Skip to main content

Do we want an America that wrecks families?

By Chris Marquardt, Special to CNN
updated 7:52 AM EDT, Thu March 21, 2013
Chris Marquardt says immigration arrests are breaking up families and targeting nonviolent offenders.
Chris Marquardt says immigration arrests are breaking up families and targeting nonviolent offenders.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Chris Marquardt visited a privately run immigration detention center in Georgia
  • He says it was clear that families with U.S. citizens were broken due to detention process
  • People who commit civil violations are treated as criminals, he says
  • Marquardt: Immigration reform needs to include provisions to protect families

Editor's note: Chris Marquardt is an attorney in Atlanta. He serves on the board of directors of the Latin American Association, a nonprofit that empowers Latinos to achieve their educational, social and economic aspirations.

Atlanta, Georgia (CNN) -- The little girl paused, then answered my questions: "I'm 7." "Second grade." Her hair was in braided pigtails. She wore a fancy dress.

The girl had taken a seat in the folding chair next to mine after guards led another small group into the brightly lit room.

We were in the post-security visitation area of the Stewart Detention Center, a privately run federal immigration facility in south Georgia. Behind us was a plain wall.

Chris Marquardt
Chris Marquardt

In front were five sparse booths, open to the room, offering little privacy. Each booth had a chair and a large black telephone. Thick glass separated the booths from men who milled about on the other side. The men wore different colored jumpsuits: some blue, some orange, some red.

Like the older woman, an aunt perhaps, who accompanied her into the room, the little girl to my right was visibly nervous. This was her first trip to the detention center. I told the girl about my own second-grader in an effort to get her mind off our surroundings. I'm quite certain I failed.

After several minutes, a man in his late 20s sat down on the other side of the glass. He picked up a phone. The little girl walked up, studied another phone for a moment, and carefully raised it to the side of her head. Her greeting was straightforward: "Hi, Daddy." I couldn't hear what her father said in reply. I could see his wistful smile, though, and tears rolling down his cheeks.

* * *

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Every day, our immigration laws are breaking apart families of many citizens living in the United States.

It's good news that, as a bipartisan group of U.S. senators seeks consensus on a plan for comprehensive immigration reform, one focus is on so-called "family reunification" preferences in our law. The senators are debating whether, and to what extent, our immigration policies should give priority to admitting family members of immigrant citizens -- their spouses, children and siblings -- still living abroad.

But while family reunification is an important consideration, that issue avoids the larger point dramatized at the Stewart Detention Center about the harmful impact of U.S. immigration policy on families already here.

More than 1.5 million unauthorized immigrants have been removed from the United States since President Obama took office in 2009, according to the federal government's statistics. Approximately 410,000 were removed last year alone.

18-year-old fights to stay in U.S.

These numbers present an important question: Who are the immigrants we are deporting? Yes, some are dangerous criminals who need to be arrested, prosecuted and removed through deportation. Living in the United States without legal status does not, however, amount to criminality.

The Supreme Court noted this last year when it wrote, "As a general rule, it is not a crime for a removable alien to remain present in the United States." Overstaying a visa, for example, is a civil violation and not a criminal one.

The offenses that can trigger incarceration at detention centers like the one I visited recently include traffic violations such as driving without a valid license. This may seem like a matter of semantics to some, but incarcerating nonviolent immigrants carries real costs to the country and to the immigrants' family members who are, in many cases, U.S. citizens.

Many present-day immigrants live among us in what researchers call "mixed status" households. Approximately 9 million people live in these modern American families that include both citizens and unauthorized immigrants. The result is that U.S.-citizen family members are frequently left behind when immigrants are deported.

Contrary to popular belief, marriage to a U.S. citizen does not automatically confer legal status on unauthorized immigrants. While marriage can provide a pathway to legal residency, that path is often long and can be overrun with bureaucratic pit stops.

In many instances, our laws require immigrant spouses to return to their home countries and remain there for as long as 10 years before reunification is permitted. These extended bars to re-entry apply, for example, to Mexican nationals who arrived in this country after 2001 without authorization even if they are married to a U.S. citizen. In that way, our current immigration laws give some U.S. citizens a distressing choice: Either extended separation from their immediate families or extended separation from this country.

An emerging bipartisan consensus acknowledges that our immigration laws are broken and need to be reformed, in a comprehensive way, at the federal level.

As Washington tackles this issue, we should acknowledge that reform can benefit more than the immigrants living among us. It can benefit American children who attend school with our kids, American men who share pews at our churches, and American women sitting beside us in office cubicles, by keeping their families together. Done right, immigration reform can strengthen our economy, uphold our values and preserve the family units of many U.S. citizens.

* * *

Before entering the Stewart Detention Center, all visitors must fill out paperwork disclosing their immigration status. I didn't see the form of the little girl I met in the visitation room, of course, or ask the question as we chatted briefly.

Given her family's willingness to bring her inside the barbed wire gates of the facility, however, it's safe to assume that she is a native-born citizen. She's as American as my grandfather, who grew up on Missouri farmland in the early 1900s, and who spoke nothing but German at home until the start of World War I. As American as my four children.

The little girl was among many U.S. citizens who visit family member inmates at the detention center. On the day of my visit, at the other end of the room, a woman in her 40s sat in the corner booth. She saved up gas money and drove more than 300 miles for this chance to have a one-hour visit with her husband. Born and raised in western North Carolina, she lives on land that was owned by her father, and her father's father before him. She met her husband in a thrift store in her hometown. They fell in love.

In the visitation room, the woman held a phone and spoke to her husband in Spanglish with a country twang. What she wanted most that day was the chance to touch his hand, just for a moment, through the glass. That was a chance she didn't get.

Without changes to our federal immigration laws, more husbands and fathers, and wives and mothers, of American citizens will be deported. More American children will be raised outside the presence of a parent's love and financial support. And more Americans -- like the woman I saw pressing the palm of her hand against cold glass in a detention center booth -- may not have the chance to touch their spouses again. At least not in our country. At least not anytime soon.

The current immigration system does not make our nation, or our families, stronger. We can do better. We can reform our immigration laws in a way that brings hardworking people out of the shadows and keeps families together. That is, or at least should be, the American way.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Chris Marquardt.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT