Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Immigration Policies at Odds with Family Values

Jen Smyers


July 19, 2013

By Jen Smyers

As the US Senate recently passed a bipartisan immigration reform bill, policymakers of varying perspectives agree that the current US immigration system is broken and in need of repair. Our country’s immigration policies force families to wait decades to be reunited, while simultaneously separating families through raids, detention, and deportation. In the first principle of its Guideline on Family, the Center for Public Justice holds that "Government should recognize and protect the family as an essential expression of its responsibility to uphold a just society." The US government's immigration policies must be reformed in order to respect and protect the institution of the family.

Current immigration law narrowly restricts options for family reunification. Lawful Permanent Residents (LPRs) or "greencard holders" can only sponsor their spouse and children. US citizens can only sponsor their spouse, children, parents, and siblings and they face wait times upwards of twenty years to reunite with their adult children and twenty-three years to be reunited with their siblings. When it comes to family unity, reform proposals are a mixed bag, but none propose the needed increases in family visas. Both the recently passed Senate bill S.744 and the SKILLS Visas Act, H.R. 2131 approved by the House Judiciary Committee would reduce family-based visas and remove the ability of US citizens to sponsor their siblings and, in the case of the Senate bill, to sponsor their married children over the age of thirty-one. Proponents of these changes argue that reductions are needed to increase high-skilled visas. However, visa numbers are not a zero-sum game. Both employment and family-based visas must be modernized to make our immigration policies timely and effective.

With such barriers to timely family reunification, it is not surprising that many separated families reunite through the only means possible: entering the United States illegally or overstaying a visa. CPJ's Guideline on Government emphasizes the need for the government to recognize the "wide variety of God-given, non-political responsibilities...that belong to those who live in the territory of government's jurisdiction." Immigration laws dismiss the importance of parents' responsibilities to their children, separating and harming families through raids, detention, and deportation. 

Immigration raids take place not only in workplaces, but also in homes, often during early morning hours. Children’s accounts of being awakened by officers in full-body gear with guns and the psychosocial impact that raids have on children call into question how our apprehension policies intersect with our values as a nation. Local enforcement policies like 287(g) and the "Secure Communities" program that mandate local police serve as immigration officers make parents reticent to report crimes committed against a family member for fear of deportation. Families feel the effects of these policies with some parents moving, taking their children out of school, and avoiding community activities for fear of deportation.

Each year, more than 400,000 immigrants are imprisoned solely due to their immigration status in more than 250 detention centers across the United States, including asylum seekers, victims of trafficking, and families with small children. Rather than being held at the closest facility to their apprehension, many immigrant detainees are held hundreds or even thousands of miles away from their homes, and have infrequent access to attorneys and family members. All facilities strictly limit visitation hours, and many do not allow any physical contact visits between detainees and their family.

In some cases, families are detained in the same facilities, leading to the breakdown of familial roles. When children witness their parents shackled and detention officers take over teaching, feeding and disciplining children, family dynamics are stressed and damaged in ways that are difficult to reverse even after release. While a facility in Hutto, Texas was reformed following public scrutiny for inhumane conditions, families are still detained in a growing number of prison-like facilities. In 2009, the Administration pledged to overhaul the detention system, but advocates have expressed disappointment with the lack of substantial changes.

More than 200,000 parents of US citizens have been deported, forcing thousands of children to either return to a country they have never known, or to become subject to the US foster system. During deportation proceedings, families are separated for no reason, with men, women, and children sent to different locations at all hours of the night. Following deportations, families continue to be separated, as the three- and ten-year bars to reentry prohibit deported individuals from even visiting their family members in the United States.

In the closing principles of the Guideline on Family, CPJ concludes, "Healthy families help nurture future citizens, prepare future employers and employees, decrease public costs resulting from fragmented families, and build up strong social and cultural capital." As immigration reform continues to be in the limelight in the upcoming months, our policy makers need to hear this guidance. Let us prayerfully and publicly repeat them in an effort to improve our immigration system to make it worthy of the values we aspire to as a nation.

-  Jen Smyers is the Associate Director of Immigration and Refugee Policy at Church World Service. For more information on how CWS is advocating for immigration reform, go to

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”