil Sunsin and Kadi Cisse’s parents are not being detained and deported based on their individual situations, but rather on statistical necessities.

For children, life usually changes for the worse after one or both parents has been deported. According to the Detention Watch Network, nearly 40 percent of detention facilities are located more than 60 miles from an urban center. Families lose primary breadwinners, children experience a decline in their health quality, and communities suffer. In 2013, the administration recognized the importance of family unity and introduced a rule which keeps families together. In the absence of immigration reform, First Focus applauds President Obama’s recent plans of relief for undocumented immigrants and policies to make immigration enforcement more humane. We hope that additional protections to keep families together are enacted soon..

As the nation turns its focus to our borders and the ongoing humanitarian crisis, we should think carefully about the livelihoods of young Americans who are being separated from their parents. It is crucial that changes to immigration and detention policies allow families to stay together. Eliminating the detention bed quota and closely examining the family situations of undocumented immigrants before detention would be two starting points.

Kadi Cisse, 22, moderated the briefing. Her mother was deported to Cote D’Ivoire when Cisse was only 9-years-old and missed her daughter’s fifth grade, high school, and college graduations. As Cisse prepares to obtain her graduate degree, she is fearful her mother will miss that ceremony as well. “As a 9-year-old, to hear that your mother is in jail is definitely an unexplainable feeling. You’re forced to suffer the effects on your own,” Cisse said.