Although she’s actively fighting to stay in the United States, she fears that there may come a day when she has to choose between leaving her six U.S.-born children behind or bringing them to Senegal, where she would face pressure to submit her four daughters to the same ritual that disfigured her.
“I can’t even imagine how my children would live there,” Fatoumata said, whose last name is being withheld for confidentiality. “I want to stay here with my children and I hope that my husband can return. I need my husband and my children need their father.”
Fatoumata’s looming dilemma has already been faced by thousands of undocumented immigrants who were forced to choose between abandoning their children – but allowing them the opportunities that come with living in the United States – or tearing their kids away from the only country they’ve ever known and bringing them to a country filled with obstacles and struggles.
According to a recent study by the Department of Homeland Security, conducted at the request of Rep. Jose Serrano of the Bronx, 108,434 parents of U.S.-born children were deported from 1998 to 2007.
The pace of family separations could be accelerating. Since President Barack Obama’s inauguration in January 2009, over 387,000 undocumented immigrants have already been deported, in comparison to 237,000 just two years prior, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). It is unclear how many of those deportations separated undocumented immigrants from their citizen children.
But the presence of those children is growing. Jeff Passell, senior demographer at the Pew Hispanic Center, says that about three-quarters of children of undocumented immigrants are U.S.-born and that number continues to grow. Currently, there are over 4 million citizen children who are born to undocumented immigrants in the United States – a 1.3 million increase in the last seven years. The number of children who themselves immigrated illegally has held steady at 1.5 million.
According to The Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, composed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, “1 in 10 children in the United States live in mixed status families – where one or more parent is a non-citizen and one or more child is a citizen,” meaning there are an estimated 3.1 million mixed status families.
“So many people came into the United States illegally, and now they are intertwined with citizen children or citizen spouses, and yet according to the law, they are still subject to deportation because of the way they entered the country,” says William A. Streppone, a New York immigration attorney. “That’s a major problem right now.”
As Fatoumata's case illustrates, even the risk of physical harm to a citizen-child who accompanies a deported parent may not stop immigration courts from throwing the parent out.
Like many other immigrants, Fatoumata entered the United States illegally over 15 years ago in search of a better life. She settled in New York City with her husband and soon gave birth to their six children. In 1996 her husband applied for political asylum by listing her for “derivative status” – a stipulation that helps protect spouses and children against persecution in their native countries. But his application was denied. Despite the rejection, Fatoumata’s family remained in the United States. Her husband was ordered deported at one point, but was never removed. He juggled two jobs in an effort to make ends meet, until July 20, 2007, when ICE came knocking on their door.
“They went to our house at 6 a.m. My children were scared, I was scared. They just took my husband away,” said Fatoumata. She’s unsure how ICE. “We don’t have any idea of how they got [our] address; sometimes they just go door to door.”
Fatoumata’s husband was confined at a New Jersey detention center for four months before being deported to Senegal. Since Fatoumata has no documentation permitting employment, she was left with no income to support her children and was forced to abandon her Bronx apartment and relocate to a New York City shelter for the homeless. And a deportation order was issued for her as well.
Now she is at the mercy of an immigration court. Fatoumata was never offered the opportunity to apply individually for political asylum, so her lawyers are fighting for her to get a chance to present her case. Her request was denied initially, but after an appeal, the case has been reopened.
Although obtaining naturalization or having a political asylum application approved was never easy, the passing of the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act of 1996 has steepened the odds against undocumented immigrants ever obtaining naturalization by eliminating judges’ discretion in immigration cases.
Although it’s likely that it will take several months for Fatoumata to even see the judge, Janis Rosheuvel, the director of Families for Freedom, an organization that helps immigrants who face deportation, says the given the strictness of the 1996 laws, the fact that Fatoumata's case was reopened is a good sign.
“The legal strategy of Fatoumata’s case is to fight to protect the rights of her and her children because they will face persecution as someone who is avoiding female genital mutilation if they return to Senegal,” Rosheuvel said.
Fatoumata’s family has been pressuring her to perform female genital mutilation—a ritual practice in Senegal—on her four daughters in case of their return. The side effects of the rite can be deadly, especially since it’s usually performed with broken glass or other sharp objects and without any anesthetic, according to a report by the U.S. Department of State. Unite for Children, a nonprofit organization, reports that although the United Nations has declared female genital mutilation to be a violation of human rights, in some regions of Senegal as many as 94 percent of women have undergone the procedure.
But many immigration experts say that even threats such as the one Fatoumata’s daughters face may not provide grounds enough to secure a permanent stay in the United States because U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants are not obligated to leave with their deported parents. Instead, the children have the legal right to remain in the United States--and therefore the dangers they could face in a return to their parents’ homeland aren’t much taken into account.
“Just by virtue of the fact that you have a child who is born here, does not give you the right to stay here,” New York immigration attorney Cheryl David said. “If an individual has been in the United States for 10 years and does not have any criminal record and can demonstrate that it would be an exceptional and extremely unusual hardship to leave the child behind, they can go before a judge in immigration court. However, there are very high standards involved and it’s extremely hard to win those cases.”
David says the courts are not swayed by financial hardships or even the trauma caused by family separations.
That trauma can be significant. Dr. Gerald J. Bryant, forensic psychologist specializing in immigration, says that the distress caused by deportation is a factor that should hold in court given the long-term side effects it carries.
“Children really suffer the most. For a child, having a mother or a father being sent halfway around the world is almost like death,” Bryant said. “They go through anxiety and depression. They may not want to go to school, may not want to play, or may not even want to stay in a room by themselves. After the deportation takes place, they may suffer from separation anxiety disorder – when their world is suddenly turned upside-down. They feel completely thrown and start not to trust the world; they can develop deep depressive disorders and their future relationships can be deeply affected.”
Today, Fatoumata is not only fighting to remain in the United States with her children, but also actively speaks out against female genital mutilation and in favor of the rights of immigrant families. She is an active member of Families for Freedom and the New Sanctuary Movement Coalition, and frequently joins rallies and community meetings.
“I’m fighting for my children’s lives,” said Fatoumata. “I hope I get to stay here with my children. Our dream is to stay here and to have a family.”