More than 101,900 parents of U.S. citizens were deported in 2011 and 2012 after being apprehended at the border with Mexico, according to a report released Thursday by New York–based advocacy group Human Rights Watch.
Collectively, they are the parents of at least 200,000 Americans, and many of them — those who have been in the U.S. for at least five years and without certain criminal convictions — could have qualified for protection from deportation under the immigration reforms announced Nov. 20.
According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data, in fiscal years 2011 and 2012 more than 17,000 parents of American children were charged with illegal entry and another 16,000 with illegal re-entry, said Clara Long, author of the Human Rights Watch report. Nearly 1,400 parents were charged with both.
Parents of Americans made up 15 percent of the 700,000 people apprehended at the border in that period. Fewer than 10 percent of the parents were given a hearing with an immigration judge that would have allow them to request relief from deportation because of close family ties.
Many, such as Yolanda Varona Palacios, had lived in the U.S. longer than the five years required to apply for protection from deportation. But once they’re deported, their residency doesn’t count.
Varona, 48, lived undocumented in the U.S. for 14 years and was the manager of a fast-food store in Southern California. She has a 28-year-old son, Alberto Villagonez, who is a U.S. citizen, and a 22-year-old daughter, Anel Villagonez, who is applying for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Three of her grandchildren, ages 2 to 7, were born in the U.S. and are thus citizens.
Varona went to Mexico to see friends in December 2010 — a cross-border trip that she had made many times before. But this time, she was caught as she tried to re-enter the U.S. and was immediately deported without a hearing.
She now lives in a shelter in Tijuana and has become active with Dreamer’s Moms, a group that held a vigil Tuesday in Washington, D.C., and at the U.S. Consulate in Tijuana calling on President Barack Obama to bring home deported U.S. veterans and mothers of children living in the U.S. legally.
“I can’t be in Mexico,” she said through an interpreter. “I need to be with my kids.”
Many of these undocumented immigrants have been deported multiple times in their attempts to stay with their families and may now have criminal records — another strike in the battle against deportation.
“They are disproportionally affected by deportation because they don’t see another option” and keep trying to get back in the country, said Long. “The concept of criminalization and deterrent doesn’t fit with their mindset. What it’s about is a matter of the heart, a matter of family.”
Undocumented parents of Americans are almost twice as likely as other undocumented people to have been deported before. Human Rights Watch estimates more than 40,000 parents deported in 2011 and 2012 fall into that category.
The treatment of parents of U.S. citizens contradicts the Obama administration’s message, Long said. “You can’t say you’re keeping families together and continue prioritizing deportation of everyone at the border,” she said. “Some have been here a long time … It’s important to note that those people, had they not been deported, are the people the president is offering legal status to.”
Under Obama’s plan, border agents have been granted more discretion in deciding who should be deported. But at the same time, the government prioritizes deporting recent undocumented border crossers, “without any subtlety,” Long said.
“It’s very arbitrary, and they get caught up in the deportation system,” she said. “We want to highlight the major contradictions in the executive action and hope it will be addressed by the Obama administration and Congress.”