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Split Decision

Children of undocumented immigrants find themselves in the cracks of international law


Mention the word "immigration" and you feel a tremor as the ideological split creates a chasm, widened by raw emotions—love, fear, anger and hope.

But there are those who end up at the bottom of that chasm through no fault of their own. They are children, United States citizens, who live with the very real possibility of being separated from their parents who are here illegally.

They're children like Gina, 13, Eric, 10 and Nyellie, 5, who have lived with their paternal grandparents since their fathers were deported to Mexico.

Sister and brother Gina and Eric, and their young cousin Nyellie all share a streak of shyness, but after awhile, their broad, open grins hint at their true nature. The young trio lives in their grandparents' Caldwell home. They attend local schools and churches, but unlike most of their classmates, they have to drive 20 hours to see their fathers.

Nyellie, 5, and her cousins, Eric, 10, and Gina, 13, are part of a growing number of children whose families are split. She holds a picture her father drew of his hands reaching for her, but stopped by the border. - JOYCE ALEXANDER
  • Joyce Alexander
  • Nyellie, 5, and her cousins, Eric, 10, and Gina, 13, are part of a growing number of children whose families are split. She holds a picture her father drew of his hands reaching for her, but stopped by the border.

It's a trip their grandmother, Maria Alvarez, tries to make every few months, driving from the Treasure Valley to the Mexican border town of Nogales over a weekend. They leave after Alvarez gets off work on Friday evening, traveling through the night to let the kids spend part of Saturday and Sunday with their fathers before heading back home for work and school on Monday.

It's a ritual they've followed for nearly four years, since the first of Alvarez's sons was deported after being arrested by Caldwell police for other offenses.

Alvarez simply states that her sons, whom she prefers not to name, made some mistakes. They came to the United States as children, spending the majority of their lives here, but the fact remains they were undocumented immigrants.

Alvarez and the rest of her family, including her four other children, all have legal resident status, and her grandchildren were born in the country.

But because their fathers were in the country illegally, Gina, Eric and Nyellie are part of a growing number of children forced to deal with the repercussions of stricter enforcement of immigration laws.

As the issue comes to a head, social service workers, government officials and community leaders are scrambling to find a way to address the mounting legal, social and financial tallies.


According to a study released last year by the National Council of La Raza­—the largest Hispanic civil rights and advocacy group in the United States—and the Urban Institute, roughly 5 million children in this country have at least one undocumented parent.

Coupled with increased enforcement by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a division of the Department of Homeland Security, communities across the country are seeing an increase in the number of children stuck in a legal limbo; they are U.S. citizens, their parents are not.

Many of the communities hit hardest are those targeted by ICE for large-scale workplace raids like Greeley, Colo.; Grand Island, Neb.; and New Bedford, Mass., where hundreds of undocumented workers were taken into custody in one fell swoop. In these cases, action was taken so quickly, many children were left at school or with caretakers, with no knowledge of what had happened to their parents. Officials in those cities had to scramble to make arrangements until a parent was released from custody to care for their children while they awaited deportation hearings.

In the Treasure Valley, large-scale workplace raids haven't been common, but families have been separated as ICE cracks down on those who have been previously deported and anyone with a criminal record.

Once in federal custody, an undocumented immigrant may be eligible for a humanitarian release if he or she is the sole caregiver and does not have a prior criminal record. Even under release, these parents still await deportation hearings and cannot work unless they have a valid work permit. They're also required to regularly check in with case workers.

Those who aren't released can designate a legal family member or friend to take care of a child while the parent is in detention. But if there is no one to take that child, ICE is forced to go to the local child protective services.

"It's our last choice," said ICE spokesperson Lorie Dankers.

If deported, parents face a decision few can imagine having to make: whether to take a child back to their home country, or leave them in the United States, where the quality of life is often far better than in the country they left behind.

"For a lot of parents in general, they would love to see their children be able to be raised in the United States, but those are decisions that the family makes," Dankers said.

It was a difficult decision for Alvarez and her family. Her grandchildren had already been living with her off and on since they were young, spending part of their time with their mothers. But after their fathers were both deported, Alvarez said she knew they needed to stay in the United States.

"[It's] better for the kids here," she said, adding that most parents want their children to be able to speak English.

"Over there, if you don't have money, you don't have work, you don't eat. Over here, you don't have work, you can go to the church, you can go to other places to help you," Alvarez said.

She was scared for her sons to go to Mexico, a country they had left when the family crossed the border in 1997. In Mexico, they had been a successful family band, Grupo Marin, but they left it behind for a chance at stardom in the United States.

Alvarez said they were promised they were coming into the country legally, but were lied to and ended up losing everything. They had to start over, moving from California to Utah and eventually to Idaho.

When her sons were deported, they decided not to return to Alvarez's home in Nayarit, near Puerto Vallarta, where her extended family still lives. Instead, they rented a house in Nogales so they could still have brief visits with their children.

But there are dangers there for those raised in the United States. Alvarez said people have been attacked and even killed for speaking English rather than Spanish.

Heading Abroad

Those who choose to bring their children with them to their home countries face additional legal hurdles that come with taking a U.S. citizen into a foreign country.

Dankers said ICE works with each country to fulfill the legal requirements to allow a child to immigrate with his or her parents. Even if they leave the country, the children maintain their U.S. citizenship and can return to the United States at any time.

Even with the appropriate travel documents in place, it is often left to the federal government to pick up the bill to get the children and family to the parents' country of origin. While adults are routinely flown on regularly scheduled deportation flights, Dankers said families are usually taken via commercial flight to lessen the impact on children.

But even under the care of their parents, some in the social service community worry that bigger problems are just down the road.

"What we're going to see happen, as the years of this play out and as children get older, is that a lot of families are going to take their U.S. citizen kids with them when they get deported," said Starr Shepard, immigration caseworker with Catholic Charities of Idaho.

"We're going to have a lot of kids moving to Latin America or whatever country it is, growing up in that country, not really becoming accustomed to the laws and everything that we have here ... not really being acculturated to this country, yet they're U.S. citizens."

Leo Morales, community organizer for the Idaho Community Action Network, worries that this could in effect create a group of second-class citizens.

But for some parents, the advantages offered in the United States outweigh their desire to be with their children.

"Some parents are deciding to leave their kids here because conditions are so bad in their home country, that they don't want to bring their kids there. They want their kids to be left here, even if it's in the foster care system," Shepard said.

"They think that if [children] stay in this country, they're going to have a better future," Morales said. "It must be a very, very tough choice."

When only one parent is deported, Shepard said children are being doubly traumatized.

"A family becomes a single-parent family like that," she said. "They lose that income and it's really bad."

Morales wonders about the psychological effects on children who are separated from one or more parents, or who leave the only home they've known.

"We can talk about economics, but the trauma is key," he said. "That in itself should be a huge issue."

Both Morales and Shepard worry that it could cause a growing hatred of their home country.

"We've got all these traumatized U.S. citizen children that are either growing up without their parents, or growing up in another country with their parents," Shepard said. "It's not unlikely to think that there's going to be a many people who strongly resent the United States government who are U.S. citizens."

Dr. William Hazle, medical director of both the Boise-based Business Psychology Associations and of Behavioral Health Services at Portland Medical Services in Oregon, said the fears are real.

"In general, for a child, this is the worst thing that could happen," he said. "They look to the parents to bring stability and the sameness and predictability. Whenever you have a disruption—divorce, death, deportation—[you have] the potential to have a lot of problems."

Hazle said children often feel they are responsible for what happens to those around them, and those feelings of guilt can follow someone into adulthood.

Kids may not only fear a loss of security, but fear that same loss will happen again.

"You can't just reassure a kid," he said.

In the System

With increased enforcement, Shepard and others think there is the potential for many more kids to end up in the already-stressed foster care system.

Those who administer the state's foster care program are seeing a number of children enter the system because their parents are in deportation proceedings, but that's just a small part of the overall growth in the need for services.

Jeremy Player is the regional manager for family and community services in Region Three of the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, which covers Canyon, Owhyee, Gem, Payette, Washington and Adams counties. He said there were a dozen children in foster care because their parents had been deported, according to the region's last report.

Overall, Player said there can be upward of 500 children in the foster care program in his region alone, and it has seen a roughly 6 percent growth rate, although some areas—especially Canyon County—are up as much as 20 percent.

All of this is handled by a staff of 74.

Recently, the regional office ran a campaign to recruit bilingual foster families. Player said the campaign wasn't a direct result of ICE raids, but simply because 20 percent of the population he deals with is Hispanic.

"We want kids to be culturally comfortable," said Ross Mason, Region Three director for the Department of Health and Welfare. "It's easier for them, and they're [already] having a pretty tough time, whatever the situation may be."

The department has also made an effort to hire bilingual staff.

Player said the goal in every case his office deals with is to reunify a family—that just takes a lot longer when the parent is in another country. While the actual number of children in the foster care system due to deportations is a relatively small percentage of cases, those few instances take a lot of time and resources to reunite the families.

His office has worked on numerous cases trying to get children into their parents' home country. They work closely with foreign consulates to make it happen, but it's no easy task dealing with the legal red tape. Sometimes, just making contact with families in small villages can take days of work, putting a drain on resources.

While foreign consulates will help bring one of their citizens back to their country, it's usually up to the United States to get the U.S. citizen children to their final destination.

Larger cities are dealing with the issue so often that many have developed procedures for just such cases. While Idaho hasn't had that need yet, Mason said Health and Welfare is looking at what other communities are doing.

Just the Beginning

Shepard and others fear this may be just the tip of the iceberg.

"At this point, we don't know how big of a problem it is," she said. "It has the potential to become a very, very big problem, depending on how much more ICE is going to increase their enforcement activities."

Catholic Charities works to help families with a variety of services, including helping them understand their legal rights. However, Shepard makes it very clear the organization in no way supports illegal immigration.

"We think illegal immigration hurts everybody," she said.

At the same time, she feels U.S. immigration policy is in dire need of repair, and that earlier attempts to do so actually caused many of the current problems.

Before the United States began tightening its southern borders roughly 20 years ago, there was a well-established pattern of circular migration, in which workers from Mexico and Latin America would come north for seasonal work, then return to their home countries. But with more limited borders, migration was funneled into a few, dangerous areas and the possibility of returning became more daunting. Rather than taking the repeated risk, workers began bringing their families with them and settling more permanently.

In recent years, the federal government has stepped up removal of illegal immigrants, and in 2004 announced Operation End Game, with a goal of removing all removable illegal immigrants within 10 years, Morales said.

Morales takes issue with ICE's tactic of home-to-home raids, in which armed officers arrive on someone's doorstep in the early morning hours, often without a search warrant, to look for undocumented immigrants with previous deportation issues.

In many cases, children are present as the armed officials round up the inhabitants of the house.

"Families are traumatized," he said. "They're terrorized because of that."

Shepard agrees that the effect on children can be lasting. "They're kids. They don't understand immigration law."

Gina shared a story of a family in her church that was the subject of just such a raid. The father and oldest children were immediately deported, while the mother was allowed to stay to care for the younger children. But since the father was the sole breadwinner, the mother chose to take her children to Mexico and reunite the family.

Both Morales and Shepard said they've seen increasing numbers of home raids. Shepard does credit ICE officials with beginning to consider the humanitarian impacts, but she still has major concerns.

Children who witness this sort of action can suffer lasting effects, Hazle said. He called it a "classic traumatic experience," that can lead to dreams and flashbacks.

Community organizations have also seen an increase in the number of immigrants being arrested by area police. Several large-scale anti-gang operations have filled local headlines in recent months, and while officials have touted their success, some said it's not just the gang members being targeted.

Some call it racial profiling and worry that those being taken as collateral in gang raids are further tearing families apart.

Additionally, ICE officials are working closer with area law enforcement to identify undocumented immigrants among those arrested for other crimes. Once in jail, they are processed through deportation proceedings.

The number of people being deported from the region is up. Idaho is part of a four-state region that includes Utah, Nevada and Montana. During the last nine month 4,723 people have been deported, Dankers said. That's up slightly from 4,472 people removed during the same time period the previous year.

According to ICE statistics, 5,922 undocumented immigrants were removed from the region in fiscal year 2007, that's roughly 2.5 percent of the 232,755 deported nationally.

Most of those deported from across the Rocky Mountain region leave on regular "repatriation" flights taking off from Twin Falls.

  • ICE

Looking for Answers

Finding a solution to the problem is far more difficult than chartering a plane.

"We have a problem," Shepard said. "I don't know what the answers are exactly, but we have to figure out a way to protect these children because they're traumatized when their parents are deported."

Shepard said an improved and expanded guest worker program is imperative to any solution.

"We have to take into consideration that a lot of people who come here to work don't want to immigrate," she said. "Their primary concern is to work, to make money to feed their children. They love their homes and would prefer to stay."

Recently, Catholic Charities, ICAN and other community organizations have begun meeting to try to formulate a plan of how to deal with these cases involving children. Before this, there had been no unified approach.

Shepard understands there is a heavy current of underlying emotions surrounding anything involving immigration.

"There's a lot of really nasty anti-illegal talk out there right now—'illegal,' 'criminal,' 'border security,' 'terrorist'—it triggers a big emotional response in people."

Morales calls immigration a polarizing issue, but one so large and so controversial that the general population can't see the smaller issues springing up as a direct result.

"All Americans are facing this problem," he said. "It's not just a problem of the immigrant community. This is something that the whole nation is facing."

Alvarez plans to continue her periodic trips to Mexico. Her grandchildren miss their fathers, and Eric said he sometimes thinks he'd like to stay in Mexico but is always convinced to return to Idaho. Gina, though, said she doesn't like Mexico and has no plans to ever live there.

As tears welled up in her eyes, Alvarez described the difficulty of having her family split up, and the fears shared by other families in the same situation.

While some of those who are deported are quickly back across the border, Alvarez said officials are cracking down on undocumented immigrants who get caught repeatedly entering the United States. Rather than just sending them back home, they're spending time in jail first. She's told her sons to stay where they are.

"I prefer visiting them every once in awhile to visiting them every week in jail," she said.