We, the American Family Therapy Academy, are alarmed by the impact of United States immigration policy and enforcement. We believe that as a society we all suffer the social, emotional, and psychological costs of the dehumanization of our immigrant population.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) policies are restrictive and harmful to families, separating family members from one another, limiting access to healthcare, police protection, education, employment, housing and social services. Adults and children are incarcerated in detention centers and are denied adequate care and services. They are denied basic civil rights, including the right to counsel. Asylum seekers who face danger in their countries of origin are subject to mandatory detention and deportation. In addition to expertise in the effects of stress, trauma and marginalization, our membership—researchers, clinicians and educators—has for three decades advocated on behalf of the human rights and humane treatment of children and families.

AFTA, an organization that deeply values the institution of the family, calls upon policy makers, clinicians, and the community to:

• Advocate for policies that support family reunification and sanctuary from persecution;

• Insist that due process and fundamental human rights be upheld for all immigrants and refugees;

• Monitor federal, state, and local immigration and refugee policies. Publicize and voice objection when known abuses occur;

• Promote greater education and awareness at all levels of the effects of U.S. and other countries’ policies on immigration and refugee resettlement;

• Advocate for greater legal protection for individuals who provide sanctuary, legal aid, and support for individuals and families fleeing from persecution in their countries of origin;

• Support officials in all levels of government who are working to inject fairness and humanity into the system;

• Become informed and inform the public about the facts regarding the economics and statistics regarding immigration: undocumented immigrants do not take jobs from U.S. citizens, they do not drain the U.S. economy (they contribute to the economy by paying taxes) and the vast majority do not engage in illegal activities;

• Provide services to the immigrant population respectfully and effectively;

• Recognize the emotional consequences for allies and those who work with and support immigrants and their families as they bear witness to suffering, dehumanization and injustice.

It is the position of the American Family Therapy Academy that:

A comprehensive program to address existing obstacles and that allows undocumented immigrants and refugees living in the U.S. to obtain legal permanent residency must be established. Legalization should be offered to all undocumented persons who have not committed crimes that endanger their communities. Expanded legalization should be provided for refugees previously granted temporary status. The quota system should be reevaluated and restructured in light of family needs. There should be the reinstatement of the jurisdiction of the federal courts to review agency decisions involving immigrants. The process of immigration should be decriminalized. Until such a comprehensive immigration program is established, the American Family Therapy advocates the following:

1) The “Real ID Act” should be repealed. This act bars states from issuing ID cards and drivers’ licenses to undocumented immigrants, tightens the laws for the application of asylum seekers, allowing the deportation of adults and children who cannot provide written evidence about abuse by family members in their home countries. It allows for the deportation of long-term residents before the completion of their federal cases. Even if they win in federal court, they may be unable to return to this country.

The Real ID Act encourages government agencies and organizations receiving government funds to assess immigration status thus, opening the door to civil rights violations, racial profiling, the denial of government-funded health and mental health benefits and the denial of services that provide for basic survival needs such as food and shelter. It discourages the reporting of violent crimes, including domestic violence, to authorities who are authorized to report immigration status.

2) The wellbeing and safety of immigrant and U.S. citizen children must be protected. Parents of U.S. citizen children should be permitted to petition to avoid deportation and children should be allowed to remain with their parents while the petition is being adjudicated. Termination of parental rights should not be initiated when children are in foster care without either the permission of their parents or until all avenues for contact and reunification have been exhausted. U.S. citizen children of immigrants should have the same opportunities for family life as other citizen children. Apprehended immigrant children should be informed about their rights to the legalization process.

3) Though the Dream Act does not go far enough in providing all immigrant children with a path to citizenship, we encourage its passage. It would offer qualifying undocumented youth eligibility for a 6-year-long conditional path to citizenship, requiring completion of a college degree or two years of military service.

We support, as a first step, President Obama’s recent Executive Order halting the deportation of undocumented immigrant children who meet certain criteria. It is problematic in that it requires that these children reapply every two years and, as with the Dream Act, it does not ensure the safety of all immigrant children. There is also the danger that future administrations will end this policy.

There should be legislation passed to ensure that all immigrant children are safe from deportation and have the same rights and opportunities as citizen children. Until such legislation is enacted, apprehended immigrant children who do not meet the criteria of the Executive Order should be informed about their rights to the legalization process.

4) The suspension of deportation of immigrants in good standing with 5 years of residence should be granted. Bond should be allowed for apprehended immigrants who are not a flight risk. Retroactive application of immigration laws should be prohibited. Laws should be enacted that grant immigrants full access to financial institutions. The immigration process should be decriminalized.

5) Civil rights, legal access and fair treatment of immigrants should be ensured. Migrants apprehended entering the country should be informed of rights extended to them by Congress (rights available to victims of trafficking and violent crimes, and abused and abandoned unaccompanied juveniles) before they are deported.

Enforcement of the borders should be solely a federal function and limited to the U.S. Border Patrol without involvement of the National Guard. Laws should be enacted to prevent vigilantism and to monitor vigilante activity. Legislation should be enacted to prohibit mass non-individualized detentions of citizens and immigrants at work sites and elsewhere. Humanitarian assistance to migrants injured while attempting to enter the country should be easily available.

6) The current administration’s existing policy of providing for prosecutorial discretion in deportation proceedings in order to prioritize the stability of children and families should be made regulatory, directive and mandatory. Legislation should be passed to ensure the universal application and enforcement of this policy. Although an improvement over previous policy, it is problematic in that the immigration authority continues to have unfettered choice whether or not to deport a person. It establishes that those who have not been found guilty of “serious” crimes or who are not suspected of being a terrorism threat should be considered low priority for deportation. Such low priority status does not provide the security and certainty of legal immigration status and does not protect asylum seekers and those who have recently migrated. Until laws are passed that ensure the full civil rights of immigrants, abuse of this discretion should be documented and publicized.


Separation of Families

Over 5 million children, most being U.S. citizens, live in “mixed status” families (one of the members being undocumented). During the first six months of 2011, the United States government deported 46,000 parents of children born in the U.S. During this time there were over 5,000 children of detained or deported immigrant parents in foster care. Detention or deportation has led, in many cases, to the nonconsensual termination of immigrants’ parental rights. U.S. citizens lose their spouses, partners, children, parents and other relatives to deportation.

The impenetrable obstacles to authorized immigration can exacerbate immigrant families’ vulnerability to crimes such as human trafficking, intimate partner violence, and other forms of abuse. Involvement of the police in partnering with federal immigration authorities to detect undocumented immigrants deters them from reporting crimes and allows free reign to perpetrators.

Human Rights Abuses

State legislatures have implemented or are considering implementing laws that require police to check the immigration status of all persons they stop and arrest for some other purpose where they have “reasonable suspicion” that they might be in the U.S. in violation of federal immigration law. It bars the release of any arrested person before his or her status is “determined.” Such laws invite, if not encourage, racial profiling. States have also passed laws that deny access to education, employment, drivers’ licenses, healthcare and housing to unauthorized immigrants, with a goal to encourage “do it yourself deportation.” The effect on individuals and families is devastating to their health and wellbeing.

Workplace immigration raids and the arrests of family members in their homes severely harm and traumatize family members, especially children. Children and families are left destitute when breadwinners are detained. Often the remaining parent must leave a job in order to care for the children, thus pushing families deeper into poverty. Spouses and family members left behind may not speak English or understand the system for seeking what limited help might be available.


The education system is not responsive to the needs of immigrant students. Their formal education in their home countries has been interrupted. They may never enroll in school in the U.S. because of the need to work. Others enroll and quickly drop out due to a lack of support during the stressful process of transitioning to a new school in a new country while having to learn a different language. Those who do well in school are denied the opportunity to attend college because they do not qualify for financial aid and fear discovery of their lack of documentation.

Racism and Xenophobia

U.S. immigration policy is often justified by the notion that immigrants make a choice to “break the law” when they enter the U.S. without legal documentation. However, poverty and the yearning for unification with family members are what frequently motivate those, many of them unaccompanied children, who cross the border without documentation. A Salvadorian mother, interviewed by a research team, explained her “choice” to immigrate without documentation in the following way: “There are people who say the laws say that a person who crosses the border is a criminal. It’s more criminal to let your children starve to death. If I had to lose my life, at least I wanted to try rather than let my children die of hunger.”

In addition to the racism, economic and social discrimination experienced by immigrants, long-range immigration policy must address the underlying root causes that drive migration to the United States, including massive inequality in wealth distribution, economic dislocation in major migrant sending communities, and the free trade agreements that have caused workers to lose their jobs in migrant sending communities. No rational policy can ignore these realities.

U.S. immigration policies create barriers to the kind of contributions that generations of immigrants have historically made. It is evidence of their tenacity that immigrants facing these barriers make such valuable contributions to our communities. The denial of human and civil rights weakens our constitution and leaves us all vulnerable. The dehumanization of those we label as “other” diminishes all of us and leaves little hope for the future.