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For kids with dads here illegally, Father’s Day can be a harrowing holiday

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WASHINGTON – Jennifer Briones’ family usually gathers for a barbecue in the park for Father’s Day, but the 16-year-old Phoenix resident said she will likely find something else to do if the family gets together this weekend.

That’s because Jennifer doesn’t want to imagine her dad – an illegal immigrant who was arrested last year for driving without a license – spending the holiday in prison.

“It’s hard to know he’s not here with me and I can’t show him support,” said Jennifer, a rising senior at Xavier College Preparatory.

Jennifer’s dad is just one of millions of parents who face the threat of deportation because they are in this country illegally with their kids. The Pew Research Hispanic Center estimated that in 2008 as many as 2.4 million fathers and 2.6 million mothers were living illegally in the U.S. with their children.

Katharine Donato, a Vanderbilt University sociology professor who studies immigration and immigrant families, said the effects of deportation and separation can be harrowing for children like Jennifer.

“For a 16-year-old in the middle of high school, I can only imagine how distressing this is,” Donato said. “Everything about her world has been shattered.”

Children of illegal immigrants are often U.S. citizens and they live normal lives – going to school, playing soccer on weekends or taking piano lessons weekly – until a parent is arrested or deported. After that, Donato said, their lives change dramatically.

Besides the financial impact from the loss of a parent’s income, separation from a parent can also affect a child’s academic performance, Donato said.

“Sometimes kids drop out of school because of stresses,” Donato said, adding that adolescence is hard enough for kids without the threat of having a parent deported. “There’s so much stress on many levels.”

Jennifer, a U.S. citizen, was one of those typical American kids Donato mentioned: She said she did not even realize her dad risked deportation until one day as a young child, when her mother warned her.

“I always hoped we would be lucky and something like that wouldn’t happen,” Jennifer said. “When it happened it was just devastating.”

Her dad, Antonio Molina, was pulled over last June and charged with driving without a license, then handed over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement when authorities learned that he was undocumented.

After seven months in ICE detention, he was released on probation – but not before missing a court date on a pending drunken driving charge because he was in jail. That missed court date landed him back in detention when he showed up in March for an immigration check-in.

Jennifer and her younger sister had gone with their dad to that check-in and waited for him to come out. And waited.

“I was really afraid and I didn’t know where he was,” Jennifer remembered.

They learned he had been re-arrested but it took another two months before they learned why and where he was being held. She last saw him a month ago, before he was moved from Phoenix to Florence.

Jennifer, a high school senior who dreams of pursuing film production and combining it with her love of politics and psychology, tells the story of her dad’s arrest with little emotion. But she says it was a painful day, and it has been painful since.

Jennifer began visiting her dad in jail, but worried about troubling him and tried to “put up this facade” during visits.

“I don’t want him to be more upset,” she said.

Jennifer said she admires her father, who fled El Salvador 20 years ago to escape a war. Even though he has witnessed so much, “he’s still able to keep a sense of humor,” she said.

“In many ways, me and my dad are very similar,” Jennifer said. “We’re both patient and listeners and like talking to people.”

But they’re different, too: Where her father has a more sensitive side, Jennifer said she does not like to show her emotions.

She tries to avoid thinking about her dad’s situation by working at her job and by preparing for senior year of high school. She tries not to think about spending her first Father’s Day without him around.

She instead thinks about him getting out of jail and coming to see her graduate next year. She already knows what she will say when they’re reunited.

“I’ll just tell him that I’m happy that he’s with me and that I love him,” Jennifer said.