Erin Siegal McIntyre for Al Jazeera America

Mothers whose ties are cut at the border

Deported women are often forced to leave their children behind and take huge risks to be reunited with them

Child Welfare

It began as an episode of teenage defiance. Jennifer had watched her siblings all morning while her mother, Luz (names were changed: the family court case is still pending), was at work. The way Jennifer tells it,  the minute her mother  arrived home that afternoon, she  began complaining. “She was telling me, ‘You didn't do this, you didn't do that,’” says Jennifer, who was 17 years old at the time and feeling especially rebellious. They argued, and then Jennifer lashed out, striking her mother.

Luz remembers calling the police, but when they arrived, the officers informed her that there was nothing to be done. Jennifer was still a minor. In a fit of anger and frustration, Luz struck Jennifer and they began to fight. The police, hearing the commotion, returned to the apartment, handcuffed Luz and called Child Protective Services. That day in April 2013 was the last they lived together as a family.

Mother and daughter call the episode “the stupidest thing,” but stupid became serious when immigration status became part of the equation. For Luz, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, that day triggered an interlocking set of immigration policies adopted over the last 18 years that resulted in her deportation and put her at risk of losing her children permanently. After a month in jail, she went through deportation proceedings and her three children went into foster care, joining an estimated 5,000 children of deported parents. Two months later, an aunt took them in.

Some 5 million children in the U.S. have at least one undocumented parent, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. As the Obama administration has ordered a record number of deportations, the proportion of deportees reporting that they are parents has also increased. Between 2010 and 2012, 23 percent of those deported told agents they were the parents of U.S.-born children, according to a report by the liberal think tank Applied Research Center, compared with 8 percent of those deported between 1998 and 2007. Men account for a majority of undocumented migrants, and most deportations of parents involve fathers

Mothers, a relatively small cohort (14 percent of deportations), are an often overlooked segment of the deported population. They don't fit the image of the single immigrant laborer or the young student brought to the U.S. as a child. However, their migration and deportation experience illuminates the many ways an immigrant parent can lose a child.

Exterior of the shelter Instituto Madre Asunta, with Tijuana in background.
Erin Siegal McIntyre for Al Jazeera America

After Luz cycled through jail and then immigration detention, she landed in Tijuana and sought refuge at the Instituto Madre Asunta, a shelter for migrant women, named for an Italian nun whose motto was “Amor sin fronteras” (love without borders). From the outside, the shelter, perched on a hill, has the look of an ordinary split-level middle-class house with an attached small cottage. The “cottage” is the recreation room, where a dozen women quietly watch and cringe at the evening news. On TV, a reporter describes the increasingly perilous journey for migrants, before moving on to a segment about a toddler who died from burns from a faulty electric blanket provided by a hospital. The mothers look away from the screen in dismay; one walks out.

In years past, the shelter served as a refuge for single northbound migrants, says director Mari Galvan, but after the 2001 attacks on the U.S., tighter border security made it difficult for fathers and husbands to come and go. Soon women with their children began arriving to join them up north. With deportation increasingly affecting parents, motives for migration have changed as well. “Now they stay here because they are trying to return to the U.S.; many are trying to reunite with their children,” says Galvan. She estimates that some 1,000 women arrive at the shelter every year, most of them mothers.

Last Thursday, March 13, President Barack Obama announced an administration-wide review of deportation practices. In recent years, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has issued a number of directives outlining agency priorities, including one instructing agents making deportation decisions to weigh “the person’s ties and contributions to the community, including family relationships,” and “whether the person has a U.S. citizen or permanent resident spouse, child, or parent.” ICE officials did not respond to questions about the apparent increase in deportations involving parents of U.S. citizens despite the directives or requests to clarify protocols to safeguard parental rights.

But the directives operate within a complex, sprawling border control and immigration system with a budget that outstrips all other law enforcement agencies combined. Local police now cooperate with immigration agents. Immigrants are often deported without going before an immigration judge who once might have canceled a deportation by taking into consideration family ties, a person's standing in the community and the details of a crime.

Meanwhile, parents facing deportation must decide whether to take their children or leave them behind, says Luis Zayas, dean of the department of social work at the University of Texas-Austin: “It's a Solomon-like decision that parents have to make.”

In some instances, authorities have separated children from immigrant mothers by linking immigration status with criminal behavior. In 2008, the child of a Guatemalan woman in Missouri was adopted, against her wishes, after she was taken into immigration detention. The judge cited her deportation as abandonment and terminated her parental rights.

Also in 2008, Cirila Baltazar Cruz's newborn was taken from her at the hospital and placed in foster care. Although hospital and case workers were unable to communicate with her in her native language, they concluded she had traded sex for housing and intended to give up her child for adoption. A youth court judge later placed the newborn with a couple, both lawyers, who were not certified as foster care parents, according to court documents.

Charges of neglect were brought against Baltazar that included allegations that her lack of fluency in English “placed her unborn child in danger and will place the baby in danger in the future.” The youth court judge later recommended that Baltazar learn English if she wanted to see her daughter.

In 2009, the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights group, took her case, and after one year apart, mother and daughter were reunited. Baltazar's parental rights were later reinstated.

The room at the Instituto Madre Asunta where moms can use computers to Skype and email with their children in the U.S.
Erin Siegal McIntyre for Al Jazeera America

In recent years, the Obama administration has said its deportation efforts focus on people with serious criminal convictions, those picked up crossing the border illegally into the U.S. and those previously deported.

But “criminal” has many meanings, including people like Luz, whose fight with her daughter was negotiated down from felony child-abuse charges to a misdemeanor. “An immigrant has to be perfect,” says Seth Freed Wessler, author of the Shattered Families report. “If they weren't immigrants, they would be allowed to have complicated lives.”

In his corner office at the shelter, attorney Daniel Bribiescas Garcia points to the stacks of files that cover every surface, even the floor, each representing an immigrant mother with children. “Crime,” he says, covers a lot of territory. He pulls out a folder and describes a 2012 case involving a mother and her 3-year-old child who drew police attention when they crossed a street in Los Angeles against the light. The police charged the mother with child endangerment and turned her over to immigration officials, who deported her. She never saw her child again. Some, he says, make repeated attempts to slip back across the border to reunite with their children, running the risk of jail time. In the past year, at least two women from the shelter have died from cancer while trying to reunite with their children. 

Marsha Lopez from Campeche is hoping to be reunited with her husband and children in the U.S.
Erin Siegal McIntyre for Al Jazeera America

In the early evening, Marsha Lopez, 36, walks onto the balcony overlooking the cottage and opens her cell phone to show a photo of a young boy and girls. Marsha and her husband had lived in Los Angeles for years before deciding to return to their home state of Campeche, on the western part of the Yucatan Peninsula, and use their savings to open a store.  When they arrived in 2007, she says, they discovered their U.S.-born children could not be enrolled in school, nor could they access the free health care and other social services available to Mexican citizens. Obtaining citizenship involves costly translation fees and, as in most places, a complex bureaucracy.

The number of children who relocate to their parents' home country is unknown. Since 2005, some 300,000 U.S.-born children have moved to Mexico, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. In the Mexican state of Baja California, which includes Tijuana, state officials report some 3,830 U.S. citizens are enrolled in school under a migrant program, many of them children of deported parents.

Marsha's husband returned to Los Angeles first and began working in construction. Ten days ago, she says, she attempted to cross the border with  her children, but immigration agents discovered that her paperwork was fake. The children went on without her. “I want to cross (the border) to see my children,” she says quietly. “But I'm also thinking that maybe they bring them to me.”

Immigrant mothers separated from their children exhibit signs closely associated with exiles, says Diana Pelaez, who conducted a survey of deported mothers for a research project at the Colegio de la Frontera Norte, a university in Tijuana. “But the homes that exiles selected give them conditions of dignity; obviously as deported people, they don't have that. They arrive like a plant uprooted.” 

A deported mother shows pictures of her child on her cell phone.
Erin Siegal McIntyre for Al Jazeera America
Sandra Ruiz Sanchez, 34, holding the tooth that belonged to her son. He had saved it to give to her when they met for the first time in many months.
Erin Siegal McIntyre for Al Jazeera America

A young woman bounds through the door of the attorney's office at the shelter with an electric energy. Sandra Ruiz Sanchez, 34, pulls out a small box, unwraps the paper. Nestled inside lays a tooth. Instead of slipping it under his pillow for the tooth fairy, her son waited until he saw his mother, the first time in two months. “The love is the most beautiful part,” she says, catching her breath. “It overcomes all obstacles.” Next month Sandra plans to bring a cake for her daughter's 8th birthday. Strawberry, her favorite.

After Sandra's boyfriend left her for another woman, she says, she spent a night drinking and then went outside and burned his photograph. A neighbor called the police and she was charged with child endangerment. Sandra counts herself lucky. Her children are with a relative, and California is among the few border crossings where parents can visit with their children.

Now begins the fight for her kids, she says. Deported parents can petition the family court to grant a reunification plan, a costly and lengthy court-supervised process coordinated by child welfare officials in the U.S. and their Mexican counterparts that often involves parenting classes, substance abuse classes, therapy, drug testing and an economic study to prove that she can provide for her U.S.-born children in Mexico.

Time, if not distance, is now the obstacle. Federal law requires states to pursue termination of parental rights if the parent has been absent for 15 out of 22 consecutive months, and some states allow proceedings to begin even sooner. California, however, passed a law that gives detained and deported immigrant parents additional time to reunite with their families.

Luz has been working her way through a court-ordered plan to reunite with her children. Jennifer, now 18, often crosses the border to visit her mother in Tijuana and values their time together, a reminder of  when they all lived as a family. She looks back at the argument with her mother a year ago with regret, all too aware of the painful lesson it delivered: She needs her mother. “What I did made me realize I'm still a kid and you're still my mom,” she says to Luz. “I was trying to grow up really fast when I wasn't ready.”