Lawsuit: Take Fear Away From Kids

Casey Woods, Miami Herald, October 5, 2006

Immigrant advocates filed a class-action lawsuit, arguing that the rights of U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants are being violated by the constant fear of their parents’ deportation.

If one day her mother disappears, 11-year-old Stephanie Escobar knows what to do.

‘’My mom told me to call my aunt if she doesn’t come home,’’ she said. “Sometimes, when she’s late [coming] home from work, I think that it means she’s been taken.’’

By right of birth, Stephanie is a U.S. citizen, but her mother Martha is an undocumented immigrant from Colombia—and so both mother and child live in daily fear that Martha’s deportation will separate them.

That constant, anguished uncertainty is the basis of a class-action lawsuit filed in federal court Wednesday on behalf of Escobar and dozens of other U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants.

The lawsuit, filed by a coalition of local immigrant advocacy groups, argues that the constitutional rights of those young citizens are being violated by their families’ precarious status, and that deportations of the parents of U.S. citizen children should stop until Congress passes comprehensive immigration reform.

‘’When the government deports the parents, they tell the citizen children that they can go back with their parents, or stay and be wards of the state, and that’s not a choice,’’ said Alfonso Oviedo, president of American Fraternity, also known as the Nicaraguan Fraternity. “They are being treated as garbage, not as U.S. citizens.’’

Honduran Unity and the Peruvian-American Coalition joined with Oviedo’s group in the lawsuit, which was filed against the U.S. government in the federal courthouse in downtown Miami.

Oviedo and the other lawyers involved based the lawsuit on a legal doctrine called “laches,’’ which prohibits parties who take too long to assert a right from doing so later.

The lawsuit’s premise is that the U.S. government did not enforce its own immigration laws, allowing millions of undocumented immigrants to live and work here for many years, eventually forming families that include children who are American citizens. The government has since lost its right to deport those parents because it failed to do so for so long, and now the rights of the U.S.-born children trump the long-unenforced laws that would break up their families, according to the lawsuit.

‘The government is coming to these kids and saying, `Now we arbitrarily changed our mind and we are going to kick you out,’ ‘’ said Donald Schlemmer, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who helped file the lawsuit. “We’re saying you can’t do that.’’

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