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US Immigration Policy Leaves Behind "Orphans of Deportation"

Jordana Gustafson

According to the Pew Hispanic Center estimates, there are about four-and-a-half million American citizens with at leas t one parent who’s undocumented. This has led to a growing number of children in the U-S who are living without their parents. That’s because the number of deportations under the Obama administration has reached record levels – 400 -thousand in 2012 alone. And many of those deported are parents. Latino communities across the country have borne the brunt of these deportations, and researchers say children’s mental health suffers as a result.

OPB's Jordana Gustafson  brings us the story of three kids in Bend whose mother went back to Mexico more than two years ago.

Brian Tapia was 19 when his mother left.
BRIAN: When it happened at first, I used to cry all the time. Every night. Usually in the bathroom, taking a shower. I used to cry there. That was the only time I had time to.
Brian’s sister, Karleen, was eleven.

KARLEEN: I slept with her like the whole entire week because I knew she wasn’t going to be with us anymore. And it was going to be my first day of middle school, so like, I didn’t want her to be gone (breathes, gut noise).
Brian’s and Karleen’s sister, Ashley, was 15.

ASHLEY: I didn’t want to say, ‘bye’ to her because that’s how I am. I don’t like showing my feelings, so I just said, “bye,” and I went upstairs, and –– (voice breaks) – I seriously just wanted to die.
Brian, Karleen and Ashley are what Luis Zayas calls “orphans of deportation.”

Credit Jordana Gustafson
Karleen Tapia, left, and her sister Ashley.

ZAYAS: These are children who remain in the US after their parents are deported and in the care of someone else.

Zayas is a psychiatry professor at the University of Texas, Austin. He studies the effect of parental deportation on kids who are U-S citizens.

ZAYAS: They are very clearly and very obviously distressed by their experiences as they recount them to us. Children reporting nightmares of coming home and going room to room and finding no one home.

For months after their mother’s departure, the Tapia kids felt sad and anxious. Brian dropped out of a job training program. Ashley had trouble getting out of bed. Karleen says she missed half of sixth grade.
KARLEEN: I would get up from class and go to the bathroom. I would be there for ten minutes or more. Crying. It’s just not easy not having a mom with you -- and when you’re growing up.

The loss of a parent to deportation, Zayas says, can feel worse than if that parent had died. He says there’s finality to death. You can grieve the loss and move on. But when a parent is deported –

ZAYAS: That’s really the difference. The parent is gone, but they’re still alive, somewhere else, at a distance imposed by government policies.

In this case, government policy has left the Tapia kids living in a two-bedroom apartment with their grandparents, their aunt, three cousins and five dogs. Like their mom, their cousins’ father was also deported.
On this Friday night, all six cousins sit in front of wide screen TV. The older ones play with their smart phones.

“Dude can we watch a novella?” (ambi under)

Their undocumented grandmother, Micaela, sits at the dining table with tired eyes.

She’s has just gotten home from a long day of work as a housekeeper at a local hotel.
SILVA: I work 8 hours at my job….

In an hour, she’ll go to her next job, cleaning a store.
Before leaving the US, the Tapias’ mother -- Liliana Ramos – was raising her children on her own. Her husband had left the family and returned to Mexico and was no longer part of their lives.
But before he left, he did something that came back to haunt them, according to Silva.

MICAELA (voiceover): Her husband made the mistake of wanting to apply for documents. But they didn’t realize what would happen.
She says the kids’ dad filed an application for asylum. It was rejected, and both parents were ordered to leave the country. Their father left, but their mother stayed.
MICAELA (voiceover): I’m sure that she was thinking that immigration wouldn’t come after her because she had been here for so long. But after a few years, they got her at work.

Liliana Ramos was given nine months to leave the country.
She spent this time getting ready. She transferred custody of her two youngest over to her mother. She taught Brian to pay bills.
And she tried to prepare him and Ashley to take care of Karleen.
But Brian’s not sure they’ve been good stand-ins.
BRIAN: She’s a strong little girl, but at the same time, I feel like she needs that role model – and that’s my mom – and we can’t really do much. It’s not the same. It’s not the same. Yeah.

It’s difficult to determine exactly how many deportation orphans there are in the country. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement says 200,000 people deported between 2010 and 2012 said they had U.S. citizen children. But the real number could be higher: Zayas and others say not everybody who’s deported reports that they have children.

“She probably went out; well she posted something on Facebook; or maybe she’s upstairs and going downstairs.”
Brian, Ashley and Karleen are trying to call their mother in Tijuana. She doesn’t pick up.

The children have visited their mother in Mexico a few times. Karleen’s eyes light up a little when she talks about moving there and going to high school there. But she admits she’d actually prefer something else.

KARLEEN: My mom to come back. Yeah. I’d rather have her come back.

Jordana Gustafson filed that report as part of a fellowship with the Institute for Justice and Journalism.

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