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Broken families

The Baltimore Sun

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."

"The goal is to create a new environment so that businesses and illegal immigrants expect that the party is over and start changing their behaviors," Krikorian said.

But for Miguel Diaz, whose wife, Fidelia, was deported to El Salvador last year, life is complex.

At 5 a.m. one day last January, gun-wielding immigration officers arrested Fidelia at the couple's Windsor Mills home, startling their two U.S.-born children, Edwin, 13, and Cynthia, 8.

"My children were crying. I could see on the officers' faces - they knew it was wrong," Diaz said. "It is anti-human. I said, 'You are dividing my family, why are you doing this?'"

Diaz, 42, a labor union organizer originally from El Salvador, is a legal permanent resident. But Fidelia was not. Diaz said her application for political asylum had been rejected years ago, but she defied orders to leave, marrying Diaz and having two children. Diaz later applied for his wife to become a legal resident, hoping to "fix the situation."

"You don't know the feeling when you are afraid all the time. You can't travel, you are afraid that someone will stop you at any time," he said. "We wanted to straighten things out, no matter what."

Now, Diaz has reapplied for Fidelia, a process that could take 10 years.

"Every day they ask, 'When is Mommy coming back?' It's a mess," Diaz said. "A family is a mother and a father and the little ones. I don't understand my life without her."

Diaz's cousin and her children have moved in with him, and together they split household duties. But it has been difficult.

"Christmas was so hard for us," he said.

Taking the family to El Salvador, a country rife with corruption and poverty, is not an option, Diaz said. Yet, his children miss their mother.

"My question is," said Diaz, "does the punishment fit the crime?"

Another family is dealing with a more tragic outcome.

Adela, the Baltimore County mother, recalled that after her husband was sent back to Honduras, she vowed to pack up the couple's home and return to their native country with Moises and son Jeffrey, 15.

But Rigoberto reasoned that the children deserved a better life away from the grinding poverty the couple had known in Central America.

On May 29, Rigoberto called from Honduras to tell his wife he would set out the next day on the perilous journey through the Mexican desert to return to his family. They prayed together and exchanged I-love-you's.

It was last time Adela heard from her husband.

On Dec. 19, the day before Moises' first birthday, Adela received a call from the Honduran consulate in Houston. Rigoberto had been found on a Texas ranch, dead from dehydration, his Bible in hand. An official asked Adela if she would like the body sent back to Honduras. It would cost $3,800.

"I was crying and crying," said Adela in Spanish. "I believed that God would not allow this to happen. But I leave it in his hands, so he can tell me what to do now."


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