Leaving family on the other side of the border

A reader in San Francisco recently commented on how ironic it is that when parents leave their children behind in the care of family members — in their countries of origin to search for better prospects in America — it is not labeled divisive or “heartbreaking.” But when President Barack Obama’s Immigration Reform Plan reached a dead end with an evenly split Supreme Court decision, it was deemed a tragic status quo.

The reader went on to ask: Is family unity a sentiment to be used as convenient?

When we write, we certainly carry forth our biases in our interpretations. And when readers challenge us, it makes it all the more interesting to deliberate and respond.

So to the question of convenience, my one-word answer is “yes.” That answer, though, merely summarizes and generalizes a particular reasoning and does not give the complicated nuance behind it.

Many of us migrate: from city to city, from urban to suburban and from country to country. Our patterns of migration are largely based on a need for economic and social progress and, for some, driven by the desire for safety: a safer neighborhood, a safer city or a safer country.

Sometimes, parents have jobs in different cities and must balance the imperative to stay together as a family unit with the need to have financial stability.

These decisions, too, are what immigrants consider before leaving strands of their lives behind.

Take Ana Morales, who left Mexico when she was 8 years old to join her mother in America. I recently met Morales at a panel discussion on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, organized by New America Media in San Francisco. Morales is a DREAMer (a beneficiary of the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act).

Morales recently graduated from San Francisco State University with a degree in business and works as a legal assistant at Dolores Street Community Services’ Deportation and Legal Advocacy Program.

“One of the best things that happened to me,” Morales said, “was that I could apply for advance parole. My application was granted and I visited my grandparents who raised me ’til the age of 8.” Her voice broke as she talked about how she was finally able to see her beloved grandmother after 17 years. Morales continued with tears in her eyes as she conveyed how critically sick her grandmother had been.

Then there’s Ana Morales’ mother, who lives in fear that she could be deported and separated from her daughter.

But you might say that Ana Morales, also, is a story that is convenient.

In an article for the Migration Policy Institute titled, “Family Unity: The New Geography of Family Life,” Kate Jastram, a lecturer in residence at UC Berkeley Law School, says, “When the most intimate and enduring of human relationships are lived across international borders, states trying to manage migration flows must balance border control concerns with their international obligations to respect and support family life.”

What I believe Jastram is saying is that the motivations behind decisions must be factored in.

When a mother leaves her child behind in order to find the means to better that child’s life, then it is not as harmful as when a state refuses to acknowledge the benefits of a policy that seeks to keep a child with her mother.

These are two sides of the same coin, but very different in intent.

It is evident that our immigration policies affect people’s lives in huge and immediate ways. When it comes to immigration reform, we must extricate and exclude harmful and destructive designs and preserve those that propagate social harmony.

In other words, it is America’s humanitarian responsibility to keep families intact within our borders.

True, as a country, we must address our porous border issues. And as Jastram explains, “many states have been struggling to address real and perceived migration management problems by enacting restrictive laws and increasing enforcement efforts, a trend that has intensified now that national security considerations have come to the forefront of the immigration debate.”

I believe our border problems are separate from our immigration policy and reform problems.

Yes, as a country, we must control — or at least have control over — our borders. But that’s separate from recognizing and humanely treating people who have lived among us for many years, in our playgrounds, in our classrooms and in our cubicles, factories and fields.

I believe it is irredeemably harmful to punish people who once entered our country illegally by destroying their family unit.

For sure, there are instances when states have no recourse but to expel individuals who carry out criminal and damaging agendas. And that’s as it should be. In these cases, the security of our citizens becomes paramount and trumps the preservation of family unity.

Yet, these are exception cases and I believe that we must craft our immigration policies for the majority, for the general peace-loving populace that’s intent on providing a good future for their own.

Many of them, like Morales, are intent on advancing socially and intellectually to contribute through service to our society.

Jaya Padmanabhan can be reached at jaya.padmanabhan@gmail.com. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan. In Brown Type covers immigrant issues in San Francisco.

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