WASHINGTON – An estimated 1.6 million children and spouses have been separated from family members forced to leave the country under toughened 1996 immigration laws, a human rights group said Wednesday.
The separations have taken a toll on families who have sold homes, lost jobs, lost businesses or been thrown into financial turmoil, Human Rights Watch said in a new report.
The widespread impact on American families has been truly devastating, said Alison Parker, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch.
In 1996, Congress toughened immigration laws making immigrants, legal and illegal, deportable according to an expanded list of "aggravated felonies."
Congress made the law retroactive even to those who had served their sentences, and also eliminated hearings in which judges could consider an immigrant's family, community roots, military service or possible persecution in his or her native country.
Since this law was passed, 672,593 immigrants have been deported for crimes, according to statistics cited in the report from Citizenship and Immigration Services, a division of the Homeland Security Department. Human Rights Watch used those numbers and Census data on foreign-born households to estimate how many family members were left behind in the U.S.
According to statistics from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (or ICE), 64.6 percent of immigrants deported in 2005 had been convicted of nonviolent offenses. An additional 20.9 percent were deported for crimes involving violence against people, and 14.7 percent were deported for "other" crimes.
ICE has not released similar statistics for previous years.
"How do you explain to a child that her father has been sent thousands of miles away and can never come home simply because he forged a check?" Parker said.
The statistics don't show the full picture, said Kelly Nantel, Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman. "A non-violent offense like drugs can contribute to violence of society."
Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, said in a statement immigrants who violate the law forfeit their right to be in the U.S.
Steve Camorata, Center for Immigration Studies research director, said family members can leave with the deported immigrants. "Children constantly bear the consequences of their parents' poor decisions," he added.
Chiara, who did not want her last name used, said she and her two children tried to live where her husband was deported on a six-year-old misdemeanor domestic violence conviction. He served three days.
"We became homeless for quite a while. I was out of work when they deported him because I needed back surgery," said Chiara, who is a waitress.
Two immigrants ordered deported, Wayne Smith and Hugo Armendariz, have filed a complaint against the U.S. government with the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights. A hearing is scheduled Friday.
The commission enforces human rights treaties that apply in the Americas.