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Report calls for focus on family reunification in immigration reform

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WASHINGTON – The nation’s current immigration policy is breaking up families and not deterring repeat border crossers, according to a University of Arizona study, which called for those factors to be addressed in any immigration reform.

The report, released Thursday, was based on interviews with more than 1,100 illegal immigrants deported to Mexico over the last six years. It said nearly a quarter of the deportees have children in the United States who are citizens, and more than a third see the U.S. as their home.

Of those, 70 percent said they planned to return, the report said.

“Despite all this build-up of security enforcement programs, people are still intending to return,” said Jeremy Slack, one of the project leaders, at the release of the report.

Researchers conducted hour-long interviews with people all along the U.S. border in Mexico, within a month of their deportation.

Nearly 75 percent of those interviewed said they lived or worked in the United States, and the median time spent here was seven years.

Of those interviewed for the report, 83 percent had previously crossed or attempted to cross the border. They said they walked an average of two days in the desert, with 39 percent saying they ran out of water and 31 percent saying they ran out of food.

Not all were treated well once they were here: The report said 24 percent of those interviewed worked for less than minimum wage and 17 percent said they were blackmailed or threatened with deportation.

Still, they want to come back to the U.S. because they have roots here, including children, jobs and homes. That has made family reunification a primary draw for Mexicans re-crossing the border, the report concluded, not just the search for work.

While reform of the guest-worker program is needed, Slack said it alone will not be sufficient to deter illegal immigration, given long-term motivations of border crossers.

“The idea that you can make immigration reform with just a big guest worker program is about 10 or 15 years too late,” Slack said.

Immigration advocates said the report shows the motivation for border crossing has shifted from purely financial to family concerns.

But one advocate of get-tough reform said the reasons don’t excuse the fact that undocumented immigrants are still breaking the law.

“The reason that we have immigration laws is because we understand that what might be in the individual interest of somebody in another country doesn’t necessarily serve the interests of this country,” said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

Muzaffar Chishti, director of the Migration Policy Institute office at the New York University School of Law, said the U.S. policy of removal has been helped in the past by the recession, which made it less attractive to cross the border illegally.

Discouraging illegal immigration is more difficult when border crossers are trying to get back to families and homes, he said.

“In the past they would just come because they were desperate to get jobs,” Chishti said. “Now it seems … the people who really make the extra effort to come are people who are coming here to be with their families.”

That is why family reunification must be one leg on the “three-legged stool” of comprehensive immigration reform, he said.

“It’s a huge injury, it’s really a harm to the kids who are left behind,” Chishti said of deportations that split up families. “That’s clearly something to be concerned about.”