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Family values and immigration reform

By Grace Yukich

This summer has been pivotal for the American family. On 26 June 2013, the US Supreme Court ruled that the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional, making same-sex couples eligible for the same federal benefits that opposite-sex couples have. The following day, the US Senate passed a bipartisan immigration reform bill that could grant legal status to many of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. For many Americans, the first decision is clearly about the family. But the second could be just as powerful in shaping American families in the coming years.

According to the Pew Hispanic Center, 4.5 million US citizen children have at least one parent who is undocumented. The Department of Homeland Security’s records reveal that close to 200,000 parents of US citizen children were deported from the United States between 1998 and 2007, a number that has only increased in subsequent years. The Applied Research Center estimates that over 5,000 of the US citizen children of these deportees are now in foster care. By providing temporary legal status and a pathway to citizenship for many undocumented immigrants, the Senate’s immigration bill has the potential to preserve family unity for millions of Americans. So why do so few Americans (and so few politicians) see immigration as a family issue?

Photo of 4th Annual Coming Out of the Shadows March & Rally in Chicago
The 4th Annual Coming Out of the Shadows March & Rally in Chicago. Hundreds of undocumented students and families and their supporters marched to protest the continued deportations under the Obama administration and to stand with those immigrants who continue to be criminalized. Photo by sarah-ji, CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

Responding to the Supreme Court’s decision on DOMA, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee tweeted “Jesus wept,” echoing the displeasure of many religious conservatives at the increasing legal and cultural acceptance of LGBT families in the United States. The strong connection between the religious right and “family values” since the 1980s has focused national attention on defending (or challenging, depending on the side you’re on) the dominance of a particular family model rather than on strengthening the diverse types of families that exist in the United States today.

Over the past 10 years, immigrant rights activists have fought to transform this way of viewing the politics of the family. Campaigns like La Familia Latina Unida, Families for Freedom, and the New Sanctuary Movement have tirelessly highlighted how deportation splits up families. They have drawn connections between religious teachings and immigration, expanding the national conversation about family values to include valuing immigrant family unity. For them, the passage of the Senate bill is a major step forward in keeping immigrant families together and in affirming their value.

Still, the bill does not go far enough for many families. Take Jean Montrevil. As a young man during the 1980s, he migrated legally to the United States from his native Haiti, green card in hand. A few years later, he was convicted of selling drugs during the height of the War on Drugs. He served an 11-year prison sentence. According to current US immigration policy, Jean is “the worst of the worst.” The Obama administration has focused on deporting people with criminal convictions, no matter how old their convictions are, how much they have been rehabilitated, or how much it could impact their families if they are deported.

Today, Jean is a business owner, a church member, a husband, and a father of four US citizen children. The main breadwinner for his family, his wife and children depend on his presence in the United States both emotionally and financially. Those who know Jean speak of him as a model friend and community member, as far from “the worst of the worst” as one could get. Yet the Senate’s immigration bill brings no relief for families like Jean’s. Jean could be detained and deported from the United States at any time, leaving his wife and children without their husband and father.

There is still time for the US House of Representatives to build an immigration bill that includes provisions for families like Jean’s, though the anti-reform sentiments in the House make it unlikely. Many of the strongest voices against a path to legalization and citizenship in the House are also opposed to the DOMA decision, arguing that recognizing same-sex marriage will damage the family. What remains to be seen is whether the same leaders will reject legislation that could keep immigrant families together.

Grace Yukich, an assistant professor of sociology at Quinnipiac University, is the author of the new book One Family Under God: Immigration Politics and Progressive Religion in America.

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