Immigration reform must keep families together, out of poverty

By Maria Rodriguez

Jose has been in foster care. He didn’t think he belonged there, with children who have been abandoned or abused. His mom, caring and competent, is devoted but deported.

A victim of horrific, high rates of deportation, she was sent back to Nicaragua. Jose was left alone and in poverty. Now 18, he organizes for immigration reform.

Daisy is a U.S. citizen. Her undocumented husband was caught driving without a license and was detained and deported. Heartbroken, Daisy didn’t know what to tell her children when they cried for their dad.

She made the hard choice to join him in Mexico, understanding that family matters most. But U.S. poverty was nothing compared with Mexican poverty. Survival was at stake. She returned to Florida without her primary breadwinner. Now she’s a single mom, barely eking out a living.

As America debates much-needed immigration reform, the issue of criminalizing and deporting immigrants while making poverty worse for their families looms large. Jose and Daisy, an orphan and a widow of deportation, could have had modest but meaningful lives, but instead a broken immigration system plummeted them into poverty and the pain of separation. Two families, not quite whole, had to reconstruct themselves.

One way to increase social mobility in the United States and reduce poverty and economic inequality is to fix the broken immigration system. Migration is a natural, historical phenomenon. People move — especially as a result of global economic changes.

In Florida, our primary industries would be crippled without immigrant workers. It’s not fair to want their labor, but not their humanity. Why is the free flow of capital and goods globalized, yet the movement of labor — workers, people, families — criminalized.

Jose and Daisy are victims of a virtual detention and deportation war on immigrants. Like any war, it has collateral damage — the war on drugs ravaged poor and African-American communities.

This one devastates Latino families. Putting people behind bars, excluding people from the workplace and from citizenship, makes them vulnerable to exploitation and creates a permanent underclass in chronic poverty and systemic racism.

But incarcerating immigrant families not only impoverishes them; it comes at a high cost to all of us. In fact, in fiscal year, 2012, $18 billion of our federal tax dollars went to immigration enforcement — to go after Jose’s mom and Daisy’s husband.

That staggering amount is about 20 percent more than all other federal law enforcement combined — more than the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration and other agencies put together.

By denying 11 million immigrants a permanent residency card and a drivers license, and devoting our resources to overzealous and misguided enforcement, we keep them and us in the dark. These dollars could instead be invested in job creation, homeless veterans or the elderly.

But criminalization impoverishes some more than others. For-profit prisons wrote and promoted laws that increase their business of incarceration, like Arizona’s “show me your papers” law. Socialize the cost of enforcement, privatize the profit.

Just like any other market, we’re sold a service — imprisonment — we don’t want or need. A hefty prison lobby works the marbled halls of Congress to promote its market, protecting its profit margin.

True fiscal conservatives should take note: On any given day, we incarcerate thousands of immigrants who pose no public-safety threat, unnecessarily put behind bars for civil immigration violations.

It costs more to imprison them than to place them in alternatives to detention. Our punitive approach is wrong, costly and ultimately ineffective.

Punitive policies that demonize people, like the war on immigrants and the war on drugs, don’t make us safer. They separate families, worsen poverty, deplete budgets and promote racism.

We need reform that values families, ends mandatory detention, removes the profit motive behind incarceration and gives families a real opportunity to stay together and out of poverty.

Maria Rodriguez is president of the Florida Immigrant Coalition. She is participating in Oxfam America’s Voices on US Poverty project.

FLIC Delegation attends 20th School of the Americas Watch Mobilization.


FLIC Delegation at the School of the Americas. Day 1.


November 21, 2010– Over 5,000 people converged on Ft Benning in Columbus, GA to once again call for the closing of the School of the Americas. The School of the Americas (SOA), renamed the “Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation”in 2001, is a combat training school for Latin American soldiers. To learn more about the School of the Americas click here.

FLIC´s delegation included members from FIAC, SWER, Palm Beach County Coalition for Immigrant Rights, Seed305. Additionally, many other Florida community organizations like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Yaya participated in the array of discussion groups, teach-ins, film screenings, street theatre and puppet performances that connected the dots between militarization, displacement and migration in Latin America.

In Memoriam.

On the final day, an emotional and somber vigil was held in memory of people killed by individuals trained at the school. The vigil stretched into the night as the names of the victims were called out. The names of the dead were etched on wooden crosses; their ages and countries of origin were woven into the chain link fence alongside the building. Scores of flags, flowers, and photographs were left by family and friends.

One of the delegates from PBCCIR, Camilo Yepes said “The experience of the mobilization brought to light the deliberate inhumanities in which people have to leave their homes”.

Led by the School of the Americas Watch, this mass mobilization happens every year and brings together members from a variety of immigrant rights, people of faith, Latin American solidarity, anti-war, environmental justice and veteran organizations. Delegate written experiences and photographs will be compiled into a zine to be distributed in the coming weeks.

– Jonathan Luna.