The Devastation of Deportation A Mom Leaves the US fearing Separation from her Children

Mirna  was 5 years old and Emilio was 7.  Mirna was a kindergarten student, Emilio was in first grade when I met these children. Their parents are from Honduras.  As an ESOL teacher, I became involved with this family because both kids were struggling in school. They were missing many school days, and both had repeated kindergarten.

Last summer, their father was deported to Honduras. Zoila, their mom, began trying to find a job but it proved to be almost an impossible task. She didn’t have a driver’s license, so job hunting was especially difficult, and no one would offer her a job without a work permit. As time passed, she became depressed to the point where she could barely function.  Getting out of bed required great effort, and there were many days when the children missed the school bus.  And when they came home in the afternoons, they would often find their mom sitting in the same spot where they had left her hours before, unable to fix a meal or do the laundry.

For over a year, the community has surrounded this family and tried to help, but without legal status, there are few options available, particularly for single moms.  The children’s school was very supportive as faculty, staff, and administrators realized the family’s difficult circumstances.  With extra attention and support at school, Mirna was making some progress but Emilio continued to struggle.  LUCHA helped the family with counseling and with food from the food bank, and their church has pitched in as well.  But it wasn’t enough.

Zoila made the difficult decision to return to Honduras.

Once the presidential election was over, fear and stress over the future plight of immigrants in the US made their situation worse, and Zoila began to think of returning to Honduras.  She feared separation from her children, thinking it will be just a matter of time before she is caught and deported to Honduras, like the children’s father.  And as American citizens, her children will be left alone in the United States, with no source of financial support and without their parents or other family members.

Zoila, Emilio, and Mirna left the country on March 14, despite the fact that Zoila is very fearful for her future and for that of the children.  She fears the  violence in her home country and understands the lack of job opportunities there.  While the children speak Spanish, Emilio is terrified.  He’s seen many of the challenges that his mom has faced since his dad was deported, and while he tried to be “the man of the house,” it wasn’t enough.  He’s also old enough to have heard things about living in Central America.  If he was already struggling in school in the US, studying in Spanish in Honduras is going to be even more difficult.  Not to mention the cultural issues he will face as an “American” kid.

However, there are few choices available to Zoila.  She wonders if she has failed her children by not being able to provide the future for them that she dreamed of — high school, college, good jobs and a stable future.  She hopes that once she is surrounded by her extended family, she will have the emotional support necessary to begin to heal her wounds and address her issues of depression and low self esteem.  She knows she will face poverty, but there will be peace in her heart knowing that nobody will separate from her children.

*This article was written by an ESOL teacher.

Actions Have Consequences The Decision to Leave a Child Behind

“How do you feel when your parents migrate to the US . . . and leave you behind?”  This wasn’t an easy question for students to answer in El Salvador.

We were visiting an inner-city high school, Instituto Isaac Newton, located in the heart of San Salvador.  The seven of us, all Baptists, were seeking to better understand this country and how churches and individuals in the US can come alongside and help with the challenges faced by families there.  And to learn more about immigrants in our own country in the process.

The challenges of the neighborhood were apparent just outside the entrance of the school, where we saw young men being cuffed and interrogated by the police.  We walked through busy streets lined with vendors and learned that many were parents of students at the school.  It was a section of the city rarely seen by tourists.

Many students asked to meet with us, to tell their stories and ask questions about the United States.  Approximately 25% of the students said they had a parent living in the United States, and more than 75% had a close friend or family member in the US.  Only a few had not been directly touched by emigration.  Public education is free through secondary (9th grade).  Isaac Newton and other similar schools seek to provide a high quality private school education for upper-level students at minimal cost (less than $40/month).  These students are studying for careers in healthcare, tourism, business, etc., largely thanks to assistance from parents and other relatives in the US who send money back.

Ana*, a petite girl standing in the back of the packed classroom, raised her hand and bravely answered our question.  “It’s hard, really hard” when you don’t have both parents with you.  “My dad is in the US, and I miss him so much.  But I know he’s away because he loves us and we need the money he makes there.”   There’s no work for him here, Ana said, and she wouldn’t be in school if her dad wasn’t sending money back home to support the family.  She said she was very appreciative of the sacrifice he had chosen to make for her and for her family.  And then Ana broke down and sobbed uncontrollably as another student hugged her.  Other students swiped at teary eyes.

While the kids often feel hurt, abandoned, or lonely when their parent or parents leave them behind, they say that they have other family around to help, and they know that the absent parent has made a hard decision that is for the good of the family.  Immigrant parents say that one of the hardest issues for them is the decision to leave a child behind.

However, Latin Americans often view children as part of a rich family tradition where the members are strongly connected and where aunts, uncles, grandparents and even older siblings all share in the raising of a child.  The decision is often a family decision, made in the best interest of the child as well as the extended family.  “How could I bring my son with me, to a place where I had no job, no place to live?” said Maria,* a mom from Honduras.  “I think it would have been too hard.  He was better off with my mom until I could get established.”  After a few years, she sent for her son, Jorge,* who was 10, to join her.  Maria rents a room and works part-time at McDonalds to support her family.  Jorge is able to petition for asylum.

But even the best intentions can cause pain for the immigrant parent.  Martin* talks about his teenage son with regret for what he’s lost.  “My son stayed in Mexico, on the ranch with my parents, and he goes to school and rides horses and helps my dad with the cattle.  He talks about girls.  He’s a great kid — almost a man,” said Martin.  He can count on one hand the number of times he’s seen his daughter.  Martin’s wife eventually divorced him and remarried.  While he thought of bringing his children to the US, he decided they were better off in Mexico.  They’re healthy, happy, and safe; they do well in school; and his son will one day manage the family ranch.  And the kids are a big help with his aging parents.  “It seems to have worked out well for everyone but me,” says Martin, who is an undocumented roofer.  “I just work and send money so they can all live well.”

The decision to bring children later on to join parents doesn’t always work out well, either.  Cecilia* was almost 16 when she joined her mom, stepdad, and four younger siblings in the US.  Coming from a rural part of El Salvador where she had lived with her grandparents, she missed the freedom of the country.  “Here, I can’t go outside — there’s no place to go, and I don’t feel safe.”  She doesn’t speak English, and doesn’t relate well to her siblings.  “I don’t even like them; they’re so spoiled and self-centered,” she says.  While Cecilia worked the land and helped grow beans and corn and vegetables until coming to the US, that concept is totally foreign to her US-born siblings.  They seem to her to be unappreciative of her parents’ hard work to provide a good home for them.  “I think they make fun of me.  I hate it here, I just want to go back home.  I didn’t know it would be like this,” she said.  Cecilia’s mom agrees that perhaps it was a mistake to bring Cecilia to the US.  “But I wanted to make things right, to have us live as a family.  I always felt guilty for leaving her behind.”

The decision to emigrate is a highly individual decision based on a number of factors, including violence, safety and security, poverty, economic and educational opportunities, and the desire to provide the best for one’s children.  It is never made lightly, and it isn’t without sacrifice, for both parents and children.  It changes the family dynamics forever.  The children, like Ana, grow up quickly and adopt a mature attitude regarding their parents’ reasons for emigrating.  On an intellectual and practical level, she knows her dad made a good decision for his family.  But her tears are evidence of the pain and heartache involved.

*names changed

The Hope LUCHA's support provides encouragement for young immigrants, as seen in this new video

As we complete ten years of work with immigrant families, LUCHA has the privilege of knowing many young adults who have literally grown up with us.  “The Hope” features two of these young people.

We initially focused on the needs of immigrant adults but soon realized that we needed to include the family as well. Immigrants often told us that they had come to the US to give their children a better life, and we wanted to help make this possible. We support families by providing school supplies, offering youth and enrichment activities during the summers, and providing homework assistance to children.

LUCHA helps create a strong, healthy family environment by giving parents the tools they need to be good parents. We guide them through the challenges of parenting bicultural children who are both Latino and American, who share values from both cultures. We help them understand the school system and the role of parents in the educational process.

And these efforts pay off. Watch our new video, The Hope, to see how two young immigrants are thriving in college today, thanks to the sacrifice of their parents, the encouragement of LUCHA, and the willingness of a school to accept them.

Leaving For A New Tomorrow Sue Smith talks with a father, husband and son separated from his family in Mexico

We think of machismo as being somewhat synonymous with the Latin American male. You know the stereotype – the big, strong guy who rules the family with authority and strength, who would never shed a tear, whose word is law in his household.

Recently I asked one of these big, strong macho guys (a roofer, by the way) about his family back in Mexico. He told me about his wife, kids, and his aging parents; how it feels to be separated from them, and what he’s missing by being in the US. He talked about the loneliness and struggles and yet why he stays.

“My son is a good kid, and he’s growing up so fast! My wife and kids live on a finca with family. My son is 14 and in a good school, lives in a safe, rural area. He helps care for the animals and rides horses, and is taking on more responsibility from my dad . . . sure, he’s missed me growing up, but it’s normal for me not to be around. He knows why I’m not there, but it still makes me sad. I sometimes worry he doesn’t even care anymore that I’m away from them.”

Why ARE you here and not with them, I asked. “It’s my responsibility to provide for my family. In Mexico, I might make $100 per week if I’m lucky. That barely pays for the basics – food and shelter, maybe transportation. There’s not enough for clothes and shoes and things the kids need for school, for my wife to have nice things. And certainly not enough to help my parents as they get older. My mom had a stroke and can’t speak anymore. When I call, she just cries. I can hear her, trying to talk, but she always ends up sobbing. I want to be there, to help them, but they also need the money I send back. I can’t do both.” The macho image is slipping away.

I ask about his daughter, and his smile lights up his face. “I left for the U.S. two months before she was born, so I didn’t see her until she was five. And wow, she’s so great! I’ve seen her only that one time. But she can’t stop asking me where I am, when I’m coming home, why I can’t be at her birthday party. She reminds me there are events at school that parents are expected to attend, and I’m not there. She’s pretty hard on me, and I feel terrible. Sometimes I feel like a bad parent, because life isn’t all about the money. I’m missing so much with my family. But I’d do anything, give them everything, even if it means I have to be away from them.” He clears his throat, swipes at his watering eyes, and the macho image disappears completely.

I’m often asked, how can a parent leave his or her child behind in their home country for years at a time? The assumption is that they (dads, moms) just walk away, thinking only of themselves. But it’s not so simple. The current economic realities, the responsibility of providing for both young children and aging parents, and our cultural norms place enormous pressures on us.