Sunday, May 14, 2006

Caught in Crossfire of Battle Over Illegal Immigrants: Their American-Born Kids

Up to 3 Million Children of Illegals Are U.S. Citizens Who Cannot be Deported; Massive Family Break-Ups Could Ensue If Their Parents Are Given the Boot

(Updated 3:00 p.m. EDT Saturday, May 20, 2006)
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By Anna Gorman
Los Angeles Times

Maria Flores trekked with her four children across mountains into the United States, planning to earn some quick money and go back home to Mexico City. Seven years later, she is still here. Her fifth child, Brandon Rodriguez, was born in the U.S., making him a citizen.

So for Flores, the question of whether Congress loosens or strengthens immigration laws, whether it puts undocumented workers on a path to citizenship or deportation, is not so much political as it is deeply personal.

That's why she skipped work and kept her children out of school on May 1 to march for immigrant rights: She dreads seeing her family split up. She wants all of them to share equally in what the U.S. has to offer.

"We're planning a future for our children, but [politicians] are planning another future," said Flores, 31, a housekeeper who lives in Los Angeles. "They are deciding our lives."

Tens of Thousands of Mixed-Nationality Families in L.A. Region Alone

Flores' family is among tens of thousands of mixed-nationality families just in the Greater Los Angeles region with huge emotional stakes in the congressional debate over illegal immigration.

In many cases, parents are worried about being separated from their American-born children or being forced to return, with them, to Mexico. They are hoping for legalization, but fearful of arrest.

"In a lot of ways, the mixed-status families have the most at stake," said Randy Capps, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan research organization. "They realize how much they have been affected, and could be affected, by this."

Nearly two-thirds of all children of illegal immigrants — an estimated three million — are native-born U.S. citizens, according to data compiled by the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan research group.

"People think 'legals' live in this house and 'illegals' live in this house," said immigration attorney Carl Shusterman. "It's not usually that simple."

Families of mixed status have long lived with the threat of being divided, prompting undocumented parents to make strategic decisions about where to live, work and travel. But in recent months, as Congress has been wrestling with immigration issues, their anxiety level has risen.

Some Republicans Pushing to Deny Citizenship to U.S.-Born Kids of Illegals

A House bill passed in December would make illegal immigrants felons, while a Senate proposal would create a path toward residency and eventual citizenship. Another proposal being floated in the Senate would limit the possibility of legal status to illegals who had married U.S. citizens, had U.S.-citizen children or had otherwise put down "deep roots" in the U.S.

A group of Republican legislators has introduced a bill that would no longer grant birthright citizenship to children born to illegal immigrants.

[That measure, however, has little chance of passage, for it would likely collide head-on with the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, which says that, "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State in which they reside."]

For Illegal-Immigrant Parents, It's High Anxiety

Flores said she has spent the last seven years building a life and a home for herself and her children. All of that now hangs in the balance. "If the government decides tomorrow we are criminals, we are going to lose everything," she said. "We are going to be sent [to Mexico the same way] we arrived... with nothing... only the great pain that we lost so much time," she said.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Virginia Kice said the agency should not be blamed for splitting up parents and their children. "These families made decisions, often years ago, that put the unity of their families at risk," she said. "The fact that someone has a U.S.-citizen child does not change the fact that they are here illegally."

Bush Urges Congress to Reach Compromise On Reform Bill, Asks $1.9B for Border Security

[President Bush urged Congress on Saturday to find a middle ground between mass deportation or instant U.S. citizenship for the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants already living in America.

[Bush's weekly radio address was the third time this week he has spoken out about immigration. On Monday, in a televised address from the Oval Office, the president said he would order as many as 6,000 National Guard troops to secure the U.S. border with Mexico, and urged Congress to give millions of illegal immigrants a chance at citizenship.

[Bush said the National Guard troops would fill in temporarily while the nation's Border Patrol is expanded. He asked Congress to add 6,000 more Border Patrol agents by the end of his presidency and add 6,700 more detention-center beds so illegal immigrants can be detained while waiting for hearings.

[However, a report released Friday by the Homeland Security Department's inspector general said that the administration hadn't budgeted enough funds for the expansion and that it will take nearly 35,000 more beds to detain all high-risk aliens.

[Bush sent Congress a $1.9 billion request on Thursday to increase border security, saying the money would pay for the "first 1,000 of 6,000 new Border Patrol agents that will be deployed in the next two years," as well as the temporary deployment of up to 6,000 National Guard troops to states along the U.S.-Mexico border.

[The White House sent the request to Congress as the president traveled to Yuma, Arizona to dramatize his commitment to border control and the Senate labored over the most sweeping overhaul of immigration law in two decades.

[Bush reiterated his support for a plan that would give many of the 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States an eventual path to possible citizenship — a move derided by some conservatives in his own Republican Party as amnesty. He rejected that term.

["It is neither wise nor realistic to round up millions of people, many with deep roots in the United States and send them across the border," he said. "There is a rational middle ground between granting an automatic path to citizenship for every illegal immigrant and a program of mass deportation."

Opponent of Guest-Worker Program Predicts Deadlock In Conference Committee

[A prominent congressional opponent of the Senate legislation conceded Friday the measure is likely to pass next week, adding "The Senate should be ashamed of itself."

[At the same time, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama) predicted that without significant changes -- namely, elimination of a controversial guest-worker program and deportation of the 11 million to 12 million illegals already inside the country -- no final compromise would emerge from House-Senate negotiations this year.

[The Senate version faces a wall of opposition from GOP hard-liners likely to dominate the House side of the Senate-House Conference Committee -- including Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin), who unleashed a blistering attack Thursday against the president.

["Regardless of what the president says, what he is proposing is amnesty," said Sensenbrenner, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. The House hard-liners vow they won't approve any immigration reform bill that contains provisions they consider "amnesty."

[Sensenbrenner has long been known as the most unyielding of the House hard-liners against illegal immigration. Last year, he authored the controversial Real ID Act, which requires additional scrutiny of citizenship before issuing driver's licenses and creates a federal database of state-issued identification.

[Sensenbrenner was also the main sponsor of a separate House bill to impose additional criminal penalties for aiding and abetting illegal immigrants.

[For the president -- who remained equally adamant Friday in favor of a guest-worker program -- the issue isn't just political, it's personal: His sister-in-law Columba, wife of Florida Governor Jeb Bush, is Mexican. The couple has two adopted daughters from Mexico. And Bush spent more than a decade wooing Latino voters to the GOP; he owes his 1994 election as governor of Texas in part to Latino voter support.

Border Security Plan Draws Protest From Mexico, Central American Countries

[Mexico said Thursday it would file a formal diplomatic protest to Washington after the Senate voted to approve a 370-mile border barrier to stop illegal migrants. Hundreds of thousands of Mexicans sneak into the United States every year in search of jobs.

[The barrier is also opposed by the governments of four Central American countries: Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador.

["There are 12 million Mexicans on the other side, 12 million people who live every day in anguish about the need for a reform to let them live peacefully," said Foreign Minister Luis Ernesto Derbez.

[Mexico wants the United States to make it easier for immigrants to become legal and approve a guest worker program, instead of concentrating on tightening the border.

[When details of Bush's proposal were first made public on Sunday, they did not initially sit well with Mexican President Vicente Fox, who telephoned Bush that afternoon to protest what he called the "militarization" of the border.

[White House spokeswoman Maria Tamburri said Bush made clear to Fox that "the United States considered Mexico a friend and that what is being considered is not militarization of the border, but support of border capabilities on a temporary basis by the National Guard."

[The president also assured his Mexican counterpart that any military support would be administrative and logistical and would come from the National Guard and not the Army, according to a news release from Fox's office.

Foes Say Illegals Have Their Kids Born in the U.S. To Thwart Deportation

Many opponents of illegal immigration say such people shouldn't be allowed to stay in the U.S. just because their children were born here.

Some groups call the children "anchor babies," since, being U.S. citizens by birth, the children cannot themselves be deported and sometimes are used to fight their parents' expulsion. Often, when these children turn 21, they can petition for their parents to become legal residents.

"The presence of citizen children is not by itself sufficient reason for them to stay," said Steve Camarota, director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies, a conservative think tank based in Washington, D.C. "If you do that, you convey to everyone who has played by the rules and waited that they are dupes."

Diana Hull, who runs Californians for Population Stabilization, said illegal immigrants give birth here to stake a claim in the country."Of course this is a magnet," she said. "They come here obviously, deliberately to have a citizen child."

Hull said children born in the U.S. of illegal immigrants should not have an automatic right to citizenship [in spite of the 14th Amendment]. Although she is sympathetic to the youngsters, she said, they are a potential drain on public services, and the state and the nation cannot afford them, let alone their families.

"The impact on California is that citizen children [of illegal immigrants] add to the population growth," Hull said. "We can't sustain this kind of growth."

Parents Facing Deportation Seldom Win Their Cases

But parents who face deportation and use their citizen children as a defense rarely succeed. Under a legal change 10 years ago, parents were required to prove that their deportation would cause "exceptional and extremely unusual hardship" to the children.

Los Angeles immigration attorney Alary Piibe said he recently won a case in which the child had a form of hemophilia, but lost one involving a child who had a mild learning disability. "It is heartbreaking," he said. "Clearly something has to be done. Congress has to figure out something to do with these people."

Parents ordered deported face a Hobson's choice, prompting some to leave their children with relatives in the U.S. but more to go further underground, said another Los Angeles immigration attorney, Peter Schey.

"Their children come first," Schey said. "If that means you have to break a law, then you break a law. That happens a thousand times over every day of the week."

The Most Emotionally Difficult Cases Involve Parents With American-Born Teenagers

Benjamin and Londy Cabreras — he from Mexico and she from Guatemala — came here illegally in the 1980s and are fighting to stay in the country with their U.S.-citizen daughters, Diana, 14, and Jocelyn, 12.

In a rare decision, a Los Angeles immigration judge ruled in 2002 that the parents could stay because their eldest daughter was academically gifted and her studies would be "savagely and permanently interrupted" by her parents' deportation. The government appealed the case and the battle continues.

As legislators hammer out immigration legislation, Benjamin Cabreras, a waiter, said they should consider the effect it could have on families like his. He believes that he and his wife, a teacher's assistant, have earned the right to be here legally because they have worked hard and paid taxes, without receiving any help from the government. They have not decided what to do if they lose.

"It's not right for us to be split up," said Cabreras, 38. "It would destroy the whole family. We are not the only ones who would suffer. Our daughters would too."Diana said that she wants to attend college in the U.S., but that "this might ruin it."

Maria Ortega, 29, and Adrian Elizondo, 38, are living here illegally with their undocumented son and two citizen daughters. Ortega said that she didn't come to the U.S. intending to have children but that the years passed and it happened.

If legalization legislation succeeds, Ortega said, they can stop driving without licenses and working with fake papers. But if tougher enforcement prevails, she fears they will no longer be able to hide from agents. "It's illogical" to divide families, Ortega said, because her daughters could end up in foster care in the United States at a significant cost to the government.

Despite U.S. Citizenship, High Likelihood Remains of Kids Living in Poverty

Despite being U.S. citizens, children born to illegal immigrants are more likely to live in poverty and crowded housing and less likely to have health coverage than children born to citizens or to legal immigrant residents, experts said.

Citizen children in mixed-status families are eligible for public assistance, but their parents often fear that seeking government help could lead to deportation or hurt their chances for future legalization.

"They are going to be reluctant to get health, nutrition and other kinds of benefits that their children are entitled to," said Michael Fix, vice president of the Migration Policy Institute think tank. "Parents worry that they won't be able to become citizens because they are a 'public charge.' "

Guadalupe Aguilera, 39, crossed the border illegally from Mexico nearly 20 years ago and now has five American-born children. She earns $425 a week working two jobs — as a clerk at a retail warehouse during the week and a cook at a pizza parlor on the weekends. She and her live-in boyfriend pay $1,250 for a two-bedroom apartment but lack health insurance for their family.

Aguilera said she doesn't want to teach her children to be dependent on the government, so the only public assistance they receive is from the federal Women, Infants and Children program to buy groceries for their youngest children, Carolina, 3, and Veronica, 1.

Aguilera, who has participated in the recent rallies for immigrant rights, said she would be able to get a better job and provide more for her children if she could become a legal resident or a U.S. citizen. "I lose a lot by being undocumented," she said. "I lose money that I could give to my children."

Her eldest son, Marvin, 17, said he doesn't know what he will do if his mother and stepfather are deported. "I work," he said, "but I can't support everyone."

[Additional reporting by The Associated Press and CNN.]




Jeanne DeForge, Plainfield, VT

I commend your position on this matter and I have great compassion for America's immigrants, especially the ones that have children that have American citizenship.

But (and I use this word with great respect and admiration for these courageous people) they knew what they were getting into when they illegally crossed the border. They knew they were here against the governing laws (however flailing and weak they are) and still proceeded to find jobs and have families.

I understand that this was a chance that these people had to take to give their loved ones a fair chance at life, but on the other hand, their actions now come to a head and they have to face the inevitable.
It's a scary situation and I do feel for them.

In fact, I know an illegal immigrant from the Caribbean. He has lived in America for close to a decade and he has worked in the United States the whole time. I spoke with him last evening [Monday] and he is very frightened as to what this will mean for him. Fortunately he doesn't have children to worry about.

I know that the enrichment in culture that we gain from these people is priceless, this issue should have been addressed long before now. I do have many questions and concerns but I believe you are missing the bigger picture.

That is, the threat of terrorism is knocking on President Bush's door and he's obviously received a tip that something is brewing on the border. I believe that this is his way of covering up the hidden and messy problem of the shoddy immigration laws that have been in place for how long?

Now Mr. Bush is faced with his own dilemma: How to keep America safe. This includes all of the illegal immigrants and their American born offspring that already have roots here.

Keep up the good work!


John Long, Plattsburgh, NY:

I have NO sympathy whatsoever for the plight of illegal aliens. If they're here illegally, they need to be rounded up and deported. The "anchor baby" loophole needs to be closed.

The main task of any military is to defend the sovereignty of the nation it serves. If the National Guard is being sent down to the [U.S.-Mexico] border with instructions not to stop illegal aliens with whatever means necessary to halt their encroachment, then sending them down there is a waste of time.

Bush really dropped the ball on this one. I'm extremely [angry] at him at this moment. But I know the alternative is far worse.


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