Policy makers struggle over what to do with illegal immigrants whose children are U.S. citizens

May 15, 2009

A family divide: When the kids are U.S. citizens but a parent isn’t
By Patrick McGee
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Thursday, February 26, 2009

A bill would allow judges to use discretion and halt the deportation of a parent.

Gloria Gonzalez-Garcia’s family was torn in two Dec. 2.

Her husband, José Alfredo Garcia, was arrested by Mineral Wells police, and his status as an illegal immigrant quickly got him a one-way ticket to Mexico. He was turned over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and deported the next day.

It didn’t matter that he had been paying taxes, buying a house or taking care of his daughters, who are American citizens because they were born in the U.S.

“The little ones don’t understand, and they don’t know what happened. They don’t know why their dad has to be in Mexico,” Gonzalez-Garcia said at her Fort Worth home.

Garcia’s abrupt deportation is an example of how tens of thousands of parents are separated from their children when immigration law catches up with them.

A report released this month by the Homeland Security Department’s Office of Inspector General found that more than 108,000 parents of U.S.-born children were deported between 1998 and 2007.

U.S. Rep. José Serrano, D-N.Y., asked for the study and is using its findings to push his bill, the Child Citizen Protection Act, which would allow immigration judges to use discretion and halt the deportation of a parent of a child who is a U.S. citizen.

Serrano said that parents often have no choice but to take their U.S.-born children with them when they are deported.

“By virtue of this action we have, in fact, deported or forced out of the country American citizens,” he said.

Gonzalez-Garcia said she and her three daughters might get to that point, even though they were all born in the U.S. She said that everyone she has talked to told her that nothing can get her husband back legally.

“Sometimes I think that we’ll have to move over there just so we can be a family again,” she said, fighting back tears.

‘Our nation’s laws’

ICE spokeswoman Barbara Gonzalez said that despite the difficulty of such situations, people cannot expect that their children will keep immigration laws from applying to them.

“Violation of our immigrants laws — not law enforcement — is the fundamental cause for this issue, and the choice to willfully violate our national laws may have long-term unfavorable consequences,” she said. “Parenthood does not exempt any person from complying with our nation’s laws, including our immigration laws, and it’s unfortunate that parents are putting their children in this difficult situation by breaking the law.”

Serrano said he agrees that having children should not protect people from breaking the law.

“I’m not suggesting I have an answer. I’m identifying a problem that we need to address,” he said.

But neither he, nor his bill, say what should become of the parent’s immigration status.

The bill says an immigration judge “may exercise discretion to decline” an order of deportation if the immigrant has U.S.-born children. It does not say what would happen to the immigrant’s legal status or what would happen if the immigrant ended up in court or in custody again.

“My bill doesn’t speak to the final solution of the problem,” Serrano said. “My whole purpose is to alert people to the fact that there’s this issue.”


Mineral Wells police Lt. Brad Bellz said Garcia was pulled over for driving 37 mph in a 20-mph school zone and was arrested for not having a driver’s license. Another Mexican immigrant in the vehicle was also arrested.

“The officer asked them if they were in the United States legally, and they replied no,” Bellz said. “If they can’t prove their citizenship or something, and they say they are not here legally, we will place a hold on them until we can contact an [ICE] agent, and if the agent says ‘We don’t want them,’ we will release them.”

Garcia and his wife said that he was not driving, that they were not speeding and that they were not in a school zone. Gonzalez-Garcia said that her husband told police that he was having his immigration status legalized with the help of an attorney but that this did not change their attitude toward him.

Interviewed by telephone from Mexico, Garcia said he’s living with his parents but cannot find work. He said he wants to return to the U.S.

“I have my family there. My daughters are born there. I think I can have a better future there,” he said. “If they can fix my situation I would prefer to live in the United States.”

Gonzalez-Garcia and the three girls visited him once, but it has been hard on his stepdaughter, 9, and his daughters, 4 and 2.

“They are sad, and they ask me, ‘When are you coming home?’ ” he said. “I say, ‘It’s not certain.’ ”

Numbers may be higher

Serrano noted that the number of parents deported might be even higher than the inspector general’s report indicated. The report noted that ICE’s collection of data on child custody is voluntary. The report suggested that the agency look into better reporting of custody and of whether children are minors when their parents are deported.

The report said ICE agreed to spend the next two months studying the feasibility of collecting such data.

Rep. David Price, D-N.C., chairman of the House panel that asked for the report, said the numbers are important because deportation has been so hard on families.

“It’s obviously a matter of concern when the parent and their children are being separated, forcibly separated, by the U.S. government,” he said.

But Price would not say whether he supports Serrano’s bill. “The issue here is a very difficult set of conflicting values and conflicting purposes,” he said. “This is obviously a very tangled web of circumstances.”