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Report Back on Hill Briefing “Since My Mother Left”: Immigrant Children, Youth & Parents Tell their Stories of Family Separation

July 18, 2014

Guest post by DWN intern Diana Ofunwa:

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On July 9, 2014, over 90 immigrant children and their families traveled from New Jersey to Capitol Hill in Washington, DC to share their stories of family separation and their dreams of a better tomorrow. The event was organized by the American Friends Service Committee, in collaboration with Detention Watch Network, Friends Committee on National Legislation, Wind of the Spirit, and Centro Communitario CEUS and in cooperation with Senator Robert Menendez, and Representative Rush Holt. It provided a day of unity, education, and action.

The day began with a Congressional briefing.  Rep. Rush Holt gave an empowering speech and asked the briefing attendees, “Help change the immigration framing.  It’s not an immigration ‘problem.’”  He also pushed back on the current narrative of enforcement first at the border, stating, “The children at the border are not numbers. They are not objects. Can we in good conscience just send them back?”

Rep. Holt set the tone of the day and was followed by children directly affected who spoke on how the current broken immigration system has impacted them and their families.

Jamil Sunsin, a 13–year-old boy from New Jersey detailed his heartbreaking story about the detention and deportation of both of his parents to Honduras and Jamil’s decision to leave the U.S. to be with his parents. Jamil talked about the dangers that faced him and his family upon arriving in Honduras, recounting a harrowing story of being held at knifepoint and robbed by gang members. Jamil left the podium with one request, a request that many share: “I wish my country would stop doing this, and that Congress and the President would stand up for families and children so we wouldn’t be separated.”

Jamil’s story of courage and perseverance was one of the many told by children and teens who have had their lives torn apart by current immigration and customs enforcement systems.

Jennifer Anandarajah and her family fled Sri Lanka and sought political asylum in the U.S.; due to a mistake on the part of her family’s attorney, her father was detained for two and a half years – two and a half years of struggle, due to her mother having to be the sole breadwinner in their home. Upon Jennifer’s father’s release, he was placed on an ankle monitoring device which only served as a mental and physical shackle for four years. Jennifer described the embarrassment of having the ankle monitor begin blaring in public, without warning. Her father worked two to three jobs to support his family and during the brief moments when he should have been resting he was forced to stand erect at a wall outlet to charge his monitor. The time spent wearing the ankle monitor not only caused mental scars, but physical ones as well – leaving scarring around Jennifer’s fathers ankle’s that can be seen today.

The briefing was followed by a time for those that had come from New Jersey and those from the DC area to meet, eat lunch, share their stories, and prep for an afternoon of legislative visits.

After lunch, the families from New Jersey set out, alongside supporters, to meetings with Congressional staffers to share their personal experiences with detention and deportation and to discuss the need for immediate changes to our immigration system.

I was able to visit with Senator Cory Booker’s office. My group met with staffer Daniel Smith; upon on our arrival, he immediately shared that the Senator was a supporter of immigration reform and throughout the meeting gave insight and positive feedback.

The day ended with groups debriefing their legislative visits and determining what next steps were needed to move forward. DWN live-tweeted the briefing and took photos throughout the day. View our Storify here.

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My name is Diana Ofunwa and I am a part of the Dream Summer program, a project of the UCLA Labor Center’s Dream Resource Center, interning at Detention Watch Network. For more, follow me and DetentionWatchNetwork on Twitter at @D_Bless and @DetentionWatch.

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