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Thanksgiving & Immigration in 2013

It was just under 400 years ago, when in the 1620s, a group of fresh-off-the-boat immigrants celebrated their first harvest in their new homeland.  This group of migrant Pilgrims enjoyed a three-day feast, their group of 53 joined by about 90 Native Americans.  Back in their homeland, the Colonists had become accustomed to “days of thanksgiving” in appreciation of military victory or relief from drought, and this feast was the first New World celebration of the day of Thanksgiving.  It became a U.S. national holiday in 1863, and is observed today by Americans by gathering and feasting in the company of family and friends.

As the 2013 holiday season is upon us, one cannot help but be reminded that many migrants of our time cannot enjoy the day of thanks in the company of loved ones. Take Carlos Fermin, (not actual name) for one.  Carlos was born in Guatemala and had been living in the United States for 19 years—since he was 12.  The week before Thanksgiving 2013, he was walking his twin 8-year old daughters home from the park when four Immigration Enforcement cars approached them, and took Carlos into custody for immigration detention.  Within 48 hours, Carlos was deported to Guatemala.

In 1994, Carlos was brought to the U.S. by his parents using a tourist visa, then overstayed.  He grew up in the U.S., attended a private Catholic school and completed his undergraduate studies at a U.C. institution. After graduation, Carlos returned to his community in North Orange County, and started an after-school sports program for area youth.  He also worked his way up at a local fast food franchise, and after 11 years of service was promoted to store manager in 2011.  When he was 23, Carlos married his childhood sweetheart, and they now have twin 8-year old daughters. The family speaks English at home, and Carlos struggles in Spanish when he tries to communicate with his parents.  Due to a previous immigration violation—Carlos departed the U.S. in 2005 to attend his grandmother’s funeral, and returned unlawfully to the U.S. two weeks later—Carlos incurred a permanent bar to immigration under current law.

The Fermin family’s situation is one of countless similar examples and is a symptom of a broken immigration system.  As a nation, we can do better.  Our elected Officials’ failure to act on immigration reform has created a shameful system in which a huge subclass lives in constant fear of apprehension and detention.

Immigration officials have deported more migrants in recent years than ever before–up to 410,000 in 2012 according to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).  The uptick in enforcement came as a result of the Administration’s efforts to increase border and immigration enforcement to engender goodwill with anti-reform lawmakers and groups in the hopes of building towards an immigration compromise.  However, while the Administration has held up its end of the implicit bargain by bolstering enforcement and continually advocating for reform, anti-reform lawmakers have not.

Immigration Officials have been instructed to focus their efforts on targeting immigrants with criminal records and to exercise discretion when dealing with immigrants with minor children.  Nonetheless, according to DHS statistics, over half of all deportations in recent years are of non-criminals.  As a result, families are torn apart and lives are irreparably changed.  Just ask the Fermin twins what it was like seeing their father placed in a police car last week.

Until immigration reform passes and provides widespread relief, many will continue to live in fear.  This is only the humanitarian side of the need for reform, to say nothing of the well-documented economic benefits.  As a ray of hope to this year’s legislative stalemate, a possible piecemeal approach to reform is being discussed by some in Congress as a way to move forward in 2014, an idea that the Administration supports.

This holiday season, as we give thanks for many things, including the loved ones around us, let us remember the essence of the New World’s first immigrant Thanksgiving.

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