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A Child’s Holiday Wish

| December 9, 2011

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Children petition Congress on December 8, 2011.

A troop of children visited Congress yesterday to deliver messages to lawmakers: "Please let my family stay together."

What do children want for the holidays?

Many mall Santas are hearing, “Please find my mom and dad a job.”

On December 8 Congressional leaders heard, “Please bring my mom and dad back home.”

Dozens of children went to Congress with grassroots leaders to share stories of families torn apart by immigrant detentions and deportations. They delivered 5,000 letters, all from children, all written by hand.

The children took their message to elected officials on both sides of the immigration debate. Unlike many adults who’ve given up on Congress, they’re hoping everyone will care about families being able to stay together.

The campaign is known as A Wish for the Holidays—a project of We Belong Together, a collaboration of women's organizations and immigrant rights groups. The children’s loved ones are among more than 1 million immigrants who have been deported during the three years that Barack Obama has been in office—a number far greater than under previous presidencies.

One of the letters comes from Jadon, age 10, in California:

One day I got home and watched TV. Then my dad walked in and said, "There are some people here." So Mom got up from scrubbing the floor and some weird people walked in and went in the basement. My mom walked upstairs and started crying. Then she said, "They're taking your dad away." And before I knew it they were gone. My dad even forgot to say "good-bye."

After my dad was taken away for a while, I thought we weren't a family anymore. I was so sad and mad I couldn't think clearly. The exact reason I was put in foster care is because my mom couldn't take care of me, and my aunt, uncle, grandpa, grandma, and my dad couldn't either so I will always miss them....

Too few decision-makers consider what happens to children when parents are stuck in detention or kicked out of the country—not because they robbed a bank or caused a mine to collapse, but because they had no way to feed their families in their home country and came to the United States. Some children are cared for by older siblings or relatives. But thousands—5,000 in just the first six months of this year—wind up in foster care.

For too long, these children have been invisible. Now, thanks to the campaign launched by the National Domestic Worker Alliance, the National Asian Pacific Women’s Forum and other groups, the children are telling their stories.

In addition to describing the pain of missing a parent, the children’s letters underscore the ripple effect of wondering when la migra will pounce.

I couldn’t be in D.C. December 8, but I heard two courageous young people from Phoenix share similar stories at a Congressional briefing in July 2010, also organized by We Belong Together. Heidi Ruby Portugal, age 11, had to grow up fast when her mother was detained:

Before [my mother’s detention], I would admire all uniformed people that protect our country. It’s a pity that those thoughts are gone thanks to all those mistreatments and the arrests…They took away the most precious thing that children have, our mother.  With one hit they took away my smile and my happiness.

I had to teach [my baby brother] to drink the canned milk because he was used to my mom breast-feeding him. [The family was allowed to bring the baby to see his mother in detention, but she was not allowed to touch him, much less feed him.] For my little brother Miguel, I was getting him ready to enter kindergarten …making sure he was eating because he was losing his appetite. He got really sick from asthma and had to be put on his inhaler every three to four hours. My sister Maria, her grades were dropping really fast…. I had to take her to school really early, around 5:45 am, on the bike. At that time it was really cold.

Heidi was joined by 12-year-old Matteo Perea. He described his anxiety at school that “this would be the day when no one would come to pick me up.” All his friends share this fear, he said.

A Wish for the Holidays is part of a larger effort to put a gender lens on immigration. Those who demonize immigrants want Americans to see them as faceless or as drug-ferrying men. It’s much harder to hate mothers working hard to feed their kids, or to give a thumbs up to families being ripped apart.

The campaign also hopes to appeal to people concerned about huge cuts in education and health care in their communities. The amount spent on kicking people out of our country is staggering—U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, appropriately known as ICE, spends approximately $2.55 billion each year on what it calls Detention & Removal Management.

This holiday season, let’s embrace the children in our lives. And in their names, let’s make a contribution to We Belong Together, to thank the kids who are speaking up so they can hug their own mom or dad.

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.

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