Broken families

Tough enforcement of immigration law has the painful side effect of deporting parents of U.S.-born kids

January 26, 2008|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,Sun reporter

After years of struggle, Adela had finally found stability. With a renewed religious faith, her once-rocky marriage to Rigoberto had become strong.

Most of all, they had reason to celebrate: their infant Moises, by virtue of being born in the United States, possessed American citizenship, a privilege unattainable to the Honduran couple because they had entered the country illegally.

But chaos struck during a trip to Toys "R" Us on a frigid day last February. Police pulled over the Baltimore County family's truck for a traffic violation. Her husband was handcuffed. A month later, he was deported. Adela and her sons never saw him again.

"It is hard, but I stay here for my children," said Adela, 32, who declined to give her last name for fear of being deported. "But I'm scared."

Moises is among the nation's 3.4 million children living a precarious family dynamic - American citizens with at least one parent who is an undocumented immigrant. They account for about two-thirds of the 5 million children in illegal immigrant families, according to 2006 figures from the Pew Hispanic Center.

Known as "mixed-status" families, they present the toughest of challenges for politicians, policymakers and activists battling over immigration reform.

Some foes of illegal immigration call children like Moises "anchor babies," their births calculated by parents seeking the benefits for their children that the U.S. offers. Advocates for immigrants point to such families as case studies in the nation's broken immigration system, a structure so flawed that even U.S.-born children suffer.

Political pressure on federal immigration and customs officials to toughen enforcement has resulted in a surge in workplace raids and arrests. Advocates warn that a swelling number of immigrant families will be thrown into chaos and, ultimately, separated by borders.

Immigrant advocates say tales of deported parents seeking to reunite with their families are increasingly common.

"It really speaks to the lengths that families will go through to be together," said Miriam Calderon, associate director of the policy analysis center of the National Council of La Raza, a Latino advocacy organization.

Families left behind face numerous hardships, said Calderon, whose organization commissioned a report with the nonpartisan Urban Institute in Washington to study deportation's effect on children. The study, released in October, interviewed families in three communities where immigration officials had arrested hundreds in workplace raids over one year.

Communities panicked, families lost their breadwinners and children were stigmatized at school, researchers found.

"These were big shows of force," said Randy Capps, senior research associate at the Urban Institute. "They didn't just stop with the big raid at the plant, but these smaller raids continued and sort of kept the families living in fear. ... In the most extreme cases, people basically hid in their homes for weeks."

Although Rigoberto was not snagged in a raid, Adela faced challenges because the family bills and the lease on their house were all in her husband's name. A shaken Adela found herself raising a fussy infant and a rebellious teenager on her own. Worse, she worried that authorities would take her next.

Immigration and customs officials deported 237,255 people in 2007, up from 204,980 in 2006. While the agency targets immigrants who have committed crimes, it has pushed to reduce a huge case backlog and conduct more workplace sweeps.

The strategies have heightened the sense of vulnerability among immigrants, both legal and illegal. A little more than half of all Latino adults worry that a family member or close friend could be deported, according to a survey released recently by the Pew Hispanic Center.

Church leaders, educators and immigrant advocates have complained of immigration officers' tactics, including the detention of breastfeeding mothers after raids. Immigration officials responded by broadening the use of ankle bracelets for women who would otherwise be detained during the deportation process. Still, others argue that undocumented immigrants must be sent back to their country of origin, regardless of the circumstances.

"There is no good solution; this is what happens when you ignore immigration law. You end up creating these dilemmas," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank that supports tighter controls on immigration. "That said, the activist groups' solution - letting the illegal parents stay - isn't much of a solution at all. It tells the illegal immigrant, once they have a kid they get a free pass."

The solution, Krikorian said, must be comprehensive: strengthening immigration laws, cracking down on employers who hire illegal workers, forbidding immigrants from gaining driver's licenses and "making it as difficult as possible to be an illegal alien."

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