Ky. Voices: One family's story shows flaws in immigration system

Amber G. Duke is communications manager for ACLU of Kentucky.
Amber G. Duke is communications manager for ACLU of Kentucky.

As U.S. senators debate amendments to the so-called "Gang of Eight" immigration reform bill, the ACLU of Kentucky has been collecting stories from families. Stories that are not reported in the news because our broken immigration system forces people to live in the shadows.

One courageous Kentuckian wanted to share her story to explain why she supports immigration reform with a roadmap to citizenship as a way of keeping millions of families together. But she comes from what is called a "mixed status" family. She was born in America and is a U.S. citizen, but her mother and brother were born in Peru and are currently undocumented.

She cannot raise her voice publicly because she fears they could be deported, as her father was a few years ago. She has asked me to speak out on her behalf.

Her father came to the United States in 1979 with her grandmother and mother. She was born in 1981, which is also the same year her grandmother, was diagnosed with cancer. Her grandmother didn't want to die in the United States and begged to go back to Peru.

Her parents eventually went back. Within a few days of arrival, they were involved in a terrible car accident. They were struck by a drunk driver, and her father was ejected from the vehicle.

His rehabilitation lasted for years and included seven surgeries. Her parents couldn't leave Peru because of her father's health.

Her brother was born in 1989 in Peru, during the time a terrorist group was a threat to everyone in their city. Her father made the decision to flee to the United States to keep the family safe.

When he re-entered this country he obtained employment authorization. She and her mother soon followed, but they couldn't bring her brother. He remained in Peru for another two years, and was brought to the United States without authorization at the age of three. This was the only way to safely reunite the family.

Her parents bought a house and worked hard to provide for the family. After her high-school graduation, immigration officials started targeting her father. Because of his brain surgery, he was not able to learn English. Parts of his brain essential for language development had been severely damaged. She was his translator. They went to the meeting with immigration in the Louisville office, and that's when she had to translate the hardest words that she ever said to her dad, "They want you go back to Peru."

Her father cried, and became very upset. He had paid taxes, bought a house, worked hard and never committed a crime. All he wanted was a path to legal residency, and eventually citizenship.

Her father was deported to Peru, and for two years he struggled to come back to be with his family. He was rejected each time. He came back the only way he knew how, without documentation.

When he finally made it back to Kentucky, he started experiencing health problems. Within months he was diagnosed with lung cancer, and passed away three months later. Exactly one week after his funeral, his family received a letter from immigration: They were going to reopen his case; a mistake had been made. It was too late, he was gone.

Immigration reform is too late for her father, but there are so many others like her mother and brother who still aspire to become citizens in the country they call home. By creating a fair and practical roadmap to citizenship, other Kentucky families will not suffer the way this one has. It would give people like her father who work hard, pay their taxes and contribute to communities across the commonwealth the opportunity to earn the citizenship they dream of.

The details of this Kentucky family's story are unique, but the heartbreak they face is all too common in a broken immigration system that separates families each and every day. The time has come for immigration reform.