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Irania Sanchez’s brother is the only father figure her two young daughters have ever known. Their biological father left just before the birth of Sanchez’s second daughter. Now, they fear their uncle may be deported back to Nicaragua.

“My daughters cry when they hear of their uncle being deported,” Sanchez said through a translator last week. Sanchez and her two brothers immigrated from Nicaragua legally when she was 14, rejoining their mother. She said that they all started the naturalization process, but while she and her mother have become citizens, her brothers “were not allowed to get documents.”

With the start of deportation proceedings against her eldest brother, Sanchez, who now lives in Brooklyn, said the family risks being separated again. “Deportation is a terrible thing,” she said last week at a New York Immigration Coalition event.

Sanchez’s brother is just one of the 1.6 million undocumented immigrants placed in detention or deported each year by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. In a May Day rally tomorrow, immigrants and immigration activists will call for reform to change policies they say are tearing immigrant families apart.

Participants will create a family tree in Washington Square Park with the names of family members who have been deported or are waiting in line for a visa to join relatives already in the country legally. Then they will march to Union Square. Earlier in the day, local events sponsored by the Allianza Dominicana and the New York Civic Participation Project (NYCPP) will take place in the Bronx and Washington Heights. Participants at those events will converge on Washington Square Park by 2PM.

Organizers expect this year’s citywide events to be more subdued than last year’s massive, nationwide May Day rallies. That rally was billed as “A Day Without Immigrants.” NYCPP Director Zahida Pirana said, “Last year was the first year that immigrants claimed May Day as their day.”

Still, Javier Valdes, director of special projects at the New York Immigration Coalition, which is sponsoring the ‘family tree’ rally, said, “Last year was a phenomenon that may not be seen again.”

Instead, Valdes said the goal is to focus attention on how present immigration policies affect individuals. He and other advocates believe that after last year’s show of strength, immigration reform could happen this year, before the 2008 Presidential campaign begins to dominate the political landscape.

Immigration advocates call for reforms including a path to citizenship for immigrants who are currently here illegally that would include a fine and have the individual meet other requirements. Norman Eng, of the Coalition, pointed to numerous national polls showing a majority of Americans support such a solution. “People understand that enforcement-only approach to undocumented workers is not going to work,” Eng said.

In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal last May, Mayor Bloomberg agreed with this position. A spokesperson said last week that his position has not changed since then. “There is only one practical solution, and it is a solution that respects the history of our nation,” Bloomberg wrote. “Offer those already here the opportunity to earn permanent status and keep their families together, provided they pay appropriate penalties.”

Advocates call for a change to detention policies for individuals awaiting deportation hearings to electronic monitoring and reporting. This approach would be cheaper and less disruptive for the families involved, they say. They also want more visas for the family members of citizens and legal residents.

Immigration advocates hope that by centering their message around the theme of family reunification, they will strike the right note at a time when the immigration reform seems tangible.

“This is a really critical year,” said Avideh Moussavian, director of immigration policy and advocacy at the Coalition. “We’ve moved beyond talking about principles to very specific policies.”

– Matt Sollars