The immigration debate

Are we forgetting the children?


story and photos Liz DeCarlo

‘I’m not scared," says the 4-year-old girl bravely to the visitors in her Chicago classroom. "Are you taking me now? I’m not scared."

Being taken away suddenly is such a real fear for so many immigrant families that it’s no surprise their children have picked up on the possibility. It’s heartbreaking to peer into the deep brown eyes of a little girl who understands this reality all too well.

"The kids don’t know that fear—they’re taught that fear," says Father Bruce Wellems, pastor of Holy Cross/Immaculate Heart of Mary parish in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood, where many immigrant families live and struggle to survive. "We had a raid on a pallet company down the street recently and about 50 people were deported. Nobody asks about the children—just one day mom and dad don’t come home at night."

As politicians and legislators debate changing immigration laws, it sometimes seems no one is asking about the children. But there are people in Chicago and throughout Illinois asking that question every day. They are desperate for laws that protect these vulnerable members of society who had no say in the decision to immigrate illegally. And while most illegal immigrant parents come here to give their children the opportunities they never had, the system often works against the children.

The parents broke the law—that’s a given—but the consequences of that decision affect the children for years. Sometimes the effect is immediate, especially if the child ends up in the country as an unaccompanied minor and is detained by immigration authorities.

But sometimes, the legal problems unfold as the child grows. An undocumented child is required to take drivers’ education in high school but he will never get a driver’s license.

When other teens are muddling through financial aid forms for college, undocumented children find they are ineligible. If they manage to afford college on their own, they cannot work when they graduate because they have no Social Security number.

It’s getting hard to ignore the plight of these kids. Children of documented and undocumented immigrants are the largest-growing segment of children in the United States. And while the majority of Americans believe undocumented parents broke the law, they don’t believe children should suffer.

Almost 70 percent of Americans believe illegal immigrants should not be eligible for social services, according to a 2006 Pew Research Center report. Still, 71 percent of those same people believe undocumented children should have access to public education in the United States.

Just how to help and how much help children deserve leaves many politicians and their constituents conflicted. It’s a debate going on in Congress right now.

But debating the law is one thing. It’s entirely another thing when one of those whose life depends upon the debate slips her small hand into yours and asks for help. It makes you wonder: What about the children?

The unaccompanied children

Some of the most desperate stories come from the unaccompanied children detained when they cross the border alone. It’s not uncommon for undocumented parents in the United States to pay smugglers to bring their child into the country after they’ve found a job and a place to live.

And then some parents send their children into the United States illegally to find work so they can send money back home to support the family, which is usually living in poverty.

When these children land here, they face significant hardships—no matter what happens. But it can be especially difficult if the unaccompanied minor is detained.

In Chicago, unaccompanied immigrant children are housed at a center operated by the Heartland Alliance. Maria Woltjen, director of the Immigrant Children’s Advocacy Project, works with Heartland to provide volunteer advocates that help the children navigate the U.S. court system as well as their immigration status hearings.

The stories Woltjen hears are heartbreaking.

"Some of these kids come to the U.S. over the Mexican or Canadian border, or they’re detained at the airport. The Chicago shelter [is certified] to take kids down to babies, so we get the more challenging cases, like the girl who’s pregnant or the group of Romanian kids who crossed the Mexican border and were sent here," Woltjen says.

"Most of the kids are 15, 16, 17, but there’s always a handful of kids who are younger. We had a 6-year-old here from India for seven months."

Children who are detained for entering the country illegally can be released to parents who are undocumented, but many parents are afraid to come forward because of their status.

Even tougher is caring for the children who are sent here to work and who have no family in the country. "The kids know a smuggler has been paid to bring them here to make money. But they’ve been caught. They know the family at home needs money and they feel awful and guilty," Woltjen says.

The child can choose to be deported, but the family must pay for the trip home. If the government pays, the child is barred from legally entering the United States for 10 years.

"But the reality is, unless he wins the lottery, the kid isn’t coming back legally anyway," Woltjen says. "Some of these kids are going back to very, very difficult circumstances and they’ll be back [to the U.S.] again." Also, the U.S. government flies the child back to his or her home country, but not necessarily the hometown. So Woltjen and the advocates have to try and make arrangements for the child to get all the way home after the child gets off the plane.

Even if some of these kids may be eligible for asylum, it is often hard to determine. The child appears before the same asylum court as adults do and the child must provide the same information adults must provide.

For children who are scared and who have been coached not to talk, gleaning the information to provide in court can be almost impossible.

"There are no special accommodations for kids in court. There’s nothing that makes the court child-friendly," Woltjen says. "Because they’re children, it’s not their fault that they landed here. We should assume responsibility for these kids until we can get them to a safe place."

Here to work

And while it’s much better for the children who come here with their families or the children born here to illegal immigrants, it’s still not easy.

For many immigrant parents, the United States seems a safe place for their child to grow up, especially if the family is fleeing poverty or war.

And even when life in America is tough, the parents hold on to dreams of something better for their children. But these kids are often caught in an in-between world. More often than not, these children end up living in poverty, even as their parents work several low-wage jobs to feed and clothe the family. And while the children are entitled to benefits that would help, parents won’t collect because they are fearful of government.

The majority of illegal immigrants come here to work and support their family, says Randy Capps, senior research associate at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C. More than 80 percent of immigrants are Latino, many of the rest are Asian, and of these about 90 percent of the men work, Capps says. (Often the women stay home to care for the children, he says.)

"The vast majority of the men work, but at low-wage jobs, so you have higher poverty [for the families]. And while children who are born here are eligible for food stamps, the parents aren’t, so there’s a lot of food insecurity in immigrant families."

Many children don’t receive food stamps and other benefits because parents won’t interact with the government. The law changes pending in Congress may make parents more fearful and may mean more children going hungry.

"If we make it dangerous for them to get help, they won’t do it. They’re afraid to apply for help, even though two-thirds of these children are U.S. citizens," Capps says.

Immigrant families encounter more problems when children start school.

All children, documented or undocumented, are able to attend public schools in the United States. But for families unfamiliar with the culture, it’s difficult for parents to deal with teachers and administrators, says Elizabeth Yelen, staff psychologist at Erie Neighborhood House in Chicago, which serves immigrant families.

And as children become more familiar with the culture and the language, they often end up serving as the guide or the translator for the family. "In the more traditional family, the parents are the leaders, but sometimes the child has to become the caretaker," Yelen says.

It can be a large burden for children as young as 7 to navigate government systems.

And what happens if the parents worst fears come true—what if a parent is deported?

"If a parent has to leave the U.S., the parents have to figure out what to do with the children," Capps says.

Parents have to choose whether to leave the kids behind and split the family or take the children to live in a country they’ve never seen before.

"After about three years here, the children are inculturated. This means they can’t go back to Mexico—you’re speaking English and Mexico is foreign to you," Father Bruce Wellems says.

Laws may be changing

Right now, legislation pending in Washington, D.C., promises major changes in immigration laws. Some of those laws may make life easier for these children, many of whom are U.S. citizens. But other legislation may force undocumented families further into hiding, away from those who might send them back home and invisible to those who would help them. (See accompanying story on page 36.) That legislation leaves many local activists wondering what will happen to the millions of children caught in the middle.

"There’s a big focus right now on security and enforcement issues. When you have a parent who’s deported, you see the results of this in the children. They think, ‘Did Daddy do something bad or are they going to come after me?’ " says Jacqueline Herrera-Giron, policy and training associate with the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. "Especially lately, with raids going on, there are children left behind at schools because the parents are afraid to come get them. Or so many times parents will keep their children home because they’re afraid of raids."

Herrera-Giron understands the problems. When she was 2 months old, Herrera-Giron’s parents fled El Salvador in the 1970s during the country’s civil war. They left their daughter with relatives until they could find a way to bring her into the United States legally. She was reunited with them eight years later.

"Meeting your parents for the first time at 8 years old was hard," Herrera-Giron says. "And my parents went through a lot of struggles here. Even though they had college degrees, they had to clean homes. These are the reasons I do the work I do."

While the Department of Immigration and Naturalization admits that stories such as this are heartbreaking, they also say people have to remember parents who cross into the United States illegally have chosen to break the law and put their children in a precarious position.

"We hear a lot that ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] is separating families and my response is that we don’t separate families, families make decisions, including coming here illegally. These are the consequences," says Gail Montenegro, spokesperson for ICE. "The parents have placed their families in this position."

If children are being left at home or school when their parent is detained, it’s because the parents have chosen not to contact their children or other caregivers. "One of the first questions we ask [if we detain someone] is about their children and we allow parents to make arrangements for childcare," Montenegro says. "And many times if that parent is the only one available [to care for the children], we will release them pending their hearing."

Also, while some undocumented parents are detained during workplace raids, most of those detained are criminals who have committed violent crimes, smuggled illegal aliens into the country, sold fraudulent documents or are foreign-born members of violent street gangs. "Our priority is to enforce the law. We’re focusing on the criminals who do crimes that make them deportable," Montenegro says.

Problems to last a lifetime

Being an undocumented child can mean that you don’t have access to the American dream and the better life going on around you.

"The reality hits when the kids are about 17, when they realize they don’t have papers and they want to give up," Wellems says. His parish holds fundraisers every year for these children caught in the middle, but there’s never enough money to help everyone.

"The kids will only get about $2,000, which can get them in a community college and get them started."

Fabian, 23, almost gave up. His parents brought him here from Mexico when he was about 6. In high school, he took drivers’ education and did very well—better than most of his friends.

"But I couldn’t get a license because I had to show identification. It didn’t make sense. ... I struggled because I was mad—mad at the whole situation. I know there’s rules, but it’s dumb to say a person doesn’t exist without a Social Security number."

Fabian worked hard in high school, even though his legal status meant his future was limited. He volunteered at the local library and was offered a scholarship, but turned it down because he needed to be documented to qualify.

Fabian was also volunteering at Holy Cross with Wellems. When parish staff realized Fabian was a computer whiz, they helped him apply for an identification number to use on college applications. They also gave him financial help. Next year, Fabian will graduate from a local college with a bachelors’ degree in computer engineering.

Unfortunately, there’s no happy ending for undocumented children.

"All my friends are working at big companies. I’m interested in that too, but ... I’m stuck. But at the same time, I know they’re here legally," Fabian says. "But when people say, well, you’re here illegally—I was just a kid. I didn’t have a choice."

Liz DeCarlo is a part-time associate editor and writer for Chicago Parent. She lives with her family in Darien.

A tale of two bills As politicians debate changes in immigration law, local immigrants fear what lies ahead

by Anne Halliday

The futures of more than 11 million people hang in the balance as Congress debates immigration.

Thousands have marched in protest of new legislation. But between the two bills proposed in Congress, what specifically is sparking controversy?

The bill that is passed will set the tone—either a path to citizenship for immigrants or felony charges and deportation.

Chicago Parent is going to try to walk you through these massive pieces of legislation. We will try to translate whenever possible, but we’re warning you, jargon will be necessary for accuracy.

Here we go...

The overall There are two bills—S2611 or the McCain-Kennedy bill in the Senate and HR4437 or the Sensenbrenner-King-Hyde bill in the House of Representatives. Both are now in conference committee.

(Translation: Two different bills have passed in the Senate and the House. Now both sides are trying to work out a compromise bill that will pass both houses.)

The House version HR4437, passed in December by the House, is considered an enforcement bill. It strengthens penalties and the language is such that many believe it could squash humanitarian efforts for illegal immingrants.

This bill includes an amendment—section 202—which broadens the current legal definition of smuggling and makes it a felony to "assist, encourage, direct or induce a person to reside or remain in the United States."

Some believe this means anyone providing humanitarian aid to illegal immigrants—churches, hospitals and social service organizations—will be prosecuted.

"You’re going to turn a priest or doctor into a felon," says Jacqueline Herrera-Giron, of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. "Teachers will be caught in this, too. I’d be a felon—several times."

Some insist that is the wrong interpretation. The current law is broad enough to allow prosecution of humanitarian aid workers now. But it has not happened. Rather, the intent of the language is to punish those directly involved with smuggling immigrants across the border or providing false identification.

Also, HR4437 would make it a felony to live illegally in the U.S.—something not true now. Currently, unlawful entry is a misdemeanor, but anyone who overstays in the country is deported, not prosecuted.

The House bill also expands the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996. Employers will be required to verify on a Web site the employees’ status by checking the name, birthday and Social Security number of a new hire. Currently, employers keep employees’ I-9 forms, but the government doesn’t check the information.

The Senate bill S2611, calling for "comprehensive immigration reform," was introduced by U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) amended and passed in May. (Actually, it was reintroduced but we’re not getting into the original bill because this is confusing enough already.)

The McCain-Kennedy bill suggests a guest worker program that would allow foreigners to enter the country temporarily. It also contains some provisions of the DREAM Act, which would allow illegal immigrant minors who have lived in the U.S. since they were very young and who are good students, to receive aid to attend a four-year college.

Rather than deport immigrants currently living here illegally, the McCain-Kennedy bill suggests a path to citizenship through a three-tier system.

Immigrants who have been here for less than two years would still be deported. Those here between two and five years could earn citizenship by paying a fine, demonstrating proficiency in English and a clean criminal record. Those who have lived in the U.S. illegally for more than five years go through a similar process. The system aims to recognize those immigrants and families who have developed lasting roots in the community.

The three-tier system aims to keep families together by exempting spouses, parents and children from annual caps on immigration numbers and increasing per-country limits. HR4437 does not specifically address the implications of immigration laws for families.

Both bills provide extensive measures for strengthening border control.

In spite of all the controversy, all parties seem to agree on one point: The current laws aren’t working.

"We need realistic laws," says Herrera-Giron. "Instead [immigrants] are subject to hard laws that will push people further into the shadows and the problem will never end unless we can fix broken laws."

"Congress has seen the need for laws that make sense," she says. "The rallies have put pressure on the government—this is a real problem that needs to be solved."

Anne Halliday is an intern at Chicago Parent and a student at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. Liz DeCarlo contributed to this story.


Marching for freedom CHILDREN’S VOICES ON IMMIGRATION On March 10 more than a half million immigrants marched for the right to be free and to urge the government not to approve HR 4437, an amendment to the Immigration and Nationality Act.

When I was passing Ashland Street, I saw many people waiting at the bus stop to go to the rally. I thought to myself that many heard about the law and wanted to support the march. But I did not only see Mexicans or Asians or different immigrants from many countries—I saw Americans there—people who were born in the United States of America.

Then I thought that many Americans don’t like what the law is going to do, so they supported the immigrants because many people say this is a free country. Many people agreed, "Why can’t immigrants be here in the United States?"

When we started walking down Jackson Boulevard I saw many people cheering and yelling phrases like "somos immigrantes sinos echan nos regresamos," which means if you send us back where we came from, we’re going to come back.

The sound of many people yelling out very close gave me goose bumps and I could hear that the many people joined together.

At that time I felt different emotions. First I felt joy, then I felt that emotion that makes you cry, but for a good reason. I felt those two emotions together. I wanted to cry with joy because many people joined together, not only immigrants but also people from the United States who cared about immigrants and thought that we had a reason to be here. That reason is to work and make a living. Jaime G., seventh grade, Chicago


Pride and possibilities CHILDREN’S VOICES ON IMMIGRATION On March 10 I did not attend school because I was involved in the march that many Latinos attended. Many minorities were there for the same reason, which was to fight for immigrant rights, for the rights of parents and families and friends. This day was to gather the Latino community and other minorities.

This made me feel great excitement and proud of my Latino community. I began to shed tears of pride and excitement and this made me realize that if one person can do anything, a large number of people can change the world. Our community can stop any type of inhumanity in the world and make this a better place for future generations.

This experience makes me look to the future and makes me want to become a leader in the Latino community. I want to fight for anyone who experiences any type of separation or any type of injustices because of their culture or skin color or anything that makes anybody feel discriminated against.

The feeling that was produced by the march makes me want to become a leader like Martin Luther King Jr. I am able to compare this situation to the ’60s with the segregation of blacks and whites. This gets me angry in a way because isn’t America a land of opportunity? Really, I don’t think that immigrants even have an opportunity in America.

I know that any Latino wants to become something better if they cross the border or the ocean. A person cannot become something if they don’t have any rights. Sometimes I wonder why politicians are trying to get rid of immigrants when everyone immigrated to this country at some point. That shows me that politicians do not know any history of this country and that they do not know how they are affecting their own country by trying to criminalize immigrants. When they say that immigrants are all criminals they are totally wrong.

Immigrants come for a better future and once they get here all they get is rejection. Students who are immigrants end up quitting school to get a job that pays little money because at the end they think to themselves, "Why go to school?" when they won’t be getting a good job because of their status in the United States. This gets me really sad because then Latinos are not becoming something better in life, which is the reason they come over to the United States in the first place. Maria M., seventh grade, Chicago


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