Wednesday night’s Democratic presidential debate in Florida focused heavily on immigration. In an especially touching moment, Guatemalan immigrant Lucia Quiej told Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders that she hadn’t seen the father of her five U.S. citizen children since he was deported three years ago. She asked how candidates would help to stop deportations, but also reunite families like hers.
Quiej’s husband was detained by federal immigration authorities in 2011 after he was pulled over while driving to work on an expired license in Florida, the Miami Herald previously reported. Because his political asylum petition had been denied, he was undocumented. Officers arrested and detained him after discovering he had no papers, holding him for the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.
He was then deported when Quiej was one month pregnant.
Quiej told the candidates there were many people like her in Homestead, Florida, where she now lives.
“There’s a lot of people here with ankle monitors, many children whose parents were taken away by Immigration,” Quiej said in 2014 during a vigil against deportations. “In Homestead, there’s nothing; only despair.”
Both Sanders and Clinton sympathized with her situation. Sanders called her situation “wrong and immoral,” promising to “do everything that I can to unite your family.” Clinton responded in kind, stating that Quiej’s story was an “incredible act of courage” and that she would try to “pass laws that would bring families back together.”
Mixed immigration families like Quiej’s are only growing more common. An estimated 4.5 million U.S. citizens who have at least one undocumented parent and could face a similar situation. The Obama administration directed agents in 2013 to consider family connections when choosing who to deport, but recently ramped up raids that have broken up families and turned thriving communities into ghost towns.
Studies have found that the deportation of one parent can leave lasting trauma on children. Children also often go hungry when they lose their parents. Because Quiej has now become the primary breadwinner for her family, it’s likely that their family income has dropped substantially — on par with findings indicating that the family income can drop as much as 70 percent in the six months following a deportation.
The debate was also significant because, for what appeared to be the first time, Clinton unequivocally pledged not to deport children. Moderator Jorge Ramos asked whether she would deport immigrants without criminal records, specifically unaccompanied Central American children who have been entering the southern U.S. border at a clip pace since late 2013 to escape gang violence.
Since the summer of 2014, the Obama administration pledged to expedite the deportation proceedings of Central American children, putting them on the so-called “rocket docket” in which they have to appear before an immigration judge within 30 days. Advocates and legal representatives have met this approach with strong resistance, noting that a shortage of available counsel may leave children to represent themselves in court.
“I can promise that I will do everything possible to provide due process,” Clinton responded during the debate. “I would give every person, but particularly children, due process to have their story told. And a lot of children will, of course, have very legitimate stories under our law to be able to stay.”
“I will not deport children,” Clinton continued. “I would not deport children. I do not want to deport family members either, Jorge. I want to, as I said, prioritize who would be deported: violent criminals, people planning terrorist attacks, anybody who threatens us. That’s a relatively small universe.”
Clinton previously aligned with the Obama administration in 2014, stating at the time, “Just because your child gets across the border, that doesn’t mean the child gets to stay. … We don’t want to send a message that is contrary to our laws, or we’ll encourage more children to make that dangerous journey.”
Confrontations with immigrants affected by policy proposals that candidates espouse have otherwise not gone over well for Republican candidates. When an undocumented immigrant brought to the country as a teenager from Mexico confronted Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) in January to ask what he would do with people like her, he told her that she was violating the law and that he would deport her. In 2014, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) told a group of young undocumented immigrants, “you don’t have a right to illegally immigrate into the United States.”