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

Jan 2, 2014

Some 4.5 million American citizens have at least one undocumented parent, according to estimates by the Pew Hispanic Center.

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 — 400,000 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.

‘I Seriously Just Wanted To Die’

Brian Tapia of Bend, Oregon was 19 when his mother left. 

“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,” he said.

Brian’s sister, Karleen, was 11. 

“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,” she said.

Brian’s and Karleen’s sister, Ashley, was 15. 

“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 I seriously just wanted to die,” she said.

‘Orphans Of Deportation’

Brian, Karleen and Ashley are what Luis Zayas calls “orphans of deportation.” A psychiatry professor at the University of Texas, Austin, Zayas studies the effect of parental deportation on kids who are U.S. citizens. 

“These are children who remain in the U.S. after their parents are deported and in the care of someone else, he said. “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. 

“I would get up from class and go to the bathroom. I would be there for 10 minutes or more, crying. It’s just not easy not having a mom with you,” she said.

Zayas says the loss of a parent to deportation can feel worse than losing a parent to death. There’s finality to death. You can grieve the loss and move on. But when a parent is deported, there’s only longing.

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

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. 

‘The Mistake of Wanting To Apply For Documents’

On this Friday night, all six cousins sit in front of a wide-screen TV. The older ones play with their smartphones. 

Their undocumented grandmother, Micaela Silva, sits at the dining table with tired eyes.  She’s just gotten home from a long day of work as a housekeeper at a local hotel. In an hour, she’ll go to her next job, cleaning a store. 

Before leaving the U.S. the Tapias’ mother, Liliana Ramos, was raising her children on her own. Her husband had left the family and returned to Mexico. He was no longer part of their lives. 

But before he left, he did something that came back to haunt them, according to Silva. 

“Her husband made the mistake of wanting to apply for documents. But they didn’t realize what would happen,” she said.

Silva 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. 

“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,” Silva said.

Preparing to Leave

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. 

“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,” he said. “It’s not the same.”

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. 

The Tapia 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.

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

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Editor’s Note: Jordana Gustafson is a reporter for Oregon Public Broadcasting. She filed this two-part series as part of a fellowship with the Institute for Justice and Journalism. On Friday, in part two of this series, we’ll visit the children’s mother in Tijuana, Mexico.