Tough new state immigration laws are striking fear in the hearts of illegal immigrants with American-born children.
“I worry about my children,” says one father of two young kids in Carrollton, Georgia. He didn't want to give his name, because he has no legal right to reside in the United States. “My kids were born here. What will happen with them? We don’t know, and that’s the fear we have.”
The longer Congress waits to deal with immigration reform, the louder states seem to scream for action. According to the National Conference of Legislatures, an all-time high of 1,538 bills dealing with immigrants and refugees have been introduced in state legislatures this year alone. These measures include things like employment verification requirements for businesses and restrictions on public health services and college access for illegal immigrants. But the most worrisome for many parents are those giving local law enforcement more power to do federal immigration checks.
“Don’t worry!" is a message Atlanta immigration lawyer Charles Kuck gives his clients all day long. He’s one of those challenging the Georgia law’s constitutionality in federal court.
“These laws are bad, and they’re going to have a tremendous effect on the community. But for now we say, ‘Calm down.’ This law is meant to silence people, and we have to at this time not be silenced. We have to be vocal and not shut up.”
But for parents who fear separation from their American children, it’s easier said than done. About 2.5 million families in the U.S. have undocumented immigrant parents and American-born children, according to the Pew Hispanic Center's Jeff Passel.
“I’m planning to move to Miami, where I have some family,” says one undocumented mother of three who lives in Georgia. “But they tell me that the law is also being considered there.”
State lawmakers acknowledge many of these bills are meant to send a message to Washington.
“This problem is never going to be solved completely until the federal government deals with it,” says Georgia Republican State Rep. Matt Ramsey, author of the Georgia immigration bill.
So far, Washington has shown little reaction to states' enacting immigration bills. “The drive for comprehensive immigration reform has shown unsuccessful,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Virginia, told the Atlanta Press Club on May 20.
Two weeks earlier, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told the club only that that she didn’t like a patchwork of states taking on immigration reform.
As federal immigration reform languishes, undocumented immigrant parents of American children gain time. If they can avoid deportation until their firstborn turns 21, that child can apply for his or her parent’s legal status.