Comprehensive Immigration Reform and Moral Imperatives

At the center of the national debate over immigration policy are conflicting opinions about what is best for our national economic interests, but perhaps more interestingly, differences of opinion over our social and ethical obligations. President Obama waded into this debate with his Thursday speech, following a week of meetings with key stakeholders, on comprehensive immigration reform.The President’s speech attempted to breathe new life into efforts to pass a major immigration bill in the current session of Congress. In calling such efforts “a moral imperative,” President Obama also brought human rights principles into play as a factor in immigration reform.As the President pointed out, newcomers to America are woven into the fabric of our society, and to suddenly lose them—for example, to the mass deportations some?policy makers?would advocate—would tear apart our communities and dramatically disrupt our economy. Likewise, the physical and emotional health of individuals depend on families working and living together, and to forcibly separate a family member devastates those left behind in every way imaginable. The American Psychological Association, for example, has found that breaking up families leads to significantly heightened risk of psychological distress, poor physical health and developmental delays in children.Today, an estimated 5 million US citizen children have at least one undocumented parent living in constant fear of forcible separation from his or her family. At least 100,000 parents of children born and raised in this country—and likely far more—have been deported in just the past ten years. It is easy to imagine why such interference with family life and unity in the absence of extraordinarily strong justification would be considered a human rights violation. The suffering and declining well-being, in both physical and psychological terms, of children who lose their parents to immigration enforcement is heart-breaking.For example, Jocelyn, a young woman who testified at a recent Congressional briefing on immigrant families, wrote of the experience of losing her mother to deportation,

We need her and we miss her so much…My brother Alex no longer plays sports…[My brother] Tony became very rebellious after my mother left.? He used to be very calm…Ever since my mother left, it is very difficult to manage it all…I would like to tell the lawmakers…that by their inaction and indecision, they can destroy a family that once stood united.

In his speech, President Obama has laid out a commitment to addressing the needs of families like Jocelyn’s and the plight of millions of other vulnerable immigrants including children, survivors of persecution and sick and mentally ill noncitizens routinely housed in immigration detention centers. The President faces a tough challenge ahead, however, in negotiating with those whose foremost concern is closing borders and limiting migration to this country, as well as assistance to those who do come to America. Comprehensive immigration reform may well exclude measures we need to protect the human rights of at-risk immigrants—for example, the granting to Immigration Judges of discretion to weigh the importance of family unity against security concerns in deciding whether to deport a mother or father—unless advocates are coordinated and vocal in the coming months.Physicians for Human Rights will lead the medical community in working to ensure that health and human rights principles are embraced and advanced in forthcoming immigration reform legislation. Stay tuned here on our blog and watch our website for further news and join us in this effort.

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