The cost of family separation

immigration rally 3
Mary September and her son in front of the federal building in downtown Seattle during a Nov. 20 immigration reform rally. (Photo by Mohamud Yussuf / OneAmerica).

It’s Christmas Day, and my eight-year-old son and I are in Denver on a layover to Austin to be with my sister’s family.

The airport TV screens are filled with year-end stats and reviews. I am pondering a few stats of my own: 4,272 is the number of days I’ve been married and 1,170 is the number of days my husband and I have been living on separate continents. Our son has been alive 2,598 days, and he has spent 45 percent of his life away from his dad. And on this day especially, it became abundantly clear to me we have spent far too many Christmases apart.

Three years ago, I left my life in rural Malawi — and 15 bouts of malaria — to return to the states with my son. I thought I was coming home. I assumed my family would be welcome, but instead, have found that on the issue of keeping my family together, my country is more my adversary than my advocate.

Though I am an American citizen, U.S. immigration has taken its toll on my family and sent a clear message about whom it’s willing to welcome into our country.

Mary September with her husband and son on Lake Malawi. (Photo by Serena Travis)

It has been more than a decade since my South African husband first applied for a U.S. visa, and we are still waiting to live permanently in the same country together.

I am not alone, nor am I facing the greatest danger with U.S immigration’s family separation problem. Too much of America’s population — families caught in the crossfire of political wrangling and congressional gridlock over immigration reform — aren’t treated as people as much as they are statistics.

Between 1998 and 2007, 108,434 undocumented parents of U.S. citizen children were deported. In the current deportation craze, the number of families split has severely increased, with 205,000 parents being deported in the two years leading up to September 2012.

Though President Obama’s executive order might alleviate some offenses temporarily, it does not reverse the impact on children affected by deportation: the number of those children, the age they were when their parents were taken from them, how many days they spent in a detention facility or how they were cared for afterwards.

There’s deportation, and there’s denying opportunity. My husband had never been permitted to live with his wife and son in the states to begin with.

Solomon Lake Whatcom April 2012
The author’s son by Lake Whatcom in April 2012. (Photo courtesy of Mary September)

From the first time we applied for our first visa in April 2003, we have been declined numerous times. With the exception of the first time, the reasons are not entirely clear as to why they were denied. In seeking help from law firms to help navigate this conundrum, I have been quoted between $6,000 and $25,000 in fees.

In total, the visas we have applied for have cost thousands of dollars — not an easy investment for a single parent on a teacher’s salary.

In fact, when I returned to the U.S., I settled in the state of Washington and found, for the first time in my life, that in order to eat and keep a roof over our head, I would need to apply for public assistance. From December 2011 to July 2013, my son and I cost the state of Washington $18,996.35 in food, cash, medical, and mental health assistance, according to the Department of Health & Human Services (DSHS). My annual income in 2012 was a paltry $3,600, resulting in very little tax contributions.

In September of 2013, I took a teaching job with a gross salary of $47,000, and a net salary of $33,000. In February 2014, I chose to not renew that job contract, but rather to work part-time and home-school my son, because of the emotional toll that my working full-time and single-parenting simultaneously took on my son.

That’s $14,000 annually that I won’t be paying in taxes and insurances, plus the additional loss of the purchasing power because I simply had thousands more in income forfeited as a single parent.

Family separation has a very literal cost — to individual households, and to our country.

At the same time, the American Immigration Council projects that if Congress were to truly create a “pathway to citizenship,” new citizens would generate an increase of up to $5.4 billion in tax revenues and the rise in immigrants’ incomes would create enough spending to support between 750,000 and 900,000 jobs.

Given the U.S. has an estimated 11.7 million undocumented immigrants, it doesn’t take a degree in economics to realize the positive impact these potential citizens would have if they could devote their considerable energy into building businesses, buying homes and advancing opportunities for their children versus ducking behind counters to avoid detection while working low-paying, under-the-table jobs. Even without factoring the human value into the equation, the economic value that undocumented immigrants in this country add to our nation is immense.

And just like those of us with international marriages, potential citizens just want to live peaceably, raise their children, pay their bills and contribute to their communities.

Most basic of all, they just want to live on the same continent with their families.

Living on the same continent : now that’s a family value!


  1. Moving story, beautifully written, factually interesting and shocking.
    I am so looking forward to the day when I see a photo of the three of you on American soil.
    Hang in there guys! xxxx

Comments are closed.


  1. Moving story, beautifully written, factually interesting and shocking.
    I am so looking forward to the day when I see a photo of the three of you on American soil.
    Hang in there guys! xxxx

Comments are closed.