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When Will I See My Kids Again?

Three immigrant women remember the children they left behind: 'My heart still breaks in half when I think about it ... You long to hold them, and they are so far away.'
 
 
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Like many immigrants in the United States, Gloria* is watching closely to see what comes of a Senate bill that would greatly increase border surveillance, including National Guard troops, increase the penalties for most undocumented workers, and create a guest worker program.

But Gloria has even more at stake than some of the others who would be affected by the bill. She is one of many mothers who have entered this country without papers, worked here for a number of years and left their children in their native countries. For most of them, the only chance they have of seeing their children again is a changed immigration law that would let them either bring their children here or visit them and return without fear of deportation.

In Guatemala, Gloria was married to Frederico for 10 years. Frederico was an emotionally and physically abusive alcoholic.

"My husband worked, but he drank all his earnings," says Gloria. I had to work full-time and take on extra jobs so that I could feed our six children." Though her two older children, 15 and 20, worked alongside her at a fireworks factory, the younger ones ranged from 2 to 9. "We lived humbly," she adds, "in a rickety shack made of shabby wooden boards."

The idea to leave Guatemala had never occurred to Gloria; the opportunity just dropped into her lap one day. For extra money, she had sewn some dresses for a neighbor. While trying on the outfit, the neighbor suddenly asked Gloria if she would be like to go to the United States.

"Just like that she asked me," recalls Gloria, "She told me her aunt was taking people north."

The journey would begin the following day, at four in the morning. A devout Christian, Gloria prayed for God's help and guidance and ultimately decided to join the woman's aunt. The only person she informed of her departure was her husband. According to Gloria, her husband let her go because of an outstanding debt. He reasoned that if she worked in the United States, she would earn enough for them to pay it off. Gloria's mother-in-law was left in charge of their six children.

Tears well in Gloria's eyes when she remembers the day she left. She was still breastfeeding her youngest child. Many times during her journey she had to squeeze the milk from her engorged breasts. She wondered whether the little boy suffered hunger when she left. "My heart still breaks in half when I think about it," she says. "You long to hold them, and they are so far away."

Now, the only contact Gloria has with her children is on the phone. "Sometimes my children get angry with me," she says. "One time, my 16-year-old daughter told me she wished she could change parents. She said she wanted a mother who would be beside her, someone she could confide in. The phone isn't enough.

"It hurts me when she talks that way," says Gloria, "But when I remind her that I am working here so that she can have food on the table she apologizes." Then, with a proud gleam in her eye, Gloria adds, "Her grades are good, and she'd like to be a nurse. I remind her that if I had stayed she wouldn't be going to school. She'd probably be someone's maid."

Unlike Gloria's abrupt departure, Rosa's choice to leave her children was more calculated. She had worked briefly in the United States and knew what it would entail. When her husband, 10 years her senior, died from a cardiac arrest, she became a widow at the age of 25. He left her with three daughters ranging from 3 to 13 years old. She recalls how she and her daughters crowded together in her parents' house with barely enough to eat. That's when she decided to return to the United States on her own. Her mother urged her to go ahead, reassuring her that she would take good care of her children. Rosa's tears surface as she remembers how hard it was to tell her daughters that she was leaving. "We all cried," she says, "But it was worse later, when I found myself in the United States without them."

Rosa called her daughters as often as she could and saved as much of her janitorial and housekeeping salaries as she could manage in order to bring them to the United States.

After nine years, she returned to Mexico to accompany them in their journey to the United States. She had heard horror stories of rape and violence at the border and wanted to spare her daughters from such harm. She feels proud now that her daughters are with her. The four of them live together in a studio apartment in San Francisco. "The girls are doing well," she reports, "The youngest one makes good marks at school and the oldest is now working. They are serious girls. We feel complete now."

Not all women who leave their children with relatives are guaranteed good care for them. When she left El Salvador to join her husband in the United States, Elizabeth turned to her aging mother and older sister to care for her two young daughters and son. But she recalls feeling uneasy. "Every time I called, and I called at all hours, they were at home rather than at school," she says. "What was worse was that every time friends visited them, my sister would call me and accuse me of spying on them. But when a friend who had just seen them, handed me $50 and told me to send it to my kids, I knew something was very wrong."

In fact, as she later found out, her children were malnourished and neglected. Her youngest daughter's head was full of lice. They hadn't been attending school regularly. "Who knows where the money was going," says Elizabeth.

"My first instinct was to return home," she says, "I told my husband I was going to call the immigration authorities and ask them to deport me. " At her husband's urging, she decided to call his mother and ask for her help instead. Her mother-in-law, a woman much younger than her own mother, immediately picked up her children and brought them to her home.

Juana Flores, co-director of Mujeres Unidas & Activas, an immigrant women's rights organization in San Francisco says, that Elizabeth's experience is not unusual. "Sometimes the grandparents use the children as leverage for support of their own. They know that if they care for their grandchildren, the parents will continue to send them money. If the parents reunite with their children, the money and, with it, their own means of survival might end. Grandparents have been known to hide children from their parents. They don't want to lose that financial support."

Adds Flores, "These situations tear families apart. We've seen so many women suffering here because they left their children behind."

Indeed, according to a study published by Jeanne Miranda and a team of psychologists for the American Psychiatric Association, immigrant women who are separated from their children are likely to experience symptoms of depression. Their children are not immune from mental health risks either. Harvard researcher Carola Suarez-Orozco reports that in an ongoing study of more than 400 immigrant children, 85 percent experienced separation from one or both parents during the immigration process. According to Suarez-Orozco, such children are likely to exhibit symptoms of depression.

Elizabeth and Gloria still hope every day that their families can join them in the United States. They have pinned their hopes on passage of congressional legislation allowing long-term undocumented immigrants to gain legal status here.

"I can't wait for the day when I can bring my children here," says Gloria. "As a mother you pay a heavy price when you immigrate here without your children. But they also pay a price, because they grow up without their mother."

*All the women's names have been changed as their undocumented status makes them vulnerable to deportation from the United States.

Sara Campos is an immigration lawyer and writer living in the San Francisco Bay Area