By Christina Kelly, First Focus Intern Associate

This past Wednesday, April 10, I was among the thousands that gathered on Capitol Hill to urge Congress to pass immigration reform that would create a clear path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the US. If the thousands of people spread across the West Lawn of the Capitol Building was not enough to impress upon policymakers the size and strength of the immigration reform movement, Wednesday’s National Rally for Citizenship was just one of several similar events held in cities across the country as part of the National Week of Action for Citizenship. The overwhelming activity and show of support for immigration reform this week demonstrates one thing clearly – millions of people in the United States are deeply affected by our broken immigration system and are looking for Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform now.

The significant aspect of this push for immigration reform is the focus on groups that have largely been ignored in immigration policy: children and families. Everywhere I looked in the crowd of rally-goers, I saw images and statements on shirts and signs that focused on the impact of current immigration policies on children and families – especially in regards to deportation policies that split families apart. The message was clear: families and children bear the brunt of the impact of our broken immigration system.

Here are the facts:

  • 1 in 4 children living in the United States today are the children of immigrants.
  • 5.5 million children in the U.S. live in mixed-legal status families.
  • In the last two years, 205,000 parents of U.S. citizens were deported.
  • It is estimated that 5,100 children are in the U.S. child welfare system due to a parent’s detention or deportation.

It is easy to understand how current immigration policies that detain or deport undocumented family members can have a deeply negative emotional impact on children separated from their families. But deportation is not the only immigration policy that hurts children. The immigration status of children or parents can limit access or create barriers to educational attainment and federally funded assistance programs, which negatively impact a child’s healthy development and potential for future success.

The negative impact of immigration policies on such a large number of children in the US is why our Wendy Cervantes took to the stage at the rally to discuss First Focus’ establishment of principles for children in immigration reform – part of our commitment to making the country’s immigration system work for children and families. These principles, developed in partnership with the Women’s Refugee Commission and endorsed by over 200 organizations representing children, immigrants, academia, faith communities, and civil rights, call for immigration reform to:

  • Provide a direct, clear, and reasonable pathway to citizenship.
  • Protection and promotion of children’s fundamental rights
  • Ensure that enforcement efforts have appropriate protections for children.
  • Keep families together.

As Wendy stated, “the youth standing here with us today represent the 5.5 million children in the U.S. who face the constant fear of having their parent taken away from them…This is why we’ve partnered with over 200 groups to establish principles for children in immigration reform. Because all children deserve immigration reform that will promote their best interests and protect their rights.”

One speaker, Macky Fofana, gave a face to these millions of young people who feel the negative effects of our immigration system daily. Macky, along with his sister and parents immigrated to the US when he was 11 to escape the inhumane practice of genital mutilation common in his home country of Mali. Since moving here, his family has worked hard – Macky graduated from high schools and is currently pursuing a degree in computer science while his parents are saving to purchase a house. Still, his family’s immigration status remains in limbo and each year, they must apply for deferment of their deportation. He described the daily fear and uncertainty about what their futures will look like and the stress that this uncertainty places on him and his family. As Macky stated, “every day, we wake up wondering if our family will still be together. If I will see my parents again. If one day in the future, they will be able to help me choose a career, meet my spouse, know my children. If they will be able to attend my sister’s graduation, or even attend my brother’s 13th birthday. We’re trying to do the right thing…We need a way to get out of this limbo, to be able to make plans for the future. We are calling on Congress to pass immigration reform legislation that will allow us and families like us to stay together permanently.”

It is for Macky and the millions of children across the country hurt by our immigration system that we must not only implement reform that creates a clear path to citizenship, but immigration reform that makes sense for children and families. Children have been left out of immigration policy for too long. The Time is Now to not only reform our immigration system but to ensure that reform makes children and families the primary consideration.