Blog Archive

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Deportation divides Orange County family

March 17, 2011

As Martha Morales stood before the altar at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Tijuana her thoughts were focused on one thing – her children.

"Make sure that they have everything they need," she prayed. "Make sure that nothing happens to them because they are going to be all alone."

That was May 8, 2008.

A day earlier, Martha had been separated from her six children – then ages 1 to 23 – when she was taken into custody by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. At 6 a.m., at the family's Orange County home, she was handcuffed and taken to the ICE facility in Santa Ana.

Her husband, Juan Manuel, a welder, was already at work, but he was also ordered to appear at the facility. By day's end, the couple – in the United States for 19 years – were deported to Tijuana. They left behind their six children, three undocumented and three U.S. citizens, on their own.

Increasingly, as more undocumented parents are deported, such separations are becoming common, leaving families with a painful decision – leave U.S. citizen children behind, or pull them out of the only country they've ever known.

In the past decade, the number of U.S. citizens born to undocumented immigrants more than doubled, to 4.5 million, according to data released last month by the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan research organization.

In the same period, immigration officials have cracked down on the undocumented, more than doubling the number of deportations. In 2010, ICE statistics show that 392,862 undocumented immigrants were deported.

Naturally, the trend has become fodder in the immigration debate. Some politicians want to repeal the right to citizenship granted in the 14th Amendment. Meanwhile, immigration activists and others are speaking out against such a move, calling it fundamentally un-American.

But behind closed doors, in the homes of families separated by legal deportations, the people paying the full price in this battle are children.

In January, I traveled with a news team from KCET's series "SOCAL Connected" to the border town of Tecate, Mexico. That's where Martha and Juan Manuel live, in a friend's home, with their youngest daughter, Aileen, now 4, a U.S. citizen. Their sons, Rodrigo, 16, and Rigoberto, 12, with the help of Rigoberto's godparents, drove down for a visit. The two-hour trip has become a ritual for the brothers, both U.S. citizens, on weekends and holidays.

The two-day visit felt more like two minutes, as the parents crammed in as much love as they could. Martha oohed and aahed over Rigoberto's artwork. She made the boys' favorite foods. She knew that, soon, her sons would be out of reach.

Martha crossed illegally into the United States in 1989. Juan Manuel had likewise entered the country illegally six months earlier. For the next 19 years, until the day they were deported, Juan Manuel worked steadily for the same boating company. Martha worked as a seamstress and, later, in a hotel laundry.

The family never received government aid, and through their jobs, they had health insurance.

"The dreams that we had for ourselves we now wanted for (our children.) What we couldn't accomplish, we wanted them to accomplish," says Martha, 49, in Spanish.

Eight years ago, the couple filed paperwork to become legal residents. And an immigration judge granted them permission to stay in the United States, concluding that deporting the couple would result in "exceptional and extremely unusual hardship."

But the Department of Homeland Security appealed that decision and, in 2006, the couple was instructed to voluntarily depart the country. Still, working with a man they believed to be a lawyer, they stayed, believing their appeal was still under way.

That was not the case.

In May, 2008, as ICE agents handcuffed her, Martha, wearing pajamas and slippers, told her children to remain calm.

"She looks into our eyes and tells us, 'Everything is going to be OK. ... ' And that was really hard," says her son Adrian, a 24-year-old Cal State University student who is majoring in deaf studies and hopes to become a sign-language interpreter.

Yet life has been anything but fine. Now, Adrian, along with his 26-year-old brother, is trying to parent Rodrigo and Rigoberto. They show up for parent nights at school, check homework, and mete out discipline.

"It's hard and I am still learning," says Adrian, one of the Morales' three undocumented children.

Clearly, immigration reform is needed.

But what good does it do to separate otherwise law-abiding families? Lost among the strident voices calling to deport "all illegals" is a solution that acknowledges America's reliance on this undocumented labor force.

Critics say undocumented immigrants like Martha want to come here so the United States can take care of them.

The truth is Martha just wants to take care of her children.

For now, however, she can't. She and Juan Manuel must wait five years before they can try to return legally to the United States.

"As a mother you're a protector, even when (your children are) grown, you worry," says Martha. "That's why I asked the Virgin of Guadalupe – "Give us the patience, the strength to withstand this difficult moment."