Family Apart as Immigration Debate Goes on

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Family Apart as Immigration Debate Goes on

Post by admin » Thu Jan 19, 2006 3:44 pm ... hp?ID=6417
Family Apart as Immigration Debate Goes on

Hermanise Benoit hasn't put up a Christmas tree: too many memories, not enough heart, and a season of sad tidings.

''I'm just not in the mood,'' she said. 'Some people say go out and chill and I'm like `Oh, my God. I can't do that.' ''

It's been almost six months since Hermanise's husband, Wilbert, was deported to Haiti, leaving her and their two young boys behind in Lantana.

Benoit, who arrived in this country in 1994, was ordered deported after his request for asylum was denied. I first wrote about Wilbert's story in September. Since then, Hermanise has gotten a congressman interested in the case, received a $100 donation from a reader and secured a full-time job. But her husband remains
in Haiti. She makes too little -- barely $300 a week -- to help support him or his family back home. And for all the generosity of strangers, the season's promise of joy will elude the family this year.

Like thousands of others, the Benoits will spend this Christmas apart, separated by an immigration debate that has grown increasingly fractious and abstract.

''Send him back; he broke the law.'' That was the gist of the messages I received after I wrote about Wilbert's case the first time. It's a typical knee-jerk reaction to an issue that too often substitutes passion for clarity.

The law, such as it is, is broken. And the coming year will see a flurry of legislation meant to fix it.

No one doubts we need immigration reform. The challenge will be to get beyond partisan mean-spiritedness to find humanitarian solutions. It's not an impossible dream.

Last week, the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy, a nonpartisan foundati
on, released a study that challenges many assumptions about immigration and the economy.

Think that immigrants suck up free government money? Think again. On average, the report found, immigrants pay more in taxes each year than they use in government services.

Believe that every immigrant with a job has taken it from someone native-born? Not necessarily, said the study's author, Amy Traub.

''It's not a zero-sum game,'' she told me Tuesday. ``The fact is, that immigrant worker is spending money and buying products and services.''

Convinced that undocumented immigrants drive down real wages? Blame it on the corporations that hire them and then threaten them with deportation, thereby making it impossible for them to assert their rights.

''It's clear that our current laws are not functioning adequately and there's frustration,'' Traub said. ``But immigrants give a tremendous amount to this country. It's important not to have a policy of kicking out the ones we ha
ve and closing our borders.''

Wilbert Benoit's job as an electrician's apprentice not only put food on the table for his wife and kids here, it helped feed his relatives in Haiti. His deportation left two families without a breadwinner. Who benefits from that? The idea that deporting someone like Wilbert sends a message to others who would flee Haiti is laughable: The desperate are high-stakes gamblers. So long as the most powerful nation in the world sits mere miles from one of the poorest, there will be people willing to bet even their lives on the dream of America.

After the first column on Wilbert ran, U.S. Rep. Lincoln Díaz-Balart offered to support a humanitarian parole that would reunite Benoit with his family. Wilbert's attorney is working on the paperwork.

In this season of good will, it would be too hard-hearted to point out that individual charity brings us no closer to fixing the deep inequalities in our immigration p

If Wilbert is allowed to return, it won't solve the problem for thousands of others in similar situations who weren't lucky enough to have their stories publicized. But it would be a good thing for the Benoit family. And it would be especially joyful for his oldest son, who still believes that his father is only on vacation.

Ana Menendez
December 14, 2005

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