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Immigrant families face tough choices when parents are deported

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The Cronkite School’s Southwest Borderlands Initiative has students delving in-depth into critical Latino-related issues in the United States and Mexico.

It is led by Rick Rodriguez, former executive editor at the Sacramento Bee and the school’s first Carnegie Professor specializing in Latino and transnational news coverage.

The effort grew out of the Cronkite School’s longtime commitment to giving students fieldwork experience along the U.S.-Mexico border and in Mexico. In recent years, Cronkite students have produced several major multimedia reporting projects focusing on immigration and Latino issues.

PHOENIX – Bonnie Delgado and her two children are Americans living in Mexico because of love, family unity and a fateful border crossing 20 years ago by her Mexican husband, Tolmec Sandoval.

Another couple, John and Anna, met while working at a factory in the Midwest. They got married when Anna, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, found out she was pregnant. They now have three elementary-school aged children born in the U.S., citizens like their father. To stay with her family, Anna endures a life in the shadows.

The two families’ experiences dispel the myth that marrying an American and having children who are U.S. citizens ensures legal residence in this country for a foreign spouse. Both families found the pursuit of legal immigration expensive, difficult to navigate and ultimately devastating.

Tolmec was told he will never be allowed to enter the U.S. Anna lost her bid because of a paperwork technicality and was ordered deported. Both couples and their children consequently faced the painful decision of whether to abide the visa denials and live outside the country or to stay in the U.S. illegally. One family chose to remain in the U.S.; the other chose to live in Mexico.

While these two family units have managed to remain together, large numbers of families that include U.S. citizens are being severely impacted by enforcement of immigration laws. A 2006 Pew Hispanic Center study reported “there are 6.6 million families in the U.S. in which either the head of the family or the spouse was unauthorized. These unauthorized families contained 14.6 million persons.”

According to the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Office of the Inspector General (OIG) report from January 2009, over 100,000 illegal immigrant parents of U.S.-born children were deported from 1998 to 2007.

What happened to their children? No one knows for sure. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials do not collect data on how many U.S.-born children these parents have or whether the children stay in the U.S. when the parents are deported. The OIG report recommended that ICE review the feasibility of establishing procedures to document the number of American children displaced by a parent’s deportation.

Although so far no change of policy has been implemented, Vincent Picard, ICE’s public affairs officer in Phoenix, said in an email that ICE has initiated the feasibility study and expects it to be completed soon. According to Picard, ICE has determined that the system changes are feasible and is working to meet the deadline. “ICE’s fiscal year 2010 appropriations bill stated “ICE is directed to begin collecting data on the deportation of parents of U.S.-born children no later than July 1, 2010, and to provide the data at least semi-annually to the Committees and the Office of Immigration Statistics.”

Deportations happen to families in Arizona every day. But the issue becomes more complex when the deportees’ families are of mixed-status—some with citizenship, some with visas and some here illegally. When a parent is denied a visa or deported, the stress is enormous—leaving youngsters to care for the younger and families to decide whether to leave jobs and schools in the name of family unity. It can lead to marital problems as well as mental health issues for parents and their children.

On any given day, Crockett Elementary School administrator Tammy Tusek deals with issues of deportation and immigration status, as students worry about family members and their own futures. Most of her students are from immigrant families, she says, estimating that about 60% of the student body have mixed-status families. She says the deportations usually are a result of “a traffic violation, day-to-day things—not a drug bust.”

A May 2006 report from the Pew Hispanic Center stated “nearly two-thirds (64%) of the children living in unauthorized families are U.S. citizens by birth, an estimated 3.1 million children in 2005.”

For these children, removals of family members are commonplace. “There was a former student, and I asked how his brother was,“ Tusek recalls. “He said he had been deported. This was just a casual conversation by the swings.”

Tusek says the students at Crockett, where she has worked for 10 years, generally are aware of immigration issues and see them as part of life. “We did see a lot of anxiety when employer sanctions went through. (Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s) sweeps really increased in our neighborhood. Kids would tell me that the police had been on their streets.”

The teachers at this Phoenix elementary school see how anxiety affects performance when a child knows a parent—usually the dad—is getting deported and the mom doesn’t have a job. “The anxiety is familial; it’s not about the individual’s status,” says Tusek. “Often separation from the family is not an option, so the child knows he could have to go, too.”

Jennifer Allen is the executive director of Border Action Network, a membership-based community-organizing network based in Tucson. Among their 12 human rights-oriented guiding principles is family unification.

“The group tries to educate the public that the immigrant family is not “monolithic,” in that ‘family’ oftentimes is comprised of a variety of statuses: undocumented immigrant, legal immigrant, citizen and visa-overstayer,” says Allen. “The notion of fixing the problem by rounding up and deporting them is absurd, given what families look like in reality.”

In addition to local awareness campaigns, the organization focuses its energy at the state legislative level trying to fend off efforts to deport undocumented immigrants and split families.

“We also work on building relationships with local officials and legislators, urge them to not treat them like they are criminals,” says Allen. “Within Arizona, we do a lot of work around how to prepare people for the possibility of having their status challenged, minimize effects of deportation and advocate to keep families here legally and safely.”

Sometimes both parents get deported and kids have to move. At Crockett Elementary, the staff and the families tend to handle these realities in a matter-of-fact manner. “Sometimes parents come and withdraw them. They’ll just tell the front office that they’ve been deported,” says Tusek.

But other times the teachers are not told about a deportation and have to rely on their instincts to determine when a child is suffering a loss. Tusek recalls how one family with six children was affected last fall by the deportation of a parent.

“This was a long-standing family at the school and we had a relationship with them. But we weren’t aware of it. Four of the siblings, who typically performed ‘at level’, had become withdrawn. The teachers were talking and we realized that the girls’ grades were slipping.”

Others teachers noticed the girls’ charismatic, somewhat mischievous brother also appeared withdrawn. Eventually the school called in the children’s mother, who told Tusek she hadn’t noticed a change in her children’s demeanors. “The translator I work with told her we’re just trying to see if there’s something we could do to help. She finally said their dad had been deported and ‘if I can’t find a job, we’re going to have to move back.’”

Tusek referred the kids to the school counselor immediately and found out that the kids had been instructed by their mother not to discuss what had happened to their dad. Within a week or two, the teachers were able to engage the girls and their brother in conversations about what happened.

She says it’s interesting that the authorities see deportation as the solution, telling the story of a mother who came in to say her children’s father was being deported. “The father left his wife and six kids and was back in six days.”

Bonnie and Tolmec, on the other hand, aren’t willing to live apart or with the upheaval and anxiety that would come from Tolmec’s being undocumented in the U.S. They instead have chosen family unity and legal immigration status for Bonnie and the kids in Mexico. The decision nonetheless has been a heart-wrenching one. Bonnie grieves that her U.S.-citizen children might never know the American Dream.

The couple met while Bonnie was on a study abroad program in Tijuana. They fell in love, got married in San Diego in 1999 and returned to Mexico where Tolmec worked as an English teacher at the University of Baja California at Tijuana. They soon applied for Tolmec to legally immigrate into the U.S., only to find that a careless border crossing with a friend as a young man would lead to his permanent ban from entering the U.S.

When Tolmec was 21, he and a friend decided to travel to San Diego for a Padres baseball game. Tolmec used his daily border crosser visa. According to Delgado, her husband’s friend claimed he was a U.S. citizen (which is not uncommon in border towns where Mexican mothers often cross to give birth). The border agents discovered he, in fact, was Mexican. They impounded Tolmec’s car and denied his visa for one year. There were no formal proceedings following the incident and Tolmec later obtained subsequent visas.

When Bonnie filled out the application for her husband’s spousal visa application in 2003, Tolmec never mentioned the 1990 incident at the border. “He didn’t think to mention it,” says Delgado. “It had happened so long ago, and he had gotten subsequent visas.”

Officials at the embassy in Ciudad Juarez caught the omission. They said the border-crossing incident had been reclassified as human smuggling and that the failure to report it on the visa application constituted an unpardonable felony. Bonnie’s petition was denied. As a result, Tolmec will never be allowed to enter the U.S.

Delgado’s unsuccessful application process took ten years and cost thousands of dollars in application and legal fees. The process usually involves many forms and fees, including forms for “alien relatives” as fiancées or as spouses, for mandatory medical exams and for proof of financial support. (If documents are sent to the incorrect processing office, the application is automatically denied and fees lost.)

She remains angry at what she sees as an injustice denying law-abiding citizens their right to live in their country. “You have no idea how many times people have offered to smuggle him into this country,” says Delgado. “But instead we tried to do the right thing, and now he’s being punished again after already paying the penalty for it. What’s most frustrating is how oblivious they are to the emotional and financial distress they bring upon my children and myself.”

During the application process, Bonnie’s attorney advised her to move to the U.S. with her children as a good-faith gesture demonstrating her desire to live here. She worked as a substitute teacher in Cave Creek, but her son became clinically depressed by the separation from his father. They returned to Mexico the following year. “It’s been really tough,” she says. “They miss Cave Creek a lot. They miss their friends and their teachers. They miss the little things, like Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts and having a nice park down the street.”

Every weekday, she leaves her home at 5:30 a.m. and crosses the border on foot from Tijuana to work part-time as a secretary at a tile showroom outside of San Diego. (She earns more than she did teaching full-time at a private school in Tijuana.) She returns home by 1:30 p.m. and homeschools her children in English, while her husband teaches at the Instituto Sandel, an independent English school he owns. Each time she crosses, Bonnie is haunted by the consequences of her husband’s mistake.

Delgado recently applied to DHS’s Secure Electronic Network for Travelers Rapid Inspection (SENTRI) program, which facilitates border crossings for low-risk crossers. Although the card, part of the Trusted Traveler Program, would have reduced her border-crossing time by as much as 90%, says Delgado, she was denied access because of her husband’s inadmissibility. “I argued that I’m a U.S. citizen, with no criminal background, not even a parking ticket, that I cross by foot. So how could I possibly smuggle anyone? I have a clean record, yet the official said I’m not ‘low risk’ because of my husband’s record.”

Like Bonnie and Tolmec, John and Anna had every intention of pursuing legal status through the appropriate government channels and every expectation that they would receive it. In the end, their denial left them frustrated and angry

The couple met while working together at a factory where John was a shop foreman and Anna was an operator. When she became pregnant, they got married and began the visa application process.

John, a military veteran, says he wanted to do the right thing. “We did a lot of stuff to try and do it the right way.” Anna had come to the U.S. by car without papers, so John set about getting her a legitimate U.S. social security number and a valid driver’s license for tax purposes. She obtained work authorization papers and underwent fingerprinting each time they moved to a new state, including Arizona.

By the time he and Anna had their final interview, she was pregnant with their third son. Certain her application would be approved, they had even purchased tickets for the family to go to Mexico for Christmas to meet Anna’s parents, who she had not seen in over ten years. Her application’s denial delivered a crushing end to their plans.

“I didn’t know it was going to go this way,” says John. “Married? With three children? For someone to sit across the desk from a pregnant woman, with no compassion, and deny her, based on someone filing the wrong paperwork that had expired?” Apparently, someone at the agency John had hired used an application that had since been revised. As John describes it, the young woman on the other side of the desk coldly saw the error as grounds for denial.

John believes that if he hadn’t been there with Anna that day and she hadn’t been pregnant, the authorities would have taken her to a deportation cell. Instead, they were told they would receive a letter telling them when she would have to leave. They never received the papers.

Five years and $5,000 later, John’s frustration with the process remains fresh. “It’s real complicated to do it without a lawyer. So you put yourself in a situation where (the lawyers) say they’re going to help you, but they didn’t look at the paperwork when they filed it.”

Instead of returning to Mexico without her children and trusting that it would take only six to twelve months to receive legal documents, Anna has chosen a more risky, and more isolated, path. She remains in the States with John and her children but no longer works and must keep a low profile in their community. There’s been no contact from immigration authorities nor close calls with local law enforcement, but nonetheless she lives in fear. As John puts it, “She feels like she’s in a prison.”

John says the boys don’t know anything about their mother’s immigration status. The family lives in a predominantly Mexican neighborhood, but they don’t have sweeps like in Arizona. Still, the strain on the family from her not being able to work affects them all. “It’s incredibly stressful,” says John. “We have arguments every other week about her being stuck in the house.”

John sounds resigned to the idea of Anna having to leave to get legal status, suggesting they’ll eventually try to do what they must to get her status changed. They’ve thought about her taking the kids to Mexico over summer break some year and hoping for speedy processing, but that would require buying passports and securing notarized documents to allow Anna to take her U.S.-citizen children across the border. Instead John, most likely, would have to take the boys to Mexico himself. The considerable expense, complicated logistics and uncertain outcome of such a plan are reasons enough to make it unlikely to happen any time soon.

Maurice Goldman is an immigration attorney in Tucson, AZ, who focuses his practice on issues related to U.S. immigration laws. He advocates abolishing re-entry penalties, including the 3-year and 10-year bans on re-entering the U.S after deportation.

“I see these families get torn apart,” says Goldman. “The penalties are nonsensical because they don’t really deter a person from being here illegally or unlawfully. They basically force a person to live here in the shadows, without any documentation, and with the fear that if they go back, they may not be able to come back and be with their loved ones. I just think that’s completely unfair. And I can understand making the person pay a penalty because they did somehow break a law, but when you have a family and you have a U.S. citizen or a permanent-resident spouse or a child that’s going to be potentially separated from their mother or their father, you know, it’s kind of sad to see. Very sad, actually.”

Arizona Congressmen Ed Pastor and Raul Grijalva have co-sponsored legislation that would allow immigration judges flexibility when determining whether illegal immigrant parents of U.S.-citizen children should be removed from the U.S. Although previous legislation has died in committee in earlier efforts, a similar provision has be included in a comprehensive immigration reform proposal pending in Congress.

Others in Congress would like to see the repeal of the 14th amendment, which grants citizenship to all persons born in the U.S. In the wake of Arizona governor Jan Brewer’s recent signing of the controversial immigration bill SB 1070, the debate over citizenship has gained intensity. When asked at a recent Tea Party rally in San Diego if he would support deportation of U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine) of California responded, “I would have to, yes… We simply cannot afford what we’re doing right now.” He added, “It takes more than just walking across the border to become an American citizen. It’s what’s in our souls…”

Even when parents of U.S-born children succeed in securing legal status, anxiety can remain for the non-citizen spouse. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services data reports that roughly 21,000 Arizona residents received green cards in 2009.

Suzette Acosta, a pre-school director, and her husband Jose, an executive chef, grew up together in Nogales, Sonora. Jose became a U.S. citizen in his twenties when a pastor encouraged a friend and him to apply for citizenship. He attended college in Tucson; Suzette went to college in Mexico. Some years later they began dating, and in 1999 Jose proposed to Suzette. The following year he applied for a fiancée visa through the Tucson immigration office. Suzette eventually obtained permanent residence (also known as “green card”) status in 2002.

They now have four children, all of whom are U.S. citizens, and Suzette very much wants to become a citizen. According to DHS, most legal permanent residents who are at least 18 years of age are eligible to apply for citizenship after meeting certain requirements, including five years of lawful permanent residency in the United States and successful completion of English language, civics and history tests.

Suzette says the biggest obstacle for her is the cost. “It cost us $2,500-3,000 at the time for my green card. At this point, we don’t have a lot of money, with daycare costs and a house. We have good jobs, but there’s not much money left over.”

Instead, she has incorporated the realities of her family’s mixed status into their life. Each time her mother takes Suzette’s children to Nogales for a visit, Suzette dutifully gets the notarized paperwork required to allow her mother to take the kids to and from Mexico, as required by Mexican law. She also always tells the truth at the border about her immigration status and speaks openly about it in front of her children.

Despite having permanent residency, she still has anxiety when she travels because of concerns about the authority of individual border patrol agents. “Any time we cross the border, there could be any reason someone could take my residency card from me, and it would be all over. It’s very sad because it’s supposed to be that if you followed the procedures (to get documents), you’re fine. But every time you’re treated at the will of the person at the border. We’re always at the mercy of who’s at the border.”

Suzette describes an unsettling incident that happened a year after she had gotten a pre-residency card permit. “I’m supposed to get out of the car, and they are supposed to sign my paper. The woman at the border didn’t know what the permit was, and she wanted to take the paperwork from me. I said, ‘Call the office in Tucson so you can learn about it.’ I wasn’t going to let her take it.”

When asked what Jose and she would do if she somehow lost her legal status, Suzette replies, “We always talk about it. If that happened, we’d go back (to Mexico) and start over.”

But despite the anxiety from not yet being a citizen, Suzette says they feel blessed that they aren’t like other families who have a parent here illegally. “You have no idea, even the difference between their life and ours.”


EDITOR’S NOTE: This package was produced by students in Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication under the direction of Rick Rodriguez, Carnegie Professor specializing in Latino and transnational news coverage.