At a rally in front of the federal immigration offices in Newark, about a dozen U.S. born children with at least one parent who has been deported spoke of how their families had been hurt and their lives upended.
Madjoma Cisse, 17, an American citizen, hasn’t seen her mother for nearly a decade.
Federal officials deported her mother to the Ivory Coast in 2002. Madjoma was separated from her siblings, who she only saw on weekends. Her school work suffered.
“There was no one to come home to,” said Madjoma, who lives in East Orange, N.J., as a tear slid down her face.
The teenager spoke Wednesday in New Jersey at an immigration rally -- organized by the American Friends Service Committee, or AFSC -- which featured about a dozen children who have a parent who has been deported or detained over their immigration status.
Madjoma fears she’ll never see her mother again.
Madjoma is one of tens of thousands of U.S.- born children who have been separated from a parent because of their parent’s immigration status, according to AFSC. The group says that between 1997 and 2007, more than 100,000 such children grew up without a parent.
A majority – 75 percent -- of the children of undocumented immigrants were born in the United States, said a 2009 report by the Pew Hispanic Center. Pew estimates that nearly 12 million undocumented immigrants live in this country.
The rally was designed to focus attention on the impact of deportation on families, particularly children.
The organizers of the rally hope to build enough momentum around the issue of deportation and the children who are affected to win another sponsor to a bill -- reintroduced to Congress in January by New York Rep. Jose Serrano (D-Bronx) -- called the “Child Citizen Protection Act,” which would let immigration judges consider the welfare of children in cases in which the accused has a child who was born in the United States.
The bill was introduced in 2006 but was “stuck in committee through the past several Congresses as we worked to try to achieve comprehensive immigration reform,” a Serrano spokesman told Fox News Latino.
Now the bill is in the Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement within the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee.
Immigration activists are frustrated with Congress’s inattention to the plight of these children.
“Zero progress has been made,” said Amy Gottlieb, director of the Immigrant Rights Program for American Friends Service Committee, who attended the 45-minute rally in Newark.
“We’re hearing about more and more detention centers built, and the government is boasting about deportation numbers,” Gottlieb said. “We are in a deep, deep crisis and we have a lot of soul searching to do.”
But those who favor a strict approach to immigration enforcement say the federal government is doing its job and that nothing should change.
“It’s the fact that the parents didn’t take the kids with them that tears apart families,” said Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies, based in Washington, D.C.
Babies, however, present a unique situation, Krikorian said, and are the only exception that should be made when considering the welfare of minors whose parents are being deported.
“The issue of nursing mothers, that’s a legitimate concern,” Krikorian said. “That’s something (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE) has gotten better about over the recent years.”
A girl at the rally whose Albania-born aunt is undocumented said her aunt was allowed to stay in the country because she was breast-feeding, but her uncle was detained.
Most of the children were school-aged; many had to ask for permission to attend the rally.
They giggled, whispered together and, on cue, chanted, “Keep Families Together!” in front of a banner that read “Ningun Ser Humano Es Ilegal (No Human Being is Illegal).” Behind them loomed the Peter Rodino Federal Building, where immigration offices are located.
A teenage girl identified only as Florinda said her aunt and uncle, who raised her, are under threat of deportation. They have five children and also care for Florinda’s younger brother, who has Down’s Syndrome.
She wonders what would happen to the six children if her relatives are deported to Albania. Her cousins, all born in the United States, don’t speak or read Albanian. If they had to live in Albania with their parents, she said, life wouldn’t be easy.
"Their ambitions of becoming pharmacists, engineers, and businessmen, those dreams are now in the shadows," Florinda said. “I was raised to put family first. And as my uncle has said to me before, ‘When it rains outside, we will stand under one umbrella.'"
Karen Keller is a freelance journalist based in New Jersey.