The Kids Aren't All Right

Human Rights

The current administration and other right-wing pundits often trumpet their support for "family values." Yet undocumented immigrant families, often vilified by the administration, are in many ways the epitome of "family values": Men sacrifice everything to come to the U.S. to raise money to send back to their families in other countries; mothers risk their lives to smuggle babies with them across borders or to raise enough money to bring their whole families to reunite in the U.S.

But because of seemingly arbitrary and heartless immigration policy and bureaucratic snafus, many immigrant families end up being torn apart despite their close family ties and their best efforts to cling together in a new land.

When undocumented immigrants have children in the U.S., those children are citizens, even if their parents are still considered illegal after years of working here. So for various reasons undocumented mothers and fathers will often end up deported, leaving children abandoned to the care of sympathetic community members, other relatives or the state. Many times, the parents don't even know they are still here illegally, thinking their applications for asylum or permanent residency were approved or are being duly processed.

For Mercedes Santiago-Felipe, an indigenous Mayan Guatemalan immigrant living in the town of Grand Island, Nebraska, it all started with a slap to her six-year-old son's face. Little did she know that this punishment would rip her apart from her children.

Mercedes arrived in Florida in 1992 as a refugee from the civil war in Guatemala, which claimed millions of lives including her father's. She applied for asylum in the U.S. based on the fact that she feared being killed by the guerrilla forces.

She had two children, Mainor and Estaela, with her husband in Florida. But the father abandoned the family, and in 2000 Mercedes moved with the children and other indigenous Guatemalans to Grand Island, where there were jobs available at a slaughterhouse. Like many towns in the Midwest, Grand Island has a burgeoning Latino population, which has grown 262 percent in the last decade. There are almost 7,000 Guatemalan, Mexican and other Latino residents.

On Nov. 11, 2000 Mainor's kindergarten teacher asked about a red mark on his face. He told her he'd been slapped by his mother for being rough with his sister, and the school contacted Mercedes and the police. Through a translator, the police and school officials discussed with her how slapping is an inappropriate punishment and Mercedes stated through the translator that she agreed.

Then on March 21 of the next year, a school counselor noticed a mark on his face, and Mainor said his mother slapped him for refusing to get ready for school. The counselor called the police and child welfare officials, and the police went to Mercedes' home and arrested her on misdemeanor child abuse charges. Mainor and Estaela were both removed from the home and placed in state custody; a physical examination showed no other signs of abuse.

Speaking no English, little Spanish and having almost no awareness of the workings of U.S. law or bureaucracy, Mercedes thought her asylum petition had been approved and that she was in the country legally. But after she was jailed on the misdemeanor charge officials determined that there was a deportation order against her, since she had unknowingly missed a hearing on her asylum case in 1995. So Mercedes was placed in deportation proceedings and turned over to the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service), which holds detainees in the county jail.

Meanwhile, on April 9 a hearing was held on the future of Mercedes' children. She was served with a notice of the hearing while in the jail, which is right next door to the courthouse where the hearing would be held. But she didn't understand what was going on, and no one intervened to explain or make arrangements for her to attend the hearing.

At the hearing, the court noted that Mercedes did not appear despite having been served notice, and ruled that "no one appears to be claiming any interest in maternity of the children." Mercedes' fiancée, minister, and cousin were at the hearing and told the court that Mercedes was in fact in jail, but the court seemed not to notice. Mercedes never got any legal counsel for her immigration or misdemeanor case while in jail. The misdemeanor charge for the slap was dropped by a judge, but her deportation case continued.

After several hearings, her parental rights were terminated, on the grounds that she had "abandoned" the children by not claiming them or showing up in court -- despite the fact that she had been in jail during that time.

Mercedes was deported back to Guatemala on May 15, two months after her arrest, even though she still feared for her safety there. Meanwhile proceedings continued to place the children in foster homes. A plan was developed to place them with Mercedes' brother, a U.S. citizen living in Alabama. But then caseworkers decided that the brother's house would be an "inappropriate" place for them, due to the fact that it was "overcrowded," with his own family of four children, and that there were problems with the water pipes.

The children were placed with a non-Latino couple, and in visits with social workers they have said they love their "new parents" and are happy. Meanwhile Mercedes is in touch with her family and back in a position where she could visit or even take custody of her children, but she is legally barred from having any contact with them. The Nebraska Appleseed Foundation, a non-profit legal advocacy center, has filed a case on her behalf, which is currently before the state Supreme Court, seeking her reunification with her children.

The Kafka-esque web of bureaucracy that Mercedes was caught up in is not unusual. School, INS, court and child welfare officials may have been following set procedures every step of the way, but underlying their actions and decisions were barriers and prejudices that immigrants face every day -- draconian and inefficient immigration policies, language barriers, lack of awareness about immigrants‚ cultures and overall lack of respect for the needs and rights of undocumented people.

The fact that the children were not placed with Mercedes' brother because his house was "crowded" and supposedly in disrepair shows ignorance of the economic realities of millions of hard-working immigrants in this country today.

"You have judges who don't understand how to ensure the rights of these families, lawyers who don't know how to represent them, child welfare system workers who are pretty much culturally ignorant and at times rather racist," said attorney Milo Mummgard, who is also the executive director of Nebraska Appleseed.

Mercedes' story is far from an isolated incident. Jim Truell, another attorney in Grand Island, recently dealt with a similar case. An immigrant woman who had been living and working in Atlanta for almost a decade had to leave her children with a teacher while she went to Mexico with her husband to get healthcare for another sick child. While in Mexico, her husband took the child and abandoned her with no documents or way to get back to the United States.

She made arrangements for her sister in Grand Island to pick up her kids from the teacher. Later on her sister, feeling overburdened by taking care of her own children and her nieces and nephews, contacted the Department of Human Services under the misguided impression that the department could provide a temporary caretaker to give her a week off.

After getting her call, DHS officials went to the woman's house and removed her sister's kids. Eventually the mother made it back to the United States and tried to reclaim her kids from state custody. But she was told she wasn't a fit mother, since she was "neglectful" for leaving and because she was undocumented and therefore unable to legally work to support them.

"She did have a job waiting for her, but it was back in Atlanta, not Grand Island," said Truell. "They kept telling her she had to get work in Grand Island. And they put all these other requirements on her, like telling her she had to get counseling, when there are no Spanish-speaking counselors here. So they terminated her parental rights because they said she wasn't following the program of rehabilitation."

Thanks to the lobbying efforts of Nebraska Appleseed and help from a local church, that case was eventually resolved happily, and the family is now back in Atlanta.

For Nena Allyn, another immigrant, the ending wasn't so happy. Like Mercedes, Nena Allyn assumed she was living in the U.S. totally legally -- after all she had been here 30 years working as a teacher and mentor after immigrating from the Philippines. When her daughter Theresa, 26, graduated from college in 1999, Nena applied for a passport so the two could take a trip to Europe together.

Rather than a passport she got the shocking news that there was a deportation order pending for her from 1975, when her first husband had revoked her petition for citizenship after their marriage was annulled. After several years of trying to secure a green card in spite of the order, on January 2003 Nena was deported to the Philippines, accompanied by her husband, and Theresa has not seen either one since.

"When I reflect on how this has happened, I am always shocked, angry, sad and very worried," wrote Theresa, a grad student at UC Berkeley, in a letter she read publicly on Mother's Day. "I am incensed at how such a loving woman, with every right to be here, was made to feel like a criminal."

Mummgard hopes Mercedes' case could be a wake-up call to the state of Nebraska and child welfare officials, as well as officials in other states, to better understand the situation of immigrants. He notes that on various occasions different bodies of the federal government have made statements demanding the state provide better and more culturally inclusive services for immigrants and minorities.

Among other things, the state has been urged to recruit more Latino foster parents so that children removed from their parents can at least remain in their native culture. In Mercedes' case specifically, the Foster Care Review Board, a quasi-governmental oversight agency, called the termination of parental rights "inappropriate" and "a very bad situation." Mummgard said a sympathetic local politician referred to Mercedes' case as "legal kidnapping" by the state.

Difficulties with the child welfare system aren't the only way immigrant families are ripped apart. Immigrants' advocates in the Midwest report how children often wind up alone after parents are picked up and placed in detention pending deportation proceedings.

With the war on terrorism, there are new round-ups of undocumented workers at airports, buildings like the Sears Tower in Chicago or other security-sensitive places. Though there is almost never any actual threat of terrorism from these workers, they not only lose their jobs but are put into deportation proceedings. If the parents are placed in detention directly after being picked up at work, as they often are, it could be days or even weeks before the children know what happened to them.

Like Mercedes, these parents and children spend their days wondering when they'll be reunited, and hoping for respite in a system they don't seem to trust or understand. This administration, so proud of its "family values" record, could learn a lot from speaking to the mothers and children left behind. "Mercedes spends a good deal of her time being very sad about the situation," says Mummgard. "She's lighting candles, praying, all these kinds of things."

Kari Lydersen writes for the Washington Post and is an instructor for the Urban Youth International Journalism Program in Chicago.

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