TOPICS > Politics

Some Kids Left Behind After Parents’ Deportation

August 3, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Research shows today there are an estimated 5.5 million children with parents who are in the country illegally. If those parents are deported, some of those young people are left to fend for themselves. KPBS education reporter Ana Tintocalis tells us about the kids who are left behind.

GWEN IFILL: For those stations not taking a pledge break, the NEWSHOUR continues now with a story from a new project we call “Newshour Connect.” That’s where we showcase the best of public broadcasting from around the country. Tonight, the immigration debate as seen through the eyes of children whose parents have been deported. This note: Some of the images have been blurred to protect the children’s identity. A report comes from Ana Tintocalis of KPBS San Diego.

ANA TINTOCALIS: A group of high school students in Vista goes over their classroom assignment before the final school bell rings. This class is like any other in San Diego County, except for one big different: Each student is either pregnant or has a baby. Most have family to fall back on, but one student is not so lucky. Amy is 16 years old. She’s living in Vista illegally. She did not want to show her face or give her last name for fear of getting caught.

Amy says her family was smuggled into the U.S. from Mexico when she was just in the fourth grade. She said her family lived peacefully in the shadows of the law for almost a decade. Then, immigration officials arrested Amy’s mother at a bus stop in Vista last year. Amy was at school.

AMY: I came from school, and the phone rang. When I got there, it was my mom and she told me. Yes, it was very difficult.

ANA TINTOCALIS: Amy was about eight months pregnant at the time.

And then what happened after that?

AMY: After that, my sister decided to go with her, and my dad stayed here to work for a little bit, and then he left.

ANA TINTOCALIS: Amy says it was an agonizing decision, but she and her parents agreed Amy should stay with her boyfriend. But things began to fall apart when Amy and her boyfriend separated. Within just a few months, Amy was homeless.

The plight of children like Amy was highlighted in a recent study by the non-profit Urban Institute. Researchers noted that at least 100,000 parents living and working in the U.S. illegally have been detained or deported over the past decade, often in workplace raids. They have left behind thousands of children. The study finds when those kids are separated from their parents, they suffer a wide range of financial, social and emotional hardships. The most common is not having a stable place to live.

Martha Flores is a social worker in Vista. She says she’s seen an increase in the number of children left behind.

FEMALE: For the time being, I mean, they’re homeless.

The home that they would have gone back to, there’s no parents there anymore, so they obviously aren’t able to stay there. And so usually somebody will step in, a family member, a friend or the church.

Somebody is able to help them out during, but sometimes it’s temporary.

ANA TINTOCALIS: Carmen Chavez is executive director of Casa Cornelia, a law firm that provides free legal service to kids caught up in the immigration process.

CARMEN CHAVEZ, executive director, CASA CORNELIA: It is a very sad situation because it really has pulled apart so many families. And unless the family has some kind of preexisting plan, if I’m not here, what’s going to happen to my child, who’s going to have custody of my child, who’s going to take care of my child, what we find that happens and the telephone calls that we get are from teachers, school counselors, social workers and good Samaritans.

ANA TINTOCALIS: Chavez supports a series of policy recommendations issued by the Urban Institute, one of which states that U.S.-born children should have a court-appointed legal guardian who can fast-track a petition so one of their parents can legally live in the U.S.

San Diego Congressman Brian Bilbray, chairman of the Immigration Reform Caucus, disagrees.

REP. BRIAN BILBRAY (R-Calif.): This is a calculated strategy of how to move the legalization issue. We’ll start with the children.

We’ll use that as an excuse to get some people in, and then once we allow the parents of the children to get amnesty, we’ll then say, well, we gave it to this group; we should give it to everybody. The fact is, we do not have enough safety net right now for those who are legally in our country. Now to be talking about giving carveouts for those who have broken our rules just really is counterproductive.

ANA TINTOCALIS: Regardless of what side you take in the immigration debate, one thing is certain: Countless young people are being separated from their families because of immigration enforcement and policies that might prompt adults at the center of the controversy to take a look at the young people left behind.

GWEN IFILL: You can find a link to the entire immigration documentary on our website,