As told by Grace Meng, immigrants’ rights researcher for the US program

The women, about a dozen in all, had just finished breakfast at the Tijuana shelter when I arrived. Like many people in Mexican towns on the US border, they had been deported from the United States for not having proper documentation. When I asked them if they had kids living in the United States, most raised their hands and started crying. All these mothers, missing their children, unable to legally return to their families in the United States. I passed around tissues. These days, I always carry tissues with me.

Under US law, people who have been deported, regardless of their family ties, have no legal way to return to the United States. Additionally, as my report, Turning Migrants into Criminals, shows, when people desperate to see their families cross back into the United States illegally, they are prosecuted in US criminal court and often imprisoned at taxpayer expense. Why go through the trouble and expense of imprisoning them when they’re just going to be deported anyway? The new immigration legislation working its way through Congress could allow some families to reunite legally, but it still calls for increased prosecutions.

I met Alicia, a weary-looking middle-aged woman, at the Tijuana shelter. It had been two and a half years since she saw her daughters.

Alicia told me that she entered the United States in 2000 without proper documentation. She met and married another unauthorized immigrant, and they had two daughters, now 11 and 9 years old, born in the United States. When Alicia’s younger daughter was 5, her kidneys began to fail. A few years later, Alicia’s husband was deported, and she has not heard from him since.

One night, Alicia’s sick daughter wanted lemonade, so they went to the store to buy her daughter’s favorite drink. On the way out, Alicia forgot to turn on her headlights, and was pulled over by the police. She was arrested for not having paid a ticket for driving without insurance. She was handcuffed and taken away while her daughters watched from the back seat, clutching each other and crying. That was the last time Alicia saw her daughters, as shortly thereafter she was deported to Mexico.

Alicia’s lip quivered as she told her story. She attempted several times to return to the United States to be with her daughters. The second time, her smugglers abandoned her without food or water in Texas. She was apprehended, criminally prosecuted for illegal reentry and imprisoned for 13 days. A lawyer told her this conviction makes it almost impossible for her ever to get a US visa.

Alicia’s story stuck with me, but I have spoken with many mothers who had similar experiences. I find it difficult talking to these mothers, hearing about their hardships, knowing how much they are missing their kids. But their stories are important because they illustrate the human consequence of our laws: separating families, denying them hope of reuniting.

I was 2 years old when my family moved from South Korea to the United States for work opportunities, and I grew up living a bi-national life between the two countries. I became a US citizen as an adult, in 2000, but for a long time I felt American without being a citizen.

As an immigrant, I’ve always been fascinated by why people move and how people feel about their new country. It’s a very human impulse to move looking for something better, to want to cross a border. Many people think they’ll only be in their new country for a short while, but they end up staying, finding themselves changed by their new home.

How we balance regulating and controlling our borders, while still treating people humanely and with dignity, is a complex and vexing question that has not been answered definitively in any country. That said, the things I’m fighting for, like keeping families together, I believe is essential.

I became interested in working in the field of immigration while in law school. I found my studies dry, boring, and far removed from reality until I began working at Yale’s Immigration Clinic, under the supervising attorney, Jean Koh Peters.

I represented an asylum applicant from Ethiopia, whom I grew to admire enormously. He was a dissident in Ethiopia, and he and his wife were both tortured. He was wary, sad, and proud, and it was such an honor when he came to trust us and when he came to my graduation. I cared about that case more than I cared about anything in law school. In the end, he was granted asylum.

During my time as an immigration lawyer, I buried myself in immigration law, learning case-by-case how unfair these laws could be. Now, at Human Rights Watch, I have a chance to change them.

At the shelter in Tijuana, Alicia and I joined the women clustered around the computers in the hallway, trying to Skype with family or check emails. Alicia showed me the emails that her daughters and their foster parents had sent her. She was lucky – they were still in touch. Her youngest daughter had a successful kidney transplant, she told me, smiling through her tears.

For people like Alicia, making another run across the border is powerfully tempting. You can look right over and see the United States. There’s your adopted country. There are your children. There’s so much pain around this line. It’s such a focal point for so many.

I think I know what Alicia is doing in Tijuana. She’s thinking about trying to sneak into the US again, eyeing the border, weighing the odds. The only thing she is certain of in her very uncertain future is the love she has for her daughters, and how impossible it is to imagine a life without them.