U.S. Immigration Policy Leaves Behind 'Orphans Of Deportation'

Dec 18, 2013

Divided families have become a focal point in the national immigration reform debate.  Many families separated by deportation are from Latino communities across the country. 

Three siblings in one family in Bend continue a long wait for their mother who was deported more than two years ago.

Ashley, 18, left, Brian, 21, and Karleen Tapia pose for a photo outside their home in Bend. Their single mother was deported to Mexico in September 2011.
Credit Jordana Gustafson/OPB

Brian Tapia was 19 years old when his mother packed up her jeep and drove herself down to Mexico. He had just started a job training program in Roseburg.

“When it happened, at first, I used to cry all the time. Every night. Usually the bathroom, taking a shower. I used to cry there. That was the only time I had time to cry,” says Brian.

Brian’s sister, Ashley, was 15 years old and a junior in high school.

“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 my sister locked herself in her room, and she was crying. She was just crying for like hours. Banging — she was going crazy. And I was trying to open the door, but she didn’t want to open the door,” says Ashley.

Ashley and Brian’s younger sister Karleen is 13 years old now; when her mom left, she was 11.  All three are U.S. citizens.

“I slept with her like the whole entire week because I knew she wasn’t going to be with us anymore. So I, like, slept with her. And it was going to be my first day of middle school, so, like, I didn’t want her to be gone,” Karleen says.

For months after their mother’s departure, the children felt sad and anxious.

“It just felt like a lonely, depressing cold winter,” Brian says.

He dropped out of the job training program and moved home. Ashley and Karleen began to see a school therapist.

“I was sleeping so much, and my grandma would be like, ‘Why are you sleeping?’” Ashley remembers.

“I missed lots of days of school in the sixth grade. I pretty much missed half the year. 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,” says Karleen.

The Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan research organization, estimates that about 4.5 million American citizens have been born to at least one undocumented parent. Since Barack Obama took office, deportations have increased dramatically. In fiscal year 2012, the U.S. ordered more than 400,000 deportations.

Expulsions like these have created a generation of what Luis Zayas calls, “orphans of deportation.”

“These are the children who remain in the U.S. after their parents are deported and (are) in the care of someone else,” Zayas says.

Zayas is a psychiatry professor at the University of Texas, Austin. He has a federal grant to study the effect of parental deportation on U.S.-born children.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement says 200,000 people deported between  2010 and 2012 said they had U.S. citizen children. But Zayas and others argue it’s hard to tell just how many children are affected, because not everybody who’s deported reports that they have children.

Back in Bend, the Tapias  recently moved into a two-bedroom apartment with relatives. Now they live with their grandparents and their aunt, who are all undocumented, and three young cousins – all U.S. citizens. Their father was also deported.

Zayas studies children who, like the Tapias, stay in the U.S. without their parents. The interviews, he says, aren’t easy.

“Many of the children cry during the interview. They are very clearly and 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,” Zayas says.

In the national debate on immigration reform, some want to curb deportations by creating a path to citizenship for the some 11 million undocumented immigrants.  Others say the U.S. should not grant citizenship or amnesty to people who broke the law.

Muzaffar Chishti is with the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. He follows the immigration policy debate.  A Senate bill passed in June contains provisions for legalization. Chishti says some GOP lawmakers have signaled they might support legalization.  But, according to Chishti, “The House has no corresponding bill on legalization at all.”

Before leaving the U.S., the Tapias’ mother – Liliana Ramos – was raising her children on her own. Her husband had left and returned to Mexico several years prior.

He was no longer part of their lives.  But before he left, while they were still married, he applied for asylum. That request was rejected.

They were told to leave the country. Ramos’ husband left, but Ramos stayed.  Then, immigration agents showed up at her work in January of 2011.

“I’m sure that she was thinking that immigration wouldn’t do anything to look for her in order to deport her because she had been here for years. But after a few years, they got her at work,” says Micaela Silva, Brian, Karleen and Ashley’s grandmother. 

She sits at the dining room table in the family’s apartment after finishing a shift housekeeping at a local hotel. Soon, she’ll leave for her second job, cleaning a store.

On a recent Friday night, Brian, Ashley and Karleen try to call their mother in Tijuana. She doesn’t pick up.

After immigration agents found Ramos, she was given nine months to leave the country. During this time, 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 he and Ashley have been good stand-ins.

“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,” says Brian.

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 their mother is having trouble supporting even herself in Mexico. And Karleen admits she’d actually prefer something else.

“My mom to come back. Yeah. I’d rather have her come back,” she says.

Jordana Gustafson filed this report for Oregon Public Broadcasting as part of a fellowship with the Institute for Justice and Journalism.