Torn Apart: Immigration and the American Family

Immigration, immigrant
Photo Credit Theo Rigby

We look back with sadness and horror at parents and children forcibly separated in centuries past, and then turn our heads when today’s immigration laws tear families apart.

Lisa writes: I am the first person to complain about my kids and the trials of parenting.  I am more than happy to indulge in over-analyzing my overparenting.  But just for a moment, I want to give thanks for the opportunity to nag, to break-up sibling fights, to worry, to cuddle, to comfort and to simply watch. Because along with the gift of parenthood, I was given the gift of having my children grow up in my home, day in and day out, year in and year out.  And for that I am grateful.

American history is replete with stories of parents and children forever separated.  Slaves were sold as individuals and families were wrenched apart to suit their owner’s needs.  The tide of 19th century European immigration brought children to America on their own or parents without their kids hoping that family members would one day follow.

We are a compassionate nation.  We look back with sadness and horror at parents and children separated in centuries past, and then turn our heads when it happens in our day. The separation of parents and children is not confined to history.

This is not a political post, I have strong views on immigration (as the child, spouse and mother of immigrants) and serve on the board of Neighbors Link, an organization dedicated to immigrant integration in our New York community.

But this is not about that. This is about parenthood. This is about the firm conviction that we hold in our society, courts and homes, that children are always better off with an able parent. Unless, it turns out, we deem that parent should be deported. Then, we suspend what we know about parents and successful child-rearing as we tear apart families to comply with our broken immigration system.

At this moment, when our nation is once again looking at our immigration laws in the hopes of overhauling a system that many agree has been a failure, let’s look at what happens in the very real lives of parents and their children when they are faced with a most agonizing decision.

The Mejias are like so many immigrant families that have gone before them.  In 1992, Sam and Elida Mejia were young parents who fled the Guatemalan Civil war with their one year old son, Gilbert. They lived and worked in the U.S., had two daughters, paid taxes and bought a home.  They were deeply involved with family, community and, as we meet them, surrounded by people they love. In 2007, their home was raided in a bout of mistaken identity and the couple were found to be undocumented, with no criminal record, and subsequently deported.

Immigration, Immigrant
Photo Credit Theo Rigby

The Mejias, faced a parent’s worst nightmare with a very young American daughter, an American teenage daughter and a teenage son who was also undocumented.  The teenagers were ensconced in their education, thriving in the only country they had ever known as home.  Their youngest, shown here as she waves goodbye to her brother and sister, was far too young to be separated from her parents. Who among us can imagine themselves enduring such a situation without our heart being torn in two?

Theo Rigby, in a beautiful award-winning short documentary entitled Sin Pais (Without Country, 2010) lets the family tell their story. Rigby made the film, he explains, because, “I thought (and still do) that the human side of immigration issues often gets lost in the heated political rhetoric of Washington and simplified sound-bites of the mass media–the real and devastating effects of deportation that fall on families and communities across the country, are often not seen.”

The short, not to be missed, film which airs on PBS Online Film Festival all this month, and can be seen here, is wrenching to watch and, as a parent, excruciating.  Elida is every mother, a woman who wants nothing more or less for her children than that they grow up surrounded by their parent’s love and venture into a world filled with opportunity. The film reminds us that, although we hold the parent-child bond sacred, we have found no way to see beyond our poorly constructed laws to preserve the sanctity of a family.

Immigration is surely a political issue, but it is also a parenting and family issue.  According to the Pew Hispanic Center approximately 17 million people live in families with an undocumented family member. About 4.5 million children who were born in the US have at least one undocumented parent.

Janet Napolitano, U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security acknowledged the overarching question in an interview when she said. “The number one concern all of us should have is, ‘Where are the children? What’s going on with the children? But the plain fact of the matter is, having a child in and of itself does not bestow citizenship.”  

Those who have torn families apart have rarely been on the right side of history and as a nation that is not company we want to keep. Our President agrees that something must be done. “When nursing mothers are torn from their babies, when children come home from school to find their parents missing … when all this is happening, the system just isn’t working and we need to change it,” President Obama stated in 2008. He has said that deportation should target “violent offenders and people convicted of crimes; not families, not folks who are just looking to scrape together an income.”   

In the ten years between 1998 and 2007, approximately 100,000 parents of US citizens were deported. Yet in the first six months of  2011, Immigration and Customs Enforcement removed 46,486 undocumented parents who had at least one child who is an American citizen. These parents were fully 22% of the total number of people deported during that time.

Academics from Harvard and NYU wrote in the New York Times, “The extraordinary acceleration in the dismantling of these families, part of the government’s efforts to meet an annual quota of about 400,000 deportations, has had devastating results. Having a parent ripped away permanently, without warning, is one of the most devastating and traumatic experiences in human development.”

As parenting bloggers we spend much time writing about our children.  Alternatively, I extol the virtues of motherhood and the next moment vent my frustrations with modern parenting. But now, as we consider this important issue of immigration, it is time to pause.  We want to take this moment to remember that is both a privilege and a gift to be able to wake our kids in the morning, and that it is a privilege every parent deserves.

Immigration Mejia Family
Photo Credit Theo Rigby



  1. Poppy says

    Well said. The trauma visited on these young lives, and the trauma for those children who fear that their family will be torn apart, is massive, with long-lasting impact. This is not our country at its finest. We need to find a solution.

    • says

      We certainly do. Families need to be kept together and let’s hope that the upcoming immigration legislation finds ways to make that possible.

  2. says

    Thank you for writing this. I think anytime we take political policy to the point of posturing and abstraction we lose compassion in the process. We do not achieve some greater good by tearing apart such families.

  3. says

    It’s a complicated issue really, isn’t it? Not when you bring it down to families and mothers and children. Frustrating when it comes to those who come into the country illegally or do not contribute. Frustrating for those who go through all the ropes, so to speak, to do it legally. The human issue is always the heartbreak. The legal issue is the sticking point. Reminds me of the battle in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice between justice and mercy. Where do the scales tip?

  4. says

    extraordinary post, lisa. i think bigotry plays a big role as well. we don’t hear people clamoring for a fence on our northern borders. anti immigration politicians polarize people by using the same tactics they used to put a face on welfare mothers. the Dream Act is a start but who says that a 19 year old doesn’t need his mother? imagine being separated from your 19 year old? i can’t. my grandmother came from scotland to toronto, got on a train and got off in Bridgeport CT. she was an illegal. we found out when we tried to track her through the Ellis Island website. My daughter has been living and working in Melbourne on a fiance’ visa for 3 years. John is British and a chef and has his visa through the restaurant. If they want to move back here and get our version of the fiance’ visa, they have to get married within three months and he can’t work for six months. it just makes no sense. i know a few ICE agents and those that i know are pretty traumatized by what they have to do because of these ridiculous laws and they do the best they can to keep families together but they are charged with enforcing the law. it is a tragic situation and like you say, not the best that we can be as a country. canada, australia, germany, and others may deserve the statue of liberty more than we do right now.

    • says

      It seems that there is fairly wide agreement that the system we have is truly flawed and that something better needs to take its place. Tearing families apart, in my opinion can not be the right answer as it only creates problems that last long into the next generation and beyond. My family were almost all born in Europe so I know how frustrating immigration can be, and I know that it is filled with people trying to do their best.

  5. says

    It is sad. The USA is generous in so many ways. Do other nations grant citizenship to those born on its soil? No. In a sense, that policy has made the enormous risk of illegal immigration appealing to many parents. They want US citizenship for their children. While many of us see only the faults and shortcomings of our country, they see the multitude of benefits and are willing to risk arrest and deportation to give their children access to a better life.

    I don’t understand why, under Obama, the deportations have been so drastically high compared to the Bush years. Is this the policy he wants or are families being forced to suffer needlessly to make a political point? Whether it reflects the administration’s true goals or is a tactic to garner support for change, it is unkind to say the least.

  6. says

    Thank you for sharing this. Those poor families. I cant even fathom the pain they experience. My heart breaks for anyone whose family is taken from them.

  7. says

    Canada does grant citizenship to a baby born in Canada.
    I should know this: my father sponsored my mother to immigrate and come to Canada. He married her in late 1950’s shortly after she came to Canada. At that time, she was landed resident..then I was born.

    My heart is sad for the Filipino domestic workers, many who are mothers and have left their children behind, so that they can earn more money overseas for their families. There is a high psychological price to pay for not being around for your children during their growing years.

    • says

      There is a huge price for everyone to pay when parents and children are separated. And as a society, I think, we don’t believe that this is right.