When Parents Get Deported Citizen Children Fight to Survive

More than 5 million children currently live in the United States with at least one undocumented parent. Close to 75 percent of those children are U.S. citizens. When one or both parents are deported, children often have to choose between living with their immediate family — in another country — or living without them in the United States.

By Erynn Elizabeth Reitmayer

Homeless & Hungry

Parents Deported

Placed in Foster Care

Getting an Education

When the police arrived at his father’s apartment, 1-year-old Christopher lay on the floor holding his 3-week-old brother. The boys were alone and covered in blood.

Christopher has vague memories of the event but says his mother and other relatives later described it to him in detail. He relies on memories and family stories as he recounts his early childhood.

Christopher was born in 1992 to a family of mixed immigration status. His father, a U.S. citizen, married his Mexican mother the year before his birth. Christopher says the relationship turned rocky because his father had a drug problem.

After the birth of her second son, Christopher’s mother decided to leave her troubled husband for the benefit of her children; but when the husband found out what she planned to do, he threatened to call the police. Christopher says his father threatened to tell them his wife was not really the mother of their sons and have her deported so she could never take the children away.

“My mom was not afraid of him,” Christopher said. “She said, ‘Call them, and you’ll see who your wife is.’”

His father wasn’t bluffing.

He called the police. His Spanish-speaking wife had little recourse, unable to understand the scene that was unfolding. She was deported to Sinaloa, Mexico shortly thereafter, her two U.S. citizen sons left in the care of their citizen father.

“She was going crazy, in Mexico without us,” Christopher said. “I was only 1 year and 7 months…my brother was just 3 weeks old.”

Christopher said when his mother’s best friend heard what had happened she went over to the apartment to talk to Christopher’s father, but instead she found the two boys alone and Christopher injured. It appeared that Christoper had climbed into his brother’s crib to comfort the crying boy. Lifting his brother out of the crib, he slipped, cutting his arm on the crib and falling to the floor.

“When they saw us like that, all covered in blood, everyone freaked out, wondering what was going on,” Christopher said. “When they found my father, he was passed out on the street, on drugs and drunk. So they gave my mother a permit to come and get us, to take us back to Mexico.”

[Repeated efforts to speak with Christopher's father for this story were unsuccessful.]

Christopher’s story is not unique. According to a new study conducted by the Urban Institute, a research organization that focuses on social and economic issues, there are 5.5 million children that are currently living in the United States with at least one undocumented parent. Close to 75 percent of the children are U.S. citizens. When one or both parents are deported the result can be years of struggle for the citizen children. They often have to choose between living with their immediate family — in another country — or living without them in the United States. And, now, some conservatives are pushing legislation seeking to strip citizenship from children with two undocumented parents, meaning they would have no choice of which country to live in. The children would be deported along with their parents.

In the years following 1996’s reforms to the Immigration and Nationality Act, efforts to detain and deport undocumented immigrants living illegally in the country have ramped up significantly. Workplace and residential raids have become a relatively common occurrence in some communities. This type of enforcement often leaves young citizens behind with little or no family support.

Margaret Acuitlapa faced a tough decision after her husband, an illegal immigrant, was deported. A U.S. citizen and mother of three, Acuitlapa had to decide whether to raise the children alone or uproot them and move to Mexico so they could be with their father. With her children’s education in mind, Acuitlapa stayed in the United States for a month after her husband’s deportation. However, she says the resulting emotional strain on the family proved overwhelming, and Acuitlapa decided to leave her home in Georgia to reunite her family in Mexico.

“The first year we were here, we were treated as strangers,” Acuitlapa said of her family’s arrival in Malinalco, a small town in southwestern Mexico. “Things were unpleasant for all of us.”

Acuitlapa’s family will have been living in the town three years as of this October — years she describes as very challenging.

“We have not been back home to visit once — and as you may have guessed, it is because of financial difficulties,” Acuitlapa said.

Acuitlapa says that when she lived in the United States, her parents depended on her for rides to their many doctor’s appointments. Her husband, Jose, would often help her father with strenuous jobs around the house, as he could no longer take care of everything on his own.

“They aren’t in good health. So they can’t even come visit us.” Acuitlapa said. “We don’t have the resources. I do feel trapped sometimes.”

Although she moved to keep her family together, the life they have faced in Mexico has put different strains on her marriage, and her children.

“Our kids didn’t speak any Spanish when we moved here. Even now, my 10-year-old daughter is reading at a second-grade level,” she said of the struggles her children have faced in school. “My 15-year-old son is still having a hard time with everything.”

Though she tries to keep in touch with her family back home, Acuitlapa says she has a hard time with being unable to see them.

“Tension has grown between my husband and I, and he blames himself that I’m depressed about missing my family,” she said. “But I know things will work out. Because love does work.”

The Push to Undo Citizenship

Because Margaret and her children were citizens, they had a choice of which country to live in. If some politicians and activists in the United States get their way, citizen children with two undocumented parents would have no choice but to return their parent’s country. They would be stripped of their citizenship and deported. Supporters of the concept often call citizen children of illegal immigrants “anchor babies,” meaning they are an anchor that keeps illegal immigrants in the United States.

Former U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal, R-Ga., a leader among those targeting so-called “anchor babies,” introduced Birthright Citizenship Act in 2009. The bill has 91 co-sponsors. (Until March of this year, Deal represented Georgia’s 9th District. He has since resigned to make a run for governor of Georgia.)

The proposed legislation would amend the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act so that children of illegal immigrants would not be considered citizens under the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which grants citizenship for those born or naturalized in the United States and who are “subject to the jurisdiction thereof.” The bill states that illegal immigrants and their children are not subject to the jurisdiction of the United States for the purpose of citizenship. The bill was sent to various U.S. House committees for consideration in 2009 but went no further.

One of the bill’s well-known supporters is U.S. Rep. Brian Bilbray, a Republican who represents California’s 50th district, which covers part of the greater San Diego area.

“The 14th Amendment of the Constitution has a conditioning clause: ‘subject to the jurisdiction thereof,’” Bilbray said. “Undocumented immigrants, like tourists, are not subject to the jurisdiction of the United States; they aren’t subject to the draft, you can’t try them for treason.”

Bilbray and other supporters of the legislation argue that it is constitutional. Under the Birthright Citizenship Act, any child born within the U.S. who has at least one citizen parent, a parent who is a legal permanent resident or a parent serving in the military would still be granted citizenship.

Therefore, Bilbray contends, if a parent is subject in one of these ways to the jurisdiction of the government, then the child could rightfully be considered a citizen.

Bilbray says that citizenship is a right that must be earned.

“It isn’t the soil or the climate,” Bilbray said. “It’s the parent, through their obligation to the government, that earn their children citizenship.”

Kevin Johnson, the dean and professor of law at the University of California, Davis, disagrees. He says Bilbray and others are misinterpreting the “jurisdiction” clause in the 14th Amendment.

“That language was designed to deal with the children of foreign diplomats, who are immune from suit and the laws of the United States while in the United States,” he says. “If proponents of this idea were correct, that would mean undocumented immigrants are not subject to the civil and criminal laws of a state and could not be sentenced to prison for crimes.”

Lino Graglia, a law professor at the University of Texas, supports the idea of revoking the citizenship of children with illegal immigrant parents, arguing that automatic citizenship creates an incentive to break the law.

“It doesn’t really make sense,” Graglia says. “If you’re going to prohibit something, why create a powerful inducement to do it? We make it illegal to come into the country without permission, but if you do it anyway and have children your children are rewarded with citizenship. It’s contrary.”

Graglia says it does not matter that children who have spent their entire lives in the United States may suddenly find themselves deported to a completely unfamiliar environment, where they don’t speak the language or understand the culture.

“Their parents broke the law and came to the country illegally,” Graglia says. “Just as their parents are, they should be subject to deportation.”

Hiroshi Motomura, a professor at the UCLA School of Law has the opposite opinion.

“These children are innocent, even if conceding their parents culpability, so we shouldn’t penalize them,” Motomura says. “Regardless of how they got here, the law should recognize the ties developed and contributions made in this country- especially economically — by unauthorized migrants and their families.”

Other lawmakers are urging reform that would help protect citizen children of undocumented immigrants. U.S. Rep. Jose E. Serrano, D-N.Y., introduced the Child Citizen Protection Act in 2006; the act would amend the immigration reforms of 1996 such that judges would have discretion to consider the best interests of children in deportation hearings. Deportation would not be a forgone conclusion.

Born in the Air?

Kendrick Nunez, 18, is one of those citizen children who would be affected if the “anchor baby” bill became law. He and his citizen sister currently live in Arkansas without their parents, who were deported to Mexico. He finds the logic of the movement confusing.

“That seems unreasonable. What, you’re just born in the air?” Nunez says. “I recognize there is a problem, but there has to be a better solution.”

Nunez and his younger sister initially followed their parents and other siblings to Mexico but returned to the United States so they could continue studying within the American education system.

“I didn’t go to school when I was in Mexico. I spent my time working — in a car wash, a water park, a field,” Nunez said. “I was illegal there. All my best friends in Arkansas were graduating. I felt like I was missing out on something.”

Returning Home

Hope for an education brought Christopher back into the United States nearly 13 years after his departure. As a teenager growing up in Mexico, Christopher would often daydream about the future he could have in America and the possibilities that might await him if he returned.

“We were home-schooled through elementary, and my mother was very protective,” Christopher recalls of the years he spent in Sinaloa with his mother. “I always wanted to be doing what the other kids were doing.”

When he finished elementary school, Christopher begged his mother to place him in a public school so he could experience more than the small world he knew living in their small home. She enrolled him in, and he started in the fall.

“I was shocked at seeing so many kids!” Christopher said. “They all called me a nerd because I was studious, and I was better educated from being home-schooled.”

Christopher said there were 56 students to a room — a hard adjustment for someone who had constant attention while being home-schooled.

It wasn’t long before his dreams once again outgrew his circumstances.

“I started thinking, ‘What am I going to be, what kind of man am I going to become?’” Christopher said. “At the same time, I was realizing how exciting I found America to be.”

Part of Christopher’s extended family resides in Texas, and he describes visiting as a young teenager and being in awe of his home country.

“Seeing the United States was like a dream,” he said. “Everything was so perfect. I was amazed. I told my mother, one day I wanted to come to the United States and study English so I can live my life here.”

Christopher says his mother agreed that he should return to the United States and take advantage of the future available to him as a citizen, but she hadn’t expected that he would make the decision to go by himself at the age of fourteen.

“A dream was placed in my mind,” Christopher said. “I knew that the goal would be difficult for me, but I was motivated to make this change.”

Christopher returned to America to as a bright-eyed teenager, intent on making the most of the opportunities he would not have in Mexico. He didn’t realize that what lay ahead were years of struggle.

Parents Deported, Children in Foster Care

Because Christopher’s only legal parent, his citizen father, was unable to be his guardian, he accompanied his mother back to Mexico as a young child. When a citizen child is left in this situation — either because both parents are deported or a legal parent is unable to take custody — they often end up staying with relatives who have legal status, entering public foster care or wandering homeless. Complications surrounding a parent’s ability to come to the United States after they have been deported can make it difficult, or impossible, for some deported parents to regain their parental rights, meaning that their children can be put in foster care for long periods of time or put up for adoption.

Such was the case for Nathaly Perez’s mother, who was deported in June 2008, leaving her three teenage daughters behind.

Perez, now 18, was born in San Diego to a large family with varying immigration status. Her parents and four older siblings were all born in Mexico. Nathaly’s sister Eralia, now 19, was just over a year old when the Perez family moved the to the United States. Her two older brothers and eldest sister were nearly grown. Over the next two years, her mother had Nathaly and another daughter.

Although Perez’s father immigrated legally, his status was revoked when he and Perez’s mother were both jailed for a domestic disturbance. He was subsequently deported in 2006. Perez’s mother was given probation. Following her father’s deportation, Perez recalls her mother struggling to support the family alone, sometimes working two or more jobs to care for her three young daughters.

Eralia Perez points to her father’s sudden, complete absence as the catalyst for a pattern of unhealthy behavior that would continue for years to come.

“I was only 14 years old when he was deported. Everything changed,” Perez said. “I started making bad choices. I wouldn’t listen to my mom.”

Eventually, the Perez sisters would also have to deal with losing their mother. Two years after their father’s deportation their eldest sister filed a report alleging that the girls’ older brothers were abusive towards their youngest sister. As the boys both had prior records, they were not legally allowed to be living with their mother, because probationers can only live together if they have court permission.

“Before this happened, my mom had been doing really well. She was doing awesome,” Nathaly recalls. “I don’t know if anything was going on with my brothers. We didn’t know about it. ”

Perez’s mother and two older brothers were arrested and deported in the following months, and all three girls were placed in public foster care.

After losing so many close family members, Nathaly says she struggled to find stability.

“Little by little I felt like everybody was getting taken away from me. To me, in my head, I was just ready for my sister Eralia to be deported,” Nathaly said.

Inspiration From a Foster Parent

Eralia, also an undocumented immigrant, had been struggling for some time before her mother’s deportation, and it took her several years to get back on solid ground. During that time, she was separated from her younger sisters and sent to live in a different home in the small, rural town of Jackson, Calif.

“The part that killed me the most was that when I finally wanted to stop doing all that running around and come home and make up for that lost time with my mom, it was too late,” Eralia said.

In time, Eralia finally found a foster mother who helped her realize who she wanted to be and gave her the structure and stability she needed to get there. She recently graduated from high school and received her green card.

Nathaly also graduated this past June, and looks forward to attending college in the future.

“I don’t know for sure what I’m going to do yet,” she says. “I just know I’m going to do my best, and keep striving.”

The Perez sisters were able to find foster parents that not only made them feel loved but provided them with role models they could respect. That is not the case for many children who are placed in the system.

Hemal Sharifzada is a former foster youth who now works for California Youth Connection, an organization that advocates for foster care support and educates foster youth on how they can navigate the world of adulthood when they may not have family support.

Sharifzada says that one of the biggest hurdles many foster youth will face is trying to find a place where they feel loved and supported.

“You build a lot of barriers. Everyone is kind of a question mark,” he says, speaking from years of experience. “You’re always thinking, ‘Who are you, how long are you going to be around- are you going to leave, are you going to stay? Does it matter?’”

Sharifzada says that the trust issues and emotional struggles common among foster youth often carry into adulthood and can complicate future relationships.

There are no nationwide statistics on the number of citizen children placed in foster care after a parent’s deportation.

But according to numbers reported by the Department of Health and Human Services, if 10 percent of the approximately 5 million children of undocumented parents were placed in foster care, this would double the number of children in the system, which is already overburdened. In 2009 by the Child Welfare League of America reported the cost for public foster care exceeds $4 billion per year.

Financial estimates don’t take into account the human costs of placing a child in foster care. According to the report by the Child Welfare League of America, an estimated 85 percent of all youth in public foster care have an emotional disorder, a substance abuse problem or both. Statistics indicate that children who grow up in foster care will experience a wide variety of hardships at a much higher rate than the general population.

Homeless, Hungry and Wandering

Not all children of deported parents will end up in foster care, but even those who don’t often lack basic family support.

Stephen Coger, a social worker in Arkansas, has worked with many undocumented immigrants in his town of Fayetteville. Coger says that even the loss of one parent tends to have an extremely negative effect on the upbringing of a child.

“Food hardship is one of the most common occurrences for children in these situations,” Coger says. “Often these families need both incomes. When a parent is deported the household income decreases significantly.”

Homelessness can also become a consequence. When Christopher returned to America, he found friends and family members in Arizona willing to take him in — but only for a time.

In many ways, he lived like most American teenagers. He attended high school and played tennis on the school team. Having always been a creative child, he found the arts especially stimulating.

“It was really hard at first because I didn’t speak English. My mom thought that after a month I would give up,” he said, laughing. “She was amazed how well I did after only a semester. She said she was really proud of me.”

But Christopher struggled trying to find a place within families that weren’t his own. One night, after his presence caused a bitter argument among relatives who had taken him in, he ran away. After spending a terrifying night alone in a park, he was able to find a friend’s family willing to take him in.

The family lived close to some of Christopher’s other relatives. The mother of the family remembers her son’s friend as being isolated from family.

“I know he sometimes talked to his grandmother and aunt in California … and of course his mother. But his father didn’t seem to be in the picture,” she said. “He didn’t really have anyone to depend on.”

Unfortunately, things didn’t get easier from there; in just a few months, the economic downturn resulted in his friend’s father losing his job.

“It was some of the best times of my life, living with that family,” Christopher says. “When they told me they couldn’t afford to have me anymore, I told them it was OK. I told them that they had saved my life.”

At the age of 15, Christopher found himself cleaning his community church to earn room and board there. In time, he found another family willing to take him in.

“I was glad to have a place to live, but I was doing a lot of work around the house to earn my keep,” he said. “That was my junior year. It was hard for me to see all the other kids having fun, being kids.”

In spite of these struggles, Christopher says he never regretted his decision to return to the United States. Instead of seeing a country that has let him down, he sees the country of the American Dream — a dream that as a citizen he is entitled to.

Education & The American Dream

The desire to help immigrants take part in the American Dream drove Jose “Joe” Kennard to take action. A successful real estate investor and land developer, Kennard founded the Organization to Help Citizen Children with hopes that he might find like-minded community members to spark a movement toward providing better options for citizen children.

Until two years ago, Kennard and his wife lived in Seattle — as did Ana Reyes, a woman Kennard had never met. Unlike Kennard, however, Reyes was living and working in the country illegally. In 2007, U.S. immigration officials came to arrest Reyes early on the morning of her birthday. It was also the day her 13-year-old daughter Julie Quiroz was to graduate from seventh grade. Instead, Quiroz spent the afternoon helping her grandmother empty her family’s Seattle home, preparing herself and her younger sister to move to Mexico.

“I just remember looking out the window and seeing my mom in handcuffs,” Quiroz says. “My little sister was crying. Then we had to empty out the house … It kind of felt like this was it.”

Shortly after, Quiroz was reunited with her mother, brother and stepfather — in Mexico. The whole family had been deported. She began attending school, but was soon frustrated by her inability to keep up.

“I couldn’t read or write Spanish! I felt out of place, like I didn’t belong,” she said. “I only went to school for two weeks … then I guess I just gave up. I couldn’t understand anything.”

After she dropped out of school, help came to Quiroz’s family in an unexpected way. Having read an article about her family’s plight in The Seattle Times one Sunday, Joe Kennard felt compelled to help Julie — and all citizen children placed in these situations.

“I read the follow-up article about what was happening with Julie since her family was deported. I found the article really heart wrenching,” Kennard remembers. “I couldn’t shake it. We went to church and continued our usual routine, but when we got home I told my wife about it. I told her I felt like maybe the Lord was calling me to help this family.”

Kennard says his wife was supportive of what he felt he had to do.

“She just says, ‘If that’s what you think he’s telling you, then that’s what you ought to do,’” Kennard said.

Kennard began communicating by phone with Ana Reyes, trying to think of a solution her daughter Julie and other kids in her situation.

“I did some research, and I thought that the best way to help would be to get churches involved,” Kennard says. “I thought if we could get a network of families started through churches on both sides of the border we could create a support system for the children to go back and forth.”

Kennard provided funding for Reyes to move from Mexico City to Juarez so that Julie could attend school across the border in El Paso. He arranged for a family to take Julie in during the school week, and she would return to her mother on weekends.

“The idea was to minimize the trauma on these children by finding legal alternatives,” Kennard says of his idea.

In time, the violence in Juarez became a concern for Reyes, and she worried for the safety of herself and her two young daughters. She decided to move back to Mexico City. Kennard, who was committed to helping Julie achieve her dreams, extended her the offer of taking up residence with himself and his family for the entire school year.

“I had to make the choice to go with my mom in Mexico or stay here with the Kennards,” Quiroz says. “It was a really hard choice, but I decided to stay.”

Kennard and his wife returned to his native Texas. He opened an authentic Mexican restaurant that serves his mother’s traditional dishes in the downtown square and continues to advocate for the rights of citizen children.

“The problem is that we are punishing the children, and they are innocents in this situation,” Kennard says. “The laws aren’t protecting them — and as citizens they deserve to have their rights taken into consideration.”

According to a 2009 study by Human Rights Watch, nearly every major human rights treaty recognizes the need for special protection of children. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, for example, explicitly states that every child has the right to know and be cared for by his or her parents.

Though Kennard is glad to be doing his part to find a solution, he says he has been disheartened that his organization hasn’t gotten much traction.

“What was really surprising to me was that we couldn’t really get churches to help,” Kennard says. “To me, at the time, fellow evangelicals weren’t acting very Christian. They were saying that these people were illegal, and obeying the law is a biblical mandate …. To me, the overriding biblical mandate is ‘Love your neighbor.’ I couldn’t believe fellow Christians were taking such a cavalier-or sometimes outright hostile- attitude toward these families.”

But luckily for Julie Quiroz, now 15, Joe Kennard stepped up to become the defender of her rights. Quiroz currently lives with Kennard and his family at their home in Waxahachie, Texas. She attends a local school, where she is excelling, but the opportunity comes with a downside. She only sees her family on Christmas and summer vacation, when she travels to Mexico for the school break.

“It’s hard, always having to leave them again,” Quiroz says. “It’s like I almost don’t want to get very attached to them, because I know I have to go — but of course it’s hard not to get attached.”

Quiroz knows she is lucky. Many children in her situation may see their families even less, if at all. Kendrick Nunez hasn’t seen his family in more than six months; the Perez sisters haven’t seen their mother since she was deported more than two years ago. In spite of the obstacles that have been placed in front of these children, each of them has expressed a desire to remain in the United States.

“I don’t know what I’d be doing if I stayed there [in Mexico],” Quiroz says. “Probably doing nothing with my life, making nothing of myself.”

For Christopher, the future is getting brighter — but his achievements have been hard won with years of difficulty and uncertainty. He was able to find a home at the Tumbleweeds Center for Youth Development in Phoenix and was accepted to Arizona State University for the coming fall. He puts his creativity to good use, participating in Phoenix’s popular art walk on the first Friday of every month.

“I am glad that I came here, even if I had to go through those hard times,” he says. “It’s made me who I am.”