Deported adults leave US citizen children behind
December 20, 2009
By Kristin Collins, McClatchy Newspapers
APEX, N.C. -- In the five months since immigration agents knocked on her door, Norma Villeda has sold her home and furnishings and shuttered her husband's business. She now sleeps in the living room of her sister-in-law's trailer, what's left of her possessions packed into three suitcases.
But the biggest loss has yet to come.
When she returns to her native Mexico at the end of this month, at the order of U.S. immigration officials, she will leave behind her daughter, Nancy, a U.S.-born high school senior who aspires to go to college.
As the federal government has ramped up immigration enforcement in the past few years, it has deported tens of thousands of immigrants, some of whom had lived illegally in the U.S. for a decade or more. The parents among them face a decision: take their American-born children to countries where they might not be able to afford education or medical care, or leave them with friends or relatives in the U.S.
Immigration lawyers, advocates and Mexican consular officials say many are choosing the latter, because they fear their children have no future in their native countries. The situation has become so common that some now counsel parents on how to select a caregiver and transfer legal guardianship.
Attracta Kelly, an immigration lawyer with the N.C. Justice Center, said she has had several clients who chose to leave their children, most because they wanted them to finish their schooling here. In every case, she said the decision was "excruciating."
No more leniency
When Norma and Carlos made it across the Rio Grande as teenagers in the late 1980s, they faced little risk of being deported. Enforcement was scant, and for the few illegal immigrants who were caught, having U.S. born children was often enough to persuade a judge to allow them to stay.
Now, the government grants leniency in only the most extreme cases.
Norma and Carlos are being deported because they failed to show up for an immigration court date in 1997.
They say they were taken in by a Florida scam artist, posing as a lawyer, who promised to get them visas. They paid him $300 each, and when they heard nothing further, figured he had stolen their money.
But when immigration agents found them this summer, they discovered that he had filed a political asylum request and failed to tell them about the court date where it would be heard.
When they didn't show up, the judge ordered them deported, making them fugitives. They say they never knew.
If not for that missed court date, they would have soon become legal residents.
They have parents and siblings who are U.S. citizens, and more than a decade ago, Norma and Carlos were approved for family-based visas. But because of immigration quotas, they are still on the waiting list to receive them.
Ortiz, the ICE spokesman, said he could not comment on this specific case, but he said the agency has recently made an unprecedented effort to find fugitives. There are more than half a million open fugitive cases, but for the first time in years, that number has begun to decline.
ICE's priority is finding fugitives who have committed crimes or pose a threat to national security, Ortiz said. But he added that the agency has a mandate to pursue all fugitives, even those with clean records.
At 5 a.m. on a July morning, immigration agents banged on Carlos and Nancy's door. They took Carlos away in handcuffs, held him in prison and, in October, deported him.
Norma was allowed to remain with their children but must leave the country by Dec. 31 - a process known as voluntary departure. She said she has asked repeatedly to stay just until Nancy graduates high school in June. Immigration officials refused.
"I begged," Norma said, "because she's going to be alone. There will be no one."
Norma will take her son - a U.S. citizen - with her, but she has found a friend willing to take Nancy in until she leaves for college. Nancy -- shy and devoted to her mother -- agreed.
Norma says she wants Nancy to get the education she couldn't, growing up in the Mexican state of Queretaro. There, her family didn't have enough money for food or school tuition. Secondary education in Mexico is not free.
Nancy grew into a teenager who spent weekends at the mall and the movies -- a child who could not imagine wishing for a pencil with an eraser.
Nancy says she knew her parents could not get drivers licenses or travel out of the country. She knew that other immigrants like them had been deported. But, mostly, she thought of her family as no different from those of her American friends, most of whom she had known since grade school.
"I never thought this kind of thing could happen to us," Nancy said, "because we were just such a normal family."
Amid the tumult, Nancy has taken SATs and met with college advisers. She is completing applications to Meredith and Salem colleges. She doesn't know yet how she will pay tuition.
Carlos said that, in two months in Queretaro, he has found only an occasional day's work. He lives with Norma's parents and washes cars to earn money. Norma said she hopes to find work in a factory, earning about $17 a week.
He and Norma are barred from returning to the United States for 10 years, even to visit. But Norma is holding onto her dreams for Carlitos, too.
She says that in four years, when Nancy finishes college, she might send Carlitos to live with his sister, giving him a shot at college, too.
For now, as she savors these last few days with Nancy, Norma says she is trying to focus on the good that has sprung from this trial.
"It's giving my kids a lesson," she said. "They have to be strong. They have to fight. They have to work hard for what they want, because nothing is going to come easy."
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