Politicians proclaim it. People argue about it. We hear it often: "Our immigration system is broken."
But what exactly does that mean?
That’s a tough question to answer.
The U.S. immigration system is a complex and often confusing web of policies. Those policies touch everyone from the migrant farm worker to international Ph.D students. For years now, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have called for an overhaul of our immigration system.
But no one can agree on what those changes should look like, especially when it comes to the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in this country right now. Think about it: that's about one in every 30 people. And if you don't have papers, the outcome of this sharp political debate has deeply personal consequences.
Susan Reed sees this play out every single day in the lives of undocumented immigrants and their families. She’s a managing attorney at the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center in Kalamazoo.
There are a lot of people who say that immigrants who want to come to the U.S. should “get in line.” But Reed says that ignores the reality of how our country ended up with 11 million undocumented workers in the first place.
“We had an economic policy in the 1990s that essentially left the back door to the country open while people flowed in in response to supply and demand in the economy,” she says. “And there was not a legal way to come. There was not a line to get in.”
Reed says that are there are a lot of assumptions about how immigrants can get legal status. But in reality, undocumented immigrants have few, if any options, to become legal residents. Marrying a U.S. citizen or having a child born in the U.S. doesn’t stop you from being deported. And so a lot of families are forced to make incredibly difficult decisions about the future of their kids.
“We see families struggling every day with decisions about whether to take children with them to an uncertain or violent home country situation,” she says. “Whether to leave children in the care of friends or relatives or even in the care of the state.”
When President Obama issued the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Legal Residents in 2014, many families hoped they would no longer have to make those impossible decisions. But in June, a tie at the Supreme Court blocked the program for moving forward. That’s left those families in an immigration limbo.
Reed sees the challenges that creates all the time, including at a recent career day for her daughter’s school. “Kids and parents had to be really reassured that the police and firefighers that were there to share their careers weren’t there to break up families,” she says.
So, when Reed hears someone say that the immigration system is broken, she says she is always thinking of the families who don’t have any options except to keep waiting and hope for change.
10 years without a family
The pain of being separated from family is one that Javier Solorzano has lived with for more than 10 years.
When he was seven years old, Solorzano's mother packed up their family and moved to Monroe, Michigan from Mexico City. Solorzano says when he first started school, it was hard to fit in at a majority-white school without speaking English. But little by little he started to learn the language and make friends.
Like many undocumented immigrants in Monroe, though, Solorzano's family lived with the constant fear of deportation.
“When I was younger, I knew there was something different about us,” says Solorzano. “And I knew there was always a conversation about having papers. It’s ‘having papeles’ or ‘tienes papeles?’ which means are you documented?”
Solorzano's apartment complex in Monroe was home to a lot of Latinos. And he says Immigration and Customs Enforcement knew it. He remembers seeing border patrol agents waiting in the parking lot as people left for work or came home.
A few years after Solorzano and his family came to the United States, his mother got married. His stepdad was a naturalized U.S. citizen. And Solorzano's mother hoped that would mean she and her son would be able to apply for legal status with her husband as a sponsor. And for a while, it seemed to be going smoothly. But when his mother went to her interview in Ciudad Juarez, the agents there told her she was ineligible because she had crossed into the country illegally. Since Javier had attended school for several years and was living with his stepfather, he was allowed to stay as a legal resident. His mother returned to Mexico City.
“My mom said I want you to think about this, and I want you to tell me what you want to do,” says Solorzano. “She said this is what you’ll get in Mexico, this is what you’ll get in the U.S. And she somehow made me realize the importance of education and why I should continue my education here in the U.S.”
With his mother gone, Javier decided to move in with his brother and his wife. But shortly after he did, his brothers got pulled over by the police. Since they didn’t have papers to show the officers, they were taken into custody and deported. With thousands of miles in between them, his mother and stepfather’s relationship started to fall apart. And so, after a few months of living with his stepdad, he moved in with his best friend’s family, where he lived until graduating high school.
Living without his mother was hard. And Solorzano says he would call her and ask, “Why do these things happen to me? Why do I have to go through all of these thing?” But his mom always pushed him to keep going. She told him, “‘I can’t answer that. But I can tell you that all these things you’re going through are making you a stronger person.’”
Thanks to the help of an encouraging mentor, Solorzano was accepted into Eastern Michigan University. He transferred to his dream school, the University of Michigan, in his sophomore year. After three years of hard work, he was ready to graduate with a degree in education.
And he was determined that his mom would be there to see him do it. He convinced several faculty members to write letters on her behalf to send to the U.S. Department of State along with her visa application. It worked, and she got approved for a 30-day travel visa. When Solorzano crossed the stage in his cap and gown to accept his diploma, his mother was was in the audience.
It meant a lot for his mother to be with him for this milestone. But Javier says even more significant was the chance to do the normal things you do with your mom. She got to meet his teachers. They went to the mall and had dinner together.
“For the first time in over ten years, I was able to wake up and say, ‘Mom, what do you want to do today?’ And for you to say, ‘Mom what do you want to do today?’ -- it sounds so easy, right? But I couldn’t do that for the past 10 years. I’ve always had to say, 'What am I going to do today by myself?'”