Devaluing Immigrant Families

On the heels of increasing discussion of whether its erstwhile (given his recent defeat in the first "money primary") presidential frontrunner is sufficiently conservative to win the Republican nomination [one, two], the erstwhile party of family values is apparently about to unveil its latest proposal for comprehensive immigration reform. While details remain unclear, reports indicate that the proposal -- which has White House support and whose Senate sponsors include at least two erstwhile opponents of comprehensive immigration reform, Senators John Cornyn of Texas and Jon Kyl of Arizona -- would limit family reunification in at least two respects. First, while the proposal would provide undocumented immigrants with an opportunity for legalization, it apparently would bar them from bringing family members with them [link]. Second, while the bill would increase the number of employment-based visas to accommodate future flows of immigrant workers, these increases apparently would be offset in part by eliminating the existing family-based visa category that permits immigrants to sponsor their siblings and adult children [link].

Immigrants' rights advocates and pro-immigration legislators have criticized the proposal:

“Family reunification has been an essential aspect of these policies,” Kennedy said last week. “Many of those who are brought in, in terms of families, have become actively involved. They open small stores, play a significant role in the economy. The families and the importance of family unity are extremely important.” [link]
“This set of principles is a nonstarter – they don’t work,” said [Asian American Justice Center] President and Executive Director Karen K. Narasaki. “They don’t address the underlying problems leading to undocumented immigration – and, in fact, the policies would actually exacerbate the problems. They offer only false promises to the undocumented already here. And they are very anti-family.” [link]

As these advocates suggest, the White House/GOP Senators' proposal might legitimately be understood as a significant anti-family shift in the current reform debate. However, what might easily be lost in this discussion is the extent to which the proposal might also be understood as simply the continuation of a trend, for the immigration policies enacted in the last decade -- especially the legislation signed into law by President Clinton in 1996 -- already have devalued immigrant families to a significant extent. Ten years later, one doesn't have to look very hard to find stories of families devastated by the vast expansion of deportation grounds to encompass minor crimes and the elimination of opportunities for many long-time residents to seek individualized, discretionary relief from deportation. (I'll nevertheless help with that search by providing a couple: click "play" on the audio link above for the story of Aarti Shahani and her family, also downloadable here from Breakthrough, and see this link for the story of 82-year-old Gurdev Gill. Only two stories among many, many others.)

With the proliferation of such stories, one might think that one has heard every possible permutation. And yet, yesterday (thanks, Naina), a remarkable recent case caught my attention:

Samuel Jonathan Schultz was born in India and adopted at age 3 by a Utah woman. His adopted mother apparently failed to complete his application for US citizenship upon his arrival to the US.

As a teenager, Schultz got in trouble with the law on numerous occasions. At the age of 18, he was arrested for driving a stolen vehicle (he claims that his friend stole the car and that he was simply on his way to return it). A year later, he was convicted again for car theft. [link]

Schultz also "has a juvenile record of theft offenses and engaged in altercations as a teen with his stepfather that occasionally required police intervention." [link] Apparently ineligible for discretionary relief on account of his criminal history, he has sought asylum on the ground that, as a Mormon, he might face persecution in India, and in an unpublished opinion the Tenth Circuit recently affirmed the denial of his asylum claim, also on account of on his criminal record. Let's leave the merits of the asylum issue to one side for now -- although I wouldn't too quickly or categorically dismiss the notion that Christians might face persecution in India, either, at least in some circumstances. At the heart of this case is not Schultz's asylum claim, but rather the question of what justifies either his deportation or the blanket denial of any opportunity to seek discretionary relief from deportation at all. Since Schultz is an adoptee, presumably all of his family ties are here in the United States. Indeed, Schultz's criminal record itself is entirely "homegrown" in the United States, since he has had no meaningful ties to his country of origin since the age of three.

Schultz's case is only a particularly extreme illustration of the harsh immigration consequences that countless others have faced since 1996. At one point, concerns Seattle Immigration Reform Demonstration, 2006over such extreme outcomes led a bipartisan group of legislators -- including some of the very architects of the 1996 legislation themselves -- to conclude that those laws had gone too far and should be scaled back. Such proposals have been notably absent in the post-2001 debates over immigration reform. However, Congressman José Serrano recently has proposed legislation in that spirit. Serrano's bill, the Child Citizen Protection Act, would restore discretionary authority for immigration judges to waive deportation of parents of U.S. citizen children if the IJ concludes that deportation is "clearly against the best interests of the child." Serrano's proposal is a limited one. It wouldn't help Schultz and many others facing overly punitive consequences of the 1996 laws. But the bill could provide a starting point for a rather different kind of public conversation than the one we've been having for the past several years about who we are deporting and why.

When he was still mayor here in New York, the erstwhile GOP frontrunner was a vocal advocate on behalf of immigrant communities in several respects. Now that he has presidential ambitions, and both a GOP base and Tom Tancredo to contend with, it will be interesting to see whether he will remain a strong advocate for immigrant families in the current reform debates or will instead "flip flop" and become merely another erstwhile pro-immigrant voice.