Fast for Families: “It’s Time for Congress to Act”

Michele Garnett McKenzie
Michele Garnett McKenzie

A group of men and women are fasting on the National Mall to bring attention to the dire need to reform our immigration laws. Since November 12, they have fasted as an act of prayer for the families torn apart daily by deportations and our broken immigration system.

They are calling on Congress to do the right thing and bring immigration legislation – legislation supported by over 63% of Americans – to a vote.

Today I’m joining the fasters in a symbolic demonstration of solidarity by fasting alongside them.

I’m called to join this action because every day America’s immigration laws violate our human rights obligations and our most deeply held values: that the family is valuable and deserving of protection and that the family should be free from arbitrary or unlawful interference by the state.

Article 16 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and Article 23 of the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights both secure the international human right to family unity, providing that “the family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.” Article 17 of the ICCPR provides that “no one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence . . . .”

But the United States’ immigration laws fail to protect – or even consider – the family in thousands of deportation cases every year.

Earlier this fall the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights held hearings about the impact of U.S. immigration laws on human rights. In our brief to the Commission, The Advocates for Human Rights made the case that mandatory deportation laws enacted in 1996 violate our human rights obligations by failing to provide due consideration to the deported person’s family. These mandatory deportation laws strip judges of the discretion to consider the individual circumstances of the person being deported or the impact the deportation may have on their family. These laws indiscriminately separate parents and children without any consideration of how that impacts the family.

The numbers are staggering. As Ju Hong, the man who interrupted President Obama during his immigration speech in San Francisco, points out in his open letter to the president, nearly 205,000 parents of U.S. citizens have been deported in the last two years. This is indeed, as Hong points out, a human rights issue.

Our detention policies do just as much violence to the family. Enacted alongside the 1996 deportation laws, mandatory detention laws prohibit immigration officers from considering family unity or any other factors in many custody decisions.

And once detained, parents are unable to participate in family court or child protection hearings.In some cases immigration detention itself forms the basis of child protection claims, resulting in placement of children in foster care and even termination of parental rights as a result of the parents’ immigration detention or deportation. As the mother of a nine-year-old, my blood ran cold when I read the introduction to a report by the Women’s Refugee Commission:

“Joanna is an attorney who regularly visits men and women in immigration detention to assess conditions and immigration relief options. Maria is one of the women she visited. When Joanna sat with Maria to begin her interview, Maria handed her a document and asked her to tell her what it said. The document was written in
English, which Maria did not speak. When Joanna took a closer look she realized that the document was a letter from a family court informing Maria that her parental rights had been terminated while she was in immigration detention. Maria had not even been aware that a termination process had been initiated.”

That report was issued in 2010. At the time, an estimated 5.5 million U.S. citizen children were living with at least one undocumented parent.

Since then, so many more families have been torn apart by U.S. immigration laws enacted without regard to our human rights obligations. Families like the one I met at the November Faith Action outside the Ramsey County Jail, in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Mom and daughter – a nine-year-old like my son – had waved goodbye to their husband and father as the bus pulled out of the Bloomington immigration office earlier that week.

I’m fasting today because it is long past time for our immigration laws to reflect the human rights that should protect every single one of us.

It is time for Congress to act.

By: Michele Garnett McKenzie, director of advocacy for The Advocates for Human Rights

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