What if you were told tomorrow that you needed to leave immediately and you could never see your family again, unless they were willing to follow you? That’s the position a lot of residents of the United States find themselves in every day as they’re deported for being in the country without their immigration documents in order — and sometimes, deported by mistake. If their children and other family members have residency rights, they’re allowed to stay, forcing people to make a terrible choice: take everyone with the deported family member, or split a family in two.
For many, the ultimate decision is to leave family members in the United States. People may be concerned about safety risks, or want to provide more opportunities for their children. In some cases, children and other family members of deportees haven’t been to the country the deportee calls home, and can’t imagine living there. They may not even speak the language, and they aren’t familiar with the customs, the laws and the other minutia of daily life in what, to them, is a foreign country.
Leaving your family behind in the United States may mean you’re not supposed to see them again, but many deportees try anyway, at great personal risk. Advocates are fighting for a “right to return” provision in U.S. immigration law for the estimated 20% of deportees who leave spouses, children and parents behind when they leave the country, because the costs, both human rights-wise and economically, are immense.
Deportees may decide to attempt to cross the border again to reunite with their families, chancing their luck on an extremely risky proposition that involves paying someone to help safely get them across the border, counting on that person to not exploit them, sexually assault them, or abandon them in their hour of need. Others may try it on their own, gathering intelligence from friends and family members to come up with a strategy for getting across the border without going through immigration authorities.
Some of these immigrants die in the desert, never seeing their families again and in some cases not being found for weeks, months, or years. For family members, the disappearance of a beloved partner, parent or child who was deported is ominous, and a mystery that may never be solved: did the deportee never make it to safety after being dropped off in her home nation? Was she murdered? Did she try to cross the border and fail? Has she been entrapped in a forced labor scheme?
Others are finding themselves in federal prison, apprehended for illegally crossing the border. Immigration detainees are not entitled to legal representation, and they may wait for months or years in a highly backlogged system for their cases to be heard. Many don’t know their rights and speak poor English, making it difficult to understand the cases against them, argue in their defense, or seek assistance. Immigration detention in the United States is also rife with problems like poor health care, bad food and sexual assault by guards and other inmates, as with the rest of the prison system.
Family members may have difficulty finding out if a loved one is in immigration detention, especially if they themselves are also undocumented immigrants, as they won’t want to attract attention to themselves. This leaves them hanging with the terrifying unsolved mystery of a deported and disappeared family member; sounds like a nightmare, doesn’t it?
Immigration reform must fix situations like these, which is why pushing for right of return provisions is so important. Because no family should be separated by cruel circumstances, and people should never have to wonder where their loved ones are.