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How My Family Became the White ‘Poster Child’ in the Debate

New America Media, Commentary, Betsy DeWitt Posted: Mar 15, 2007

EDITOR’S NOTE: A U.S. permanent resident since childhood, the author’s Italian husband led the life of an upstanding citizen until a marijuana conviction. After serving his sentence, he faces deportation to a country he doesn’t know, separated from his wife and children. Betsy DeWitt is a member of Families for Freedom, a part of Detention Watch Network, a national coalition working to reform the U.S. immigration detention system.

disappeared familyNEW YORK -- My husband Sal is an Italian citizen. He came to the United States in 1968, when he was just nine years old, with his mom, dad and two of his four older sisters. They followed the procedures at the time and entered the country with legal permanent resident status. Now my husband is facing deportation to a country he does not know.

Nine months after his family’s arrival, Sal’s two oldest sisters came. They settled in Queens and Sal spent most of his childhood growing up on the same block as my five cousins. He learned English quickly and was soon part of the group of neighborhood kids playing stickball against the fence on 43rd Street.

As with most immigrant families who come to this country to better their lives, Sal's family had a strong work ethic. Both of his parents worked, his mom as a seamstress and his dad as a janitor. Even Sal worked in a pizza parlor when he was just 11. In fact, when I met Sal, he was working two jobs and attending college. His hard work paid off. Today he owns a successful computer infrastructure company.

We met in 1978, when I came to New York to attend college. We fell in love and were married in 1986. In 1990 we purchased our home and our first child was born. Over the next five years we added two more children to our happy family.

Our nightmare began in 2002 when my husband was arrested on marijuana charges. On the advice of the criminal attorney, Sal pleaded guilty to his crime. We fully expected that he would serve about three years and then we would resume our lives as a family. No lawyer ever explained to us that he would face a second punishment.

Sal was sent to Eglin FPC in northern Florida, also known as "club Fed." As anyone who has had to negotiate the federal prison system can tell you, there is nothing "club"-like about it. My three children and I spent a year traveling to and from Florida on school vacations, until the hurricanes of 2004 forced the evacuation of the prisoners to an unfinished prison in Mississippi. After more than three months in Mississippi the prisoners were moved to varying locations across the South. During that time we were not allowed to visit and had limited phone calls.

After many delays, Sal was finally enrolled in the RDAP, the drug program that would take nine months to a year off of his sentence. We could finally see the light at the end of the tunnel.

On Father's day weekend I got the call. His counselor had pulled him out of class to say that Immigration had put a detainer on him and he was no longer eligible for the camp or the sentence reduction. To make matters worse, the country he considers his home had issued a "detainer" for deportation.

I started researching immigration law and what this detainer meant. I was stunned to find out that Sal's plea would be considered an "aggravated felony," a category punishable by mandatory deportation and lifelong exile. Being a "permanent resident," married to a citizen and having citizen-children offer no protection.

So now, not only has my husband served a longer sentence than a citizen convicted of the same crime, but he will also serve a second sentence in exile, and our children will serve a sentence of life without their father. I could not imagine that our government could see fit to destroy our family this way, without judicial review and no consideration of the effect it would have on our children.

My research eventually led me to Families for Freedom, a multi-ethnic group that has been educating and advocating for immigrants facing deportation since 2002. In March of 2006, my children and I participated in our first demonstration, a children's vigil at the Federal Building in Manhattan, where a large group of U.S. citizen-children spoke about how deportation had devastated their families. Then in April I traveled to Washington to participate in a larger rally and visited congress and foreign embassies to make them aware of this issue.

It was in Washington that I learned about The Child Citizen Protection Act, a bill introduced in the House of Representatives by Jose Serrano of the Bronx. This legislation would restore the power to immigration judges to determine the best interest of U.S. citizen children before deciding to remove a parent.

I had an inspiration -- start a postcard campaign to raise awareness about the Bill. My sister helped me to make it a reality by taking the rough image that I gave her and putting it into the computer to show how deportation would literally tear our family apart.

Since then I've had a thousand postcards made and sent them out to inform our legislators about the draconian laws that will tear a father or a mother from their children and their home. In some cases from the only home they've ever known and return them to country where they have no family or support system and cannot speak the language.

Not wanting our children or our families to suffer the stigma of my husband's crime, I had never intended to go public with our story, but now our faces are plastered over postcards that have traveled across the country. I want people to understand that the immigration debate is about more than protecting our borders and sending "illegals" back; it's about children that are left out of the equation because they do not have a voice.

This country was built by immigrants, English, Irish, Dutch, African, Asian and the list goes on and on. We are of all nationalities and all colors. Families with mixed status still deserve to remain intact.

In April, having completed his sentence and "paid his debt to society," Sal will be transferred to an immigration detention center where he will await arrangements to ship him back to Italy, a country he has never returned to since he left there nearly 40 years ago. A country he doesn't know and where he has no support system to help him adjust to "life on the outside."

He can't say goodbye to friends and family that he hasn't seen or spoken to in the four years that he has been incarcerated. He is not allowed to make arrangements for his business. But most importantly he is never allowed to come home to me and our children.

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