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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.”