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How America's Deportation Policies Force Children—Many of Them US Citizens—Into Dangerous Exile

US citizen-children are living outside our borders in conditions that are intolerable by US standards.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com / Jenkedco

The following is an excerpt fromForgotten Citizens: Deportation, Children, and the Making of American Exiles and Orphans (Oxford University Press, 2015):

Abject poverty, lack of adequate schools, and absence of laws requiring school attendance or protection from child labor exploitation are conditions that led to the death of a US citizen-child in the November 7, 2012 earthquake that struck Guatemala (Perez-Diaz, 2012). Aldo Dominguez Vasquez, an 11-year-old boy from Santa Clara, California, was working in a quarry owned by his aunt and uncle in Guatemala when the 7.4-magnitude earthquake occurred. Along with nine of his relatives, Aldo was buried in the rocks and rubble. Although born in California, Aldo had lived in Guatemala since he was one year old in the care of his aunt and uncle. He had been brought there by his mother who then returned to California to work. She was living in the United States at the time of her son’s death. Aldo was not in Guatemala as a result of deportation. It was economic necessity that had forced his mother’s decision. What happened to Aldo could happen to any citizen-child forced into exile with deported parents. The circumstances surrounding Aldo’s death are comparable to the situations that exiled children can find themselves in.

Villages throughout Central American have received deportees and their children. The children and parents live in poverty, dwell in homes sometimes without water and electricity, and eke out an existence through labor that exposes them to workplace accidents and natural disasters like the one that killed Aldo. They are also placed in the midst of endemic crime and violence. In San Jose Calderas, Guatemala alone, there are dozens of US citizen-children in exile. The presence of so many US citizens in a single rural Guatemalan town stems largely from of one of the most studied US workplace raids. That raid occurred in 2008 in Postville, Iowa. ICE agents arrested 389 undocumented workers, mostly from Guatemala, who worked in a local plant operated by Agriprocessors, one of the largest kosher meat producers in the United States. At the time, Postville was the largest workplace raid in US history. “Within weeks,” Maggie Jones (2012) wrote in The New York Times, “roughly 1,000 Mexican and Guatemalan residents—about a third of the town—vanished. It was as if a natural disaster had swept through, leaving no physical evidence of destruction, just silence behind it.”

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Undocumented workers attracted by jobs at meat-processing plants had helped rebuild Postville and small towns like it in Iowa and the Midwest. Since the 1970s, the populations of these towns had been dwindling as young people went off to college and didn’t return to take over the family farms. This left the strenuous work of agriculture to aging farmers who were hard pressed to do the work themselves. Then, when the Midwest farm crisis struck in the 1980s, many residents were forced to leave the small towns of Iowa and Nebraska altogether in search of new opportunities in the large cities nearby. Keeping small farms running was no longer feasible and the businesses that depended on the local residents had to shut down.

Guatemalans, fleeing both poverty and a 36-year civil war (1960–1996) that included atrocities and massacres by both government forces and rebel guerillas, found their way to Postville. The next two decades saw a resurgence of the town. Postville changed and was prospering again. Guatemalan and Mexican families lived alongside the old-timers from the town and the Orthodox Jews running the large meat plant. The work conditions weren’t ideal, according to many of the workers in the meat-processing plant, but work was steady and undocumented immigrant families could thrive. Their children could attend bilingual programs from kindergarten to 12th grade, and new businesses sprouted to serve the very diverse community. A former teacher from Guatemala took ownership of a bakery that had been around since the late 1800s and “transformed it into a spot where old-time farmers lingered over doughnuts and coffee and Latinos bought pan dulce [sweet bread], tostadas [toasts] and conchas [a specific type of sweet bread]” (Jones, 2012, p. 4). Mexicans started businesses and mingled among the newcomers. Rancheras [a genre of traditional Mexican music] could be heard from their businesses. Orthodox Jews wore their yarmulkes [skullcaps traditionally worn by men] as they went about their daily affairs in Postville. Postville had grown through tolerance for diversity, recognizing that it was the only way to keep the town alive.

The day the raid came, with its suddenness, the town was sent into turmoil. Jones described the scene.

Within hours of the raid—which I.C.E.  had planned for months, based on evidence that large numbers of Agri’s employees used suspect or false Social Security numbers and that plant managers hired minors and violated other labor laws—I.C.E. agents detained 389 undocumented workers, most of them Guatemalan. (Agri employed more than 900 workers, over three shifts.) The agents handcuffed the wrists of the men and women and loaded them into the Homeland Security buses. With one state-trooper vehicle in front of each bus and another behind, they drove 75 miles to Waterloo, Iowa. There, I.C.E. had transformed an 80-acre fairgrounds, the National Cattle Congress, into a temporary processing center for the workers. Many of the detainees . . . were then sent to prisons throughout the country, where they would spend five months before being deported to Guatemala.

Back in Postville, about 400 residents poured into St. Bridget’s Catholic Church, which would become the town’s de facto relief center in the months to come. Women, men and children ate at the church and slept in the pews, afraid I.C.E. might be waiting for them at home.

On almost any other May evening, Guatemalan families, many of whom had lived in Postville for years and were a tight-knit group from two villages in Guatemala, would have been outside, pushing strollers down Lawler Street, stopping for tacos at the Mexican restaurant, Sabor Latino, and for ice cream at the Sweet Spot. Instead, downtown was empty. At the Tidy Wave laundromat, washers and dryers were filled with clothes. No one ever came to claim them.

Some families packed their cars in the middle of the night and drove to other meatpacking towns in Iowa or to another part of the United States altogether. Others turned to a van service, run by a local Guatemalan-American, that would eventually shuttle more than 100 people to O’Hare Airport in Chicago for one-way flights to Guatemala City. Children stopped going to school. Within weeks, roughly 1,000 Mexican and Guatemalan residents— about a third of the town—vanished.

The Guatemalans dispersed to other parts of the United States, left for their home country, or were deported. Many of the Guatemalans of Postville returned to their hometown of San Jose Calderas, the place from which many had emigrated. The exact number of US citizen-children now living San Jose Calderas is hard to estimate, but a local representative of the National Council for Migrants from Guatemala knows of at least 35 (Carcamo, 2013). But the same official believes the number to be much larger, maybe three times as many. The Guatemalan government estimates that several thousand US citizen-children immigrate to Guatemala each year when their parents are deported (Arroyo Rodriguez & O’Dowd, 2011). Some parents who were forced to relocate to San Jose Calderas with their children reported that public clinics initially refused care to some US citizen-children because they had only US documents, not Guatemalan ones. Other parents are afraid to come forward even in the services run by the Guatemalan government or nongovernmental social service organizations under the misperception that US government officials find out and will take away their daughters and sons if they are discovered to be living in impoverished conditions. The fact is that these US-born children are living in poverty more dismal than any they may have known in the United States. One mother commented that, though they lived humbly in the cities and small towns of the Midwest, at least in the United States their children could open refrigerators at home stocked with food (Carcamo, 2013).

To have US citizens living outside its borders in conditions that are intolerable by US standards, conditions such as poor education, lack of adequate medical care, unstable governmental rule, inadequate occupational and career preparation, and little or no rule of law or protection from violence, is counterproductive. Moreover, because they are minors, these children do not have the voice that citizen adults have to advocate for themselves, and so are unlikely to seek assistance from the U.S. embassy, when they are experiencing hardships abroad. Immigration courts may defend the theory that a U.S. citizen-child can return to the United States later in life but the developmental consequences of these determining factors cannot be easily dismissed. With the birthright to come to the United States at any time (although usually after age 18, the age of majority) and possibly after years of dislocation and economic hardship, these citizens may return with low educational and vocational readiness, limited developmental skills, and untreated health and mental health disorders that can thwart their capacities to contribute to our civic life and economy.