Castillo: Our immigration laws have been splitting families for years

An editor once told me I was blessed to have lifetime job security because my work included reporting on immigration.

“That issue will never get solved, so you’ll always have something to write about,” he explained.

That was about the time I met Courtney Garcia, a 22-year-old Austin woman with a heartbreaking personal story about immigration and separation. An obscure immigration law had cleaved her family in two, banishing her husband, Fernando, an undocumented immigrant, back to his native Mexico, and leaving Courtney and their 2-year-old son, Maylo, U.S. citizens, behind.

I wrote about how the separation plunged the Garcias into a tailspin of financial and emotional hardship from which, I learned the other day, they never recovered.

That was in 2004. One thing has remained constant since: For all the clamoring for immigration reform — believe it or not, there is bipartisan support for it — nothing gets done, and people suffer the consequences.

Analysis: 58 U.S. immigration courts to hear 345,000 cases.

President Donald Trump promised to deport all 11 million immigrants currently in the U.S. illegally. That is impossible, of course, but his administration quickly began sweeping up undocumented immigrants in raids, including here in Central Texas, that made little distinction between public safety threats — as the Obama administration had done — and the people simply trying to peacefully live their lives.

Under Trump, “zero tolerance” grew to include snatching babies from the arms of their parents seeking asylum — as migrants are allowed to do under U.S. law — until the outcry was deafening and Trump reversed himself.

Like millions of Americans, Courtney watched the horrifying, draconian spectacle through a special lens, reliving her own pain.

An artist with a gentle soul, she has an ability to find humor and light in virtually any situation. But not with immigration. After her own separation ordeal, Courtney didn’t talk about immigration much anymore. It seemed futile.

“You don’t see any solution. Families are still being separated,” she told me.

Editorial: We must embrace our patriotic duty to speak out.

Hearing about young children torn from their parents and transported to other states crossed a threshold of decency and humanity. “It just breaks my heart,” Courtney said.

The irony of the Garcias’ separation is that they had tried to do the right thing. After years living here illegally, Fernando stepped out of the shadows in good faith, hoping to become a permanent legal resident. He had never struggled finding jobs in Austin, but with legal status he would no longer fear the possibility of being deported.

“I truly visualized spending the rest of my life with him,” Courtney told me in 2004.

It’s a long story that may have involved questionable legal advice, but that dream was shattered when an immigration officer informed Fernando he was barred from returning to the U.S. for at least 10 years — and more likely forever — for violating a provision of a 1996 immigration law.

Editorial: Families seeking asylum deserve compassion and due process

Emblematic of the confounding and contradictory aspects of U.S. immigration policy, the law was intended to encourage undocumented immigrants to return home and try to re-enter legally.

But most of the country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants have no avenue to enter legally because they don’t fit into any visa preference or jobs categories, or the wait in line can be 20 years or more. The law had the unintended effect of keeping many undocumented immigrants in the U.S.

The Garcias’ story did not end well. How could it, really?

The details would fill a book, but suffice to say that though they desperately tried to make their separation work, it was just too much. Courtney’s regular 14-hour drives with Maylo in tow to Fernando’s family’s rural home outside Dolores Hidalgo, Guanajuato, took their toll. The house had no running water, and the family was perennially sick. The young family tried living in Mexico for a while but could not eke out a living in that poverty-stricken land. Worst of all, Fernando fell into a deep depression, realizing there was no legal path for him to live with his family in the U.S.

The couple eventually divorced. Maylo suffered the most, Courtney says.

“It was really confusing for him,” she told me. “To this day, I don’t think he quite understands why a law like that would even exist.”

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There are some Americans who say that’s too bad, but we must enforce the laws. Fair enough. But how we enforce the laws and how we treat immigrants and “the least among us” reflects our commitment to the values that define us as Americans.

Those seeking asylum because they are fleeing gangs and violence that threaten their very lives have every right to do so, too. That, too, is U.S. law.

For those like Fernando who come here to escape bleak poverty, we shouldn’t be surprised. Not when we do nothing to amend the laws to recognize that we are a land of opportunity and that we give millions of undocumented workers jobs because we value their work. We can’t do that and villainize them as criminals at the same time.

Our immigration laws have been breaking up families like the Garcias for many years. What’s different this time is that we saw thousands of families pulled apart in real time. We heard the cries of traumatized children. We no longer recognized our country’s actions as American.

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