Dozens of children gathered on Capitol Hill today to deliver over 10,000 letters in a new “Wish for the Holidays” campaign asking Congress to stop deporting loved ones and separating families. The letters came from 27 different states and were written by children as young as four years old.
Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA) joined the children and asked her fellow members of Congress to pay attention to their “incredibly important message.”
“If we claim to value families,” she said, “if we acknowledge that children shouldn’t be needlessly separated from their parents; if we believe that everyone deserves a fair shot at the American dream; then we should end the policies that have shattered so many families and get to work on reforming our broken immigration system.”
One of the visitors was Amy Merlos, a 13-year-old US citizen who asked for ICE to stop the deportation of her father, Saul Merlos. Saul is a civil rights leader from New Orleans and member of the Southern 32, who witnessed a DHS payday raid that turned violent in 2011. Since then, he has been speaking out for immigrant and workers’ rights, helping to defend fellow laborers who have had to work in unsafe conditions or were robbed of their pay.
Last month, Saul participated in a field hearing called “Dialogues in Detention”, where he spoke before dozens of advocates and government officials, critiquing the enforcement actions and detention conditions in the Deep South ICE Field Office. His presentation was well received and he was invited to testify at the national meeting where advocates around the country will gather.
However, less than a week after giving that public testimony, ICE called Saul for a check in and arrested him. After a national outcry, ICE reversed its position and released Saul, but his stay of removal expires next month. Despite having lived in the country for 18 years, and being a responsible father to Amy, ICE is telling Saul that he faces re-arrest if he does not show proof of a purchase of an airline ticket by Dec. 21, 2012.
“In school, when I make a mistake I get into trouble. It should be the same for the government,” said Amy. “The government shouldn’t be able to deport people because they don’t like what they say. We need brave people like my Dad to make sure there is freedom for everyone.”
Other Congressional visitors included Eliza Morales, a 19-year-old from Los Angeles whose mother was deported to Mexico when she was 14. She said, “It was really difficult to deal with because I didn’t know if she was okay or where she has headed. I felt like she had abandoned me. U.S. immigration policies are driving families apart, little by little. I want people to hear me, to hear us.”
She was joined by Anthony Hoz-Peña, a 12-year-old from Miami whose father has spent the last nine months in detention. Anthony said, “It’s not fair that you Congress members get to see your children every day and I only get to see him every 15 days in jail, if we are lucky to get a ride because it’s very far away, in another county.”
According to a report released in 2011 by the Applied Research Center, an estimated 5.5 million children in the United States have one or more parents who are undocumented immigrants. These children live in fear that their families will be torn apart as a result of detentions and deportations.
In the first six months of 2011 alone, more than 46,000 parents of U.S. citizen children were deported, a dramatic increase over previous periods. In general, children experience severe psychological trauma when separated from their primary caregivers. Children whose families have been separated as a result of deportation and immigrant detention often face financial hardship, emotional and behavioral problems, deep declines in educational performance, and negative health outcomes.