Caught in the Deportation Machine: Elders, Family Separation, and Immigration Reform
This year, the Obama administration will surpass the 2 million mark – this is, it will have deported 2 million people since 2008, more than any other administration in history. The largest numbers of people being deported are those without legal status, but many Green card holders are also among the 2 million deportees. Since 1998, over 13,000 Southeast Asians (from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam) have been deported, including many Green card holders who arrived in the U.S. decades ago as refugees fleeing war and genocide. The majority of those deported are under the age of 35, but many elders also get caught in the deportation machine. Even more elders who remain in the U.S. suffer emotionally and financially when their adult children are taken away.
Despite official Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) guidance that agents should not “expend detention resources” on those who are elderly, many immigrant elders are detained and deported. According to information gathered through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by the NYU School of Law Immigrant Rights Clinic, the Immigrant Defense Project, and Families for Freedom, between 2005 and 2010 the New York City ICE Field Office apprehended 1,275 noncitizens over the age of 55, and of these, at least 141 were subject to mandatory detention. Seniors struggle more than most in detention – they are more likely to be Limited English Proficient, and are more likely to suffer from health problems and dementia.
Huyen Thi Nguyen, an elderly Vietnamese woman, was detained in an immigration detention center for 16 months after serving her sentence for cash-for-food stamp fraud. She continues to fight her deportation, while suffering from mild dementia. Claudette Hubbard escaped LGBT violence in Jamaica in 1973 and became a U.S. Green card holder. She has been detained by ICE for over two years because of a 20-year-old conviction from a drug charge, even though she has fully rehabilitated and is mother and grandmother to U.S. citizens.
Deportations Harm the Children and Parents of Those Deported
Human Rights Watch estimates that between 1997 and 2007, 1,012,734 people lost an immediate family member to deportation – and this figure does not take into account the almost 2 million people deported under the current administration. The Applied Research Center (now Race Forward) found that in the first six months of 2011 alone, more than 46,000 parents of citizen children were deported, leaving many in foster care or Child Protective Services. A survey conducted in 2004 revealed that 70% of deportees and family members exhibited signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, including hopelessness, despair, sadness and shock.
In the Cambodian community, elders whose children are deported may suffer especially severely because of already high rates of poverty and poor mental health. According to 2010 American Community Survey numbers compiled by the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC), 22% of Cambodian elders over 65 live in poverty, compared with 9% of elders in the general population. Many elders came to the U.S. after fleeing the genocide, during which nearly every Cambodian family lost at least one and usually multiple members to starvation, torture, and murder. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association of several hundred Cambodian adults in Long Beach, CA, between 2003 and 2005 found that 62% exhibited signs of PTSD and 51% suffered from major depression. Rates increased with age – older Cambodians were more likely to be suffering from mental health issues than average. The deportation of a son or daughter can have a devastating impact on Cambodian elders, who may suffer retraumatization and extreme financial hardship.
Loeun Lun, whose story was featured in the film “Sentenced Home”, arrived in the U.S. as a refugee in 1981 when he was 6 years old. His mother suffered from depression and PTSD, and they lost his father when he was a young child. After struggling throughout his adolescence to adapt in his new, poor Long Beach neighborhood, Loeun was convicted of two counts of assault for shooting a gun in the air during a confrontation when he was 19. No one was hurt, but he served 11 months in jail. After his release, Loeun changed his life. He became the primary caretaker for his aging mother, working at two factory jobs while studying for his MBA. He married his U.S. citizen girlfriend, had two daughters, paid off debts, and moved his family to the suburbs. However, despite turning his life around, the old criminal charge came back to haunt him. Loeun was arrested by ICE in 2002 and deported to Cambodia a year later. Leoun’s elderly mother was emotionally devastated by the loss of her son, and now has no one to care for her.
Time for Real Immigration Reform that Keeps Families Together
Comprehensive immigration reform would help keep many undocumented families together. But current proposals in Congress would not help someone like Loeun, whose crime is categorized as an “aggravated felony” under immigration law. Because current laws are so harsh and rigid, even the terrible impact on Loeun’s children, wife, and mother could not prevent him from being deported. Elderly immigrants, including Green card holders, can also be deported regardless of age, physical or mental health, or length of time in the U.S. if they have a criminal record in their history that fits under the broad range of convictions and sentences that result in mandatory deportation. We need true immigration reform that prioritizes keeping all families together, including those like Loeun’s, Claudette’s, and Huyen Thi Nguyen’s.
Mari Quenemoen is a Policy Manager at the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC). The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Diverse Elders Coalition.