d'amato image

Untitled, 2002, photograph by Paul D’Amato ’80 in Barrio (University of Chicago Press, 2006)

The People in the Shadows

By Michael Ungar ’82

It has been a harsh summer for many of the people I work with. Men and women in uniform have rounded up their friends, relatives, coworkers, and neighbors and shipped them off to distant detention centers, leaving their children behind, sometimes in the care of strangers.

Paul D’Amato’s melancholy photos of the residents of a Chicago barrio (page 14) made me wonder how many of them are the children of undocumented immigrants and what might happen to them if their parents are captured and deported from the United States.

It was a natural reaction for me. For the past 18 years or so, my law practice has focused on issues of immigration and citizenship law, and I have counted among my clients a great many who, though they have come here without permission, are trying desperately to become legal. It’s hardly ever easy and the impact is sometimes greatest on their children who were born on this side of the border. Being citizens, these children can’t be deported. But that does not stop the government from trying to send their parents home. Our government has lately stepped up efforts to round up the undocumented—agents in my area have arrested mothers and fathers dropping their kids off at preschool—to demonstrate that it can control the border. In order to spur Congress to develop a plan to make millions of people legal, the administration decided to first arrest people who are illegal, many of whom presumably would be beneficiaries of immigration reform.

Having a child born in this country does not by itself give a parent the legal right to remain here. So the choice for the parents who are rounded up is heart-wrenching. Do they leave their children behind for the advantages that go with growing up in the United States? Or do the children give up their right to remain here to follow their parents to a strange country?

Once these undocumented parents are arrested and appear before an administrative judge, some might be able to apply for extraordinary relief from deportation. Among other things, they must show that their removal would result in “exceptional and extremely unusual hardship” to a U.S.-citizen or lawful-resident spouse, parent, or child. The law makes demonstrating such hardship on a U.S.-citizen child nearly impossible. In one precedent-setting case, an immigration judge found that relocating two U.S.-citizen children (ages 6 and 11) to Mexico with their mother would cause “complete upheaval in the children’s lives and hardship that could conceivably ruin their lives.” The ruling was reversed on appeal because the hardships to the mother were not substantially different from those that “would normally be expected upon removal to a less developed country.”

Like other immigration lawyers, I was hoping for legislation that would make such cruel decisions unnecessary. If, as the media keeps reminding us, some 12 million people are living in the United States without legal status (and no one really knows the actual number), then surely we need new laws to bring these illegal immigrants out of the shadows. Of course, 12 million people are not just going to leave. And there is no realistic way we could deport so many, even if we wanted to.

Why is it that Congress has failed so miserably to come to grips with the condition of millions of hard-working people living among us? Building walls, installing high-powered sensors, and hiring more border patrol agents will not halt the flow of people who have no other options for supporting themselves than to take the jobs readily offered here. Wouldn’t our border control actually improve if we allowed a significant number of immigrants to enter under a regulated program instead of hunting down men, women, and children who are trying to cross the border illegally? And wouldn’t we also improve the chances of catching potential terrorists trying to slip in among the economic migrants?

Suspicion that foreigners will corrupt our way of life is as old as the republic. Even Benjamin Franklin worried that newly arriving German-speaking immigrants would threaten the dominance of the English language and culture. Why, he wrote, should these “boors be suffered to swarm into our settlements and, by herding together, establish their language and manners to the exclusion of ours?” Pennsylvania, he warned, was in danger of becoming “a colony of aliens, who will shortly become so numerous” as to thoroughly Germanize the region.

Substitute Mexican, Latino, or the ethnic group of your choice, then add a vociferous minority who share Franklin’s nativist sentiments and a politically bankrupt Congress whose members fearmonger their way to the next election, and you have a recipe for inaction—even though a majority in Congress and the country agree that the best option is to offer most of those here illegally the opportunity to acquire some form of legal status.

For the kids of the Chicago barrio and so many others, meanwhile, the fearful wait continues.

Michael Ungar ’82 is a partner in the law firm of Simmons & Ungar in San Francsisco.