When criminal parents affect their children's lives

Diane Guerrero, an actress on the Netflix series Orange is the New Black, has written an op-ed on the subject of immigration this week in which she shares a very personal story. It turns out that Ms. Guerrero’s parents came to the United States illegally and settled in New Jersey (where she was born) and later moved to Boston. They came here, she says, fleeing instability in their native land and seeking a better life. She describes in great detail the way she lived in fear of coming home from school some day to find that her family had been deported. And then it happened.

I came home from school to an empty house. Lights were on and dinner had been started, but my family wasn’t there. Neighbors broke the news that my parents had been taken away by immigration officers, and just like that, my stable family life was over.

Not a single person at any level of government took any note of me. No one checked to see if I had a place to live or food to eat, and at 14, I found myself basically on my own.

While awaiting deportation proceedings, my parents remained in detention near Boston, so I could visit them. They would have liked to fight deportation, but without a lawyer and an immigration system that rarely gives judges the discretion to allow families to stay together, they never had a chance. Finally, they agreed for me to continue my education at Boston Arts Academy, a performing arts high school, and the parents of friends graciously took me in.

Thanks to those friends who reached out to lend a hand and the fact that she was born a citizen, Ms. Guerrero stayed in the US and eventually went on to achieve success. While we are on the subject, I have a story to share also.

When I was in high school, I knew another kid my age named Eddie. We weren’t really friends and didn’t hang in the same group, but we were on the wrestling team together. Eddie’s mother had died when he was young and his dad was a businessman of some sort. One day the police came and took his father away. I only learned later from my parents that he had been convicted of embezzling money from his company and he did a stretch in prison for it. Eddie lived with an aunt and uncle until we graduated. I confess, we didn’t stay in touch and I’m not sure what became of him.

I suppose he was fortunate to have relatives willing to take him in, but it really affected his life. He was in trouble a lot after that, and I remember feeling sorry for him. In that way, he and Diane Guerrero have something in common.

But they have something else in common. Their parents were both criminals. I don’t say this to be cruel, but only as a fact. Reading her story, Mr. and Mrs. Guerrero knew they were breaking the law. They made attempts, she says, to gain legal status after they were in the country but were taken in by shady lawyers so they remained illegal. But the point of this tale is that it doesn’t make any difference. That’s not how it’s done. If you come here illegally you are breaking the law and you run the risk of being caught and dealt with by the legal system. Blaming it on some shysters who acted in bad faith is really no excuse. Going through any of several established legal processes to gain lawful entry – either as asylum seekers or visa / green card holders – is the cure for this sort of problem. Those who knowingly choose to game the system have to take personal responsibility for their actions and the fallout which may befall their loved ones.

This is the unfortunate byproduct of criminal activity when it involves families, and it is a sad state of affairs. But demanding to be allowed to break the law in order to ameliorate the situation in cases like this makes no more sense than demanding that Eddie’s father be allowed to just keep the money and stay home. Diane Guerrero was let down to be sure, but it wasn’t by the system. She was let down by her parents, and she unfortunately had to pay a price for their decisions which should not be dropped on the shoulders of a child.