When parents of children born in the U.S. are deported, their kids sometimes stay behind. Many live with other family members in the United States, but thousands end up in foster care. The immigration bill being debated in the U.S. Senate could make it easier for these families to be reunited -- or stay together in the first place. But as things stand now, deported parents often face daunting challenges to get their children back.
Just a stone’s throw from the international border that separates Tijuana from San Diego, Manuel and Maribel have just finished a supervised visitation with their three children, who are all U.S. citizens.
The visit took place in a little room in the Department of Homeland Security building that sits right on the border here. The couple is carrying the leftovers of all the goodies they brought with them — pizza, juice and little chocolate cupcakes the kids love.
Manuel and Maribel -- who are undocumented and didn't want their last name used -- have two boys, ages 7 and 10, and a girl who is 9. The family had lived near Mission Viejo in Southern California.
Manuel called the United States home for 23 years and his wife for 13 years. He said he doesn’t like to remember the event that threw his family’s life into turmoil.
“It’s hard,” he said.
“Hard and embarrassing,” his wife chimed in.
They didn’t think about the life-shattering consequences. Shortly before Christmas 2011, the two were caught stealing toys from a store. They were deported, and Manuel’s mother was given temporary custody of their children.
Now they’ve been trying to get their kids back —to join them in Tijuana — for nearly a year and a half. That’s a long time in child-dependency cases.
Manuel said they know what they did was wrong. But he said they’ve done everything the social worker and judge have asked them to do.
"Whatever they ask,” Manuel said. “They ask us to go to therapy, we go. They ask us to get jobs, we’re working. They asked us to get a home.”
But, he said, the American social worker handling their case keeps giving them more tasks.
Some California counties are getting used to dealing with these kinds of cross-border child-dependency cases. San Diego and Orange counties both have international liaisons who work with Mexican authorities to make the process smoother.
And these counties have a special deal: the room at the Tijuana border crossing where Manuel and Maribel see their children. The Mexican Consulate allows caseworkers to schedule cross-border visitations there.
The visits are rejuvenating for Manuel and Maribel. But they can also be heartbreaking.
“It seems like such a long time,” Maribel said. “It really hurts to be without them, especially now, when I say goodbye.”
She and her husband think that if they could just be present at one of their family court hearings to show the judge and social worker what they're really like -- and how they’ve changed -- maybe it would help their case.
But they can't because they're barred from going back to the U.S.
This puts the parents at a disadvantage, said Seth Wessler, an expert on immigration enforcement and the child welfare system for the Applied Research Center, a think tank focused on racial justice.
"I heard over and over again from caseworkers and attorneys in these cases that when mothers and fathers aren't in the courtroom, it makes it much more difficult for those parents to argue to get their kids back," Wessler said.
On top of this, Wessler said his research found a frequent bias against placing children in Mexico.
"It's often about poverty in Mexico. It's often just about fear about Mexico itself," he said.
Raquel Amezcua facilitates cross-border dependency cases for Children and Family Services of Orange County.
"Media shares all the things and horrible things that are happening in Mexico, and we all read that, we're all aware of that," Amezcua said.
She said she relies on the Mexican Consulate in Orange County to help her agency gauge whether a child should be reunited with parents across the border. Her agency is cautious, she said.
“We work with the consulate very carefully and we ask them, 'What about this city? What did the home study say? What's the crime rate? Will they be employed?' All those factors are considered," she said.
Social workers have to apply extra scrutiny to cases where children could be sent to live with family in Mexico, Amezcua said, because once the child is across the border, they can't follow up and make sure it's working out. It's out of their jurisdiction.
Back in Tijuana, Maribel unrolled a thick stack of handmade posters, cards and letters given to her by her children during their visit at the border.
“Here it says: ‘For my mom and dad. We love you very much,' ” Maribel said, reading a letter.
Currently, immigrant parents with deportation orders have a very hard time proving they shouldn't be deported. The immigration reform bill under debate in the Senate includes provisions that could give immigration judges and agents more discretion to waive deportation for parents of children who are U.S. citizens.
And the bill could give deportees like Maribel and Manuel — with minor criminal records and strong family ties in the U.S. — a chance to apply to return legally.
At this point, the couple has come to terms with the abrupt end to their life in California. They've found that life in their home country isn't as hard as they feared.
Manuel, who worked as a waiter in the U.S., said he just wants to move on.
“Turn the page, leave everything behind and move on,” Manuel said, “everything new, and forget about all this.”
But he and his wife can't move on until an Orange County judge decides whether or not they’ll get their kids back.