Why are advocates for kids encouraged that immigration reform has begun to move in Congress? Because immigration is a children's issue, and the outcome of this debate will shape the lives of a generation of kids.
Current law treats children as objects, instead of people with a say in their own lives. For example, a person inadmissible to the U.S. can qualify for relief by showing hardship to a U.S. citizen spouse or other close adult relative; but when a child is affected, the law applies a higher "extreme hardship" standard. Similar double-standards for deportation routinely ignore the common-sense reality that children experience traumatic separation in more damaging and lasting ways than adults. The consequences are devastating for kids.
Recently, over about a two-year period, the federal government deported more than 250 parents every day. Each deportation means children's lives are overturned, as they must either move to a land they've never known or face the trauma of losing a parent. An estimated 5,000 children live in state foster care systems because the government took their parents away. In many cases, their parents were not abusive or neglectful. It happened simply because their parents did not have the required paperwork, when they brought their children to the land of freedom, opportunity and justice.
What America needs is immigration reform that reflects the real value most Americans place on family. That's why more than 200 national, state and local organizations have endorsed a set of principles for immigration reform that meets children's needs. These partners, representing faith traditions, advocates for civil rights, immigrant families, and children, all agree that Congress must: 1) Provide a roadmap to citizenship that is direct, clear, affordable and reasonable, including an individual pathway for young people who entered as children; 2) Protect children's basic rights, including access to health care and other essential needs for children and families; 3) Reform enforcement to protect children's safety and well-being, including protections for the thousands of immigrant children who enter the U.S. each year not accompanied by an adult; and, 4) Commit to keeping families together by modernizing the family-based immigration system, prioritizing children's interests in immigration law and adopting family-friendly enforcement policies.
These principles are broadly similar to those embodied in the Utah Compact, a landmark agreement by a bipartisan coalition of business, political, academic and civic leaders in one of the nation's most politically conservative states. As Utah's attorney general, I was proud to be one of the founders of the Utah Compact, which has guided the development of better immigration policies that value children and protect their interests. We understand that such things are easier said than done. The leading Senate proposal offers a promising start. It is not perfect, but we are confident that there are lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who are serious about solving real problems. And those of us who stand for kids are committed to working with any policymaker — Democrat or Republican — who is serious about building an immigration system that meets children's needs.
Every day we delay means more denials, more deportations, more foster care placements and more families torn apart. And this issue gets more important every day because children of immigrants are already one-fourth of the kids in America. So getting immigration reform done means getting it right for kids.
We urge members of Congress to confront the tragedies children experience every day under current law and commit to delivering a better immigration law that reflects our nation's family values and advances our national interest in the success of every child.
Mark Shurtleff is a partner at Troutman Sanders LLP, and is a former attorney general of Utah. Bruce Lesley is the president of First Focus.