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LOCAL

A family's painful split decision

San Diego — EACH night, Leslie, 16, and Adilene Muñoz, 8, sleep restlessly in their parents' bed while their brother Marcos, 13, covers himself with a blanket on the floor beside them.

Across the border in Tijuana, their parents lie awake in their small third-story apartment, feeling anxious and helpless.

The family has been divided by the U.S.-Mexican border since Feb. 22, when immigration agents arrested and deported Abel Muñoz and Zulma Miranda. The couple decided to leave behind their three U.S.-born children after a relative agreed to watch over them.

"Being separated is very difficult, but why am I going to deprive them of their right to live there?" Miranda said in Spanish, sitting in the Tijuana apartment where she is living with her husband and her parents. "There is no future here. It's a very rough life here. I don't want that for my kids."

Leslie understands her parents' decision but said it's hard having to be a grown-up. Although their aunt lives with them, Leslie said most of the family's responsibilities fall to her. She makes sure Marcos and Adilene get to and from school, that they get dressed and fed, and that they do their homework.

"It's like I am a parent now," she said. "I have two children I am in charge of. They are dependent on me."

After years of lax enforcement, U.S. immigration authorities have stepped up arrests and deportations across the nation in recent months, forcing an increasing number of adults who are here illegally to make drastic and difficult decisions: take their U.S.-born children with them or leave them behind. About 3 million children who are U.S. citizens by birth have at least one illegal immigrant parent. When immigration agents encounter U.S.-born children, they usually leave them in the temporary custody of a relative or a friend. Occasionally, agents agree to postpone the parents' deportation if no one can be found. In extraordinary circumstances, immigration agents will contact local child protective services.

Parents don't get special rights just because their children were born here, said Virginia Kice, spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. If a judge has ordered them to leave the country, they have to leave.

"The fact that they have U.S.-citizen kids does not exempt them from complying with the court order," Kice said. "We are going to do everything we can to ensure that the court order is followed."

Immigrant-rights activists condemn the division of families.

"With these raids, they aren't just getting criminals. They are breaking up innocent families," said Oswaldo Cabrera, who has started a symbolic campaign called "Adopt an Immigrant" to pair illegal immigrants with U.S. citizens. "This is a great injustice."


NEARLY two decades ago, Abel Muñoz, 41, and Zulma Miranda, 37, crossed the border with temporary permits to seek treatment for their infant son. He had been diagnosed with leukemia and died soon after their arrival.

By then, Miranda was pregnant again and the couple decided to stay in the United States. Leslie was born in 1990, followed by Marcos three years later and Adilene in 1998.

Muñoz supported the family by working as a landscaper and butcher and then as an electrician, eventually earning up to $1,000 a week, he said. Miranda stayed home with the children, and both parents volunteered in their schools. The family bought a home and remodeled it. They paid taxes. They took trips to Universal Studios and Las Vegas. They became involved in their church.

But the parents still were illegal immigrants. And every day, they feared being arrested and deported. So when they met an attorney who told them he could get them green cards, they decided to turn themselves in to immigration officials.

The couple said the attorney assured them they would win the case because they had lived in the country for more than a decade and had never been in trouble with the law. What the attorney didn't tell them, they said, was that they would have to prove that their deportation would cause "exceptional and extremely unusual hardship" on their children.

"He never said it would be a risk," Miranda said.

The couple submitted their applications to immigration officials and soon after received a letter ordering them to court.

During the trial, both parents testified that their children, who are strong students and have won numerous awards, would not have access to the same educational opportunities in Mexico that they had in the United States. They also told the federal judge, Kenneth A. Bagley, that Marcos had sleep apnea and chronic fluid behind his eardrums and had regular doctor's appointments, paid for by Medi-Cal. Marcos wouldn't receive treatment that good in Mexico, they said.

Muñoz admitted using a fake green card and Social Security number to get work when he first arrived in the country, and working as an electrician without a license.

When asked what they would do with the children if ordered deported, both parents said they hadn't decided. Muñoz said the children would probably go to Mexico with them, but Miranda said she wanted them to continue their schooling in San Diego.

"It's a very difficult decision, but I would leave them here," she testified. "Because life is very difficult back there and the best for my children is here."

The judge asked, "What's more important, that you all be together as a family or that they get a good education?"

"Being united is very important, but I would separate them," Miranda said.

The judge asked Muñoz if he had considered the possibility of being deported when he decided to have children. "Well, yes," Muñoz responded.

"And so you knew at some point you might face the possibility of your children having to be uprooted?" the judge asked.

"Yes," Muñoz said.

Leslie and Marcos both submitted letters and took the stand to try to persuade the judge to let their parents stay.

"It would be a really big change if they took my parents away from me," Leslie wrote. "It would be a really sad situation that me and my sister, brother would go through."

In July 2005, the judge ruled against the couple.

In an oral decision, Bagley said the parents would "no doubt face a period of emotional and financial adjustment if forced to return to their native Mexico." But they had relatives there who could help them adapt, the judge said. And they could sell their five-bedroom house and walk away with as much as $300,000, which he said would "go a long way toward easing any readjustment to life in Mexico and could provide a relatively stable economic situation for them."

The couple said selling the house would help the family begin a life in Mexico, but they still believe their children are better off staying in San Diego to finish school — even without them.

Muñoz also said the house represents everything they worked for in the United States and the only thing he has to give to Leslie, Marcos and Adeline. "That's my children's inheritance," he said.

The couple appealed but lost again.

Their attorney told them they would receive a letter telling them when they needed to leave the country. Miranda said they decided to wait for the letter and, when it arrived, defy the deportation order by selling the house and moving to another city. But the letter — which immigration officials said they don't send in every case — never came.


AT about 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 22, Miranda heard banging at the front door. When she answered it, she said, the immigration agents came in and searched the house.

Marcos ran to tell his aunt, who was in a back studio. She and her four sons, all illegal, locked themselves in the bathroom and refused to open the door.

Leslie and Adilene, who were upstairs doing homework, ran downstairs to find out what was happening.

"My mom said, 'This is it. Immigration is here to get us,' " Leslie said.

A few minutes later, Muñoz arrived home from work and saw the officers at his house. When he reached the front door, the agents arrested him.

"They didn't let me come in," he said. "I was worried about my kids, my family. Who was going to take care of them?"

Miranda called her nephew, who lived next door, to come over and sign for the children. Then the agents arrested her too.

"It all happened so fast," Leslie said. "Immigration came and just took them away…. Within a half-hour, they were gone."


EVERYTHING is different for the Muñoz children now.

They refuse to sleep in their own bedrooms, instead crowding together in their parents' room each night.

Adilene jumps whenever she hears a knock at the door. She cries at night for her parents and keeps a photo of them beneath her pillow. She clings to her sister wherever they go.

"Now that my parents are not here, I don't want to live in this house," she said. "I don't want to even go to school. I don't want to eat…. I don't want to do anything."

Marcos' grades have dropped; he received two Fs on his last report card. He missed his last basketball game of the season, saying he did not want to play if his parents weren't there to watch.

Leslie rarely hangs out with her friends. She got her driver's license after her parents were deported so she could help out. When she goes out, she does errands — shopping for groceries, buying uniforms for Marcos and school supplies for Adilene.

Her grades also have dropped, from A's and Bs to Cs and Ds.

"I have a lot of stuff in my head," she said. "I can't concentrate the same anymore."

She used to sit at the computer for hours, listening to and downloading music. Now she goes on the computer to check bank balances and pay bills.

Leslie was able to pay this month's $2,500 mortgage — on April 15 — by borrowing money from a relative, but doesn't have enough for next month. She posted "For Rent" signs in front of the house. Leslie said she doesn't know where they will go once they do find renters. They may move into the house's back studio or a trailer in the backyard, she said. Or they might move to their cousin's house next door, but there are already two families living there.

Each night before they go to sleep, Leslie calls her parents so they can all say goodnight.

"Good night, Papi," Adilene said in Spanish one recent night.

"Did you do your homework, my love?" her father asked.

"Yes, Papa," she said, blowing kisses into the phone. "I love you very much."


MIRANDA and Muñoz count the days until the weekend. That's when their children walk across the border into Mexico.

During a recent visit, the family tried to catch up on the week apart. Miranda grilled the children about their schoolwork. She asked Leslie about the bills.

"I paid the Mervyns and JC Penneys," Leslie told her mother.

"I don't want our payments to be late, because if we refinance, we have to have good credit," Miranda said.

"The lights I paid," she said. "And the water I paid a while ago."

She and Muñoz spent their savings on legal bills — nearly $20,000. They are looking for work in Tijuana but haven't found anything yet. Their only income is the $30 they earn once a week selling clothes, toys and menudo on the street. The couple recently pawned their wedding rings.

"Look at my home and look where I am now," Muñoz said, gesturing to the apartment that he is remodeling to keep busy.

The longer they go without work, Muñoz said, the more they realize they may have to eventually sell the house.

Miranda said she constantly misses her children and worries that they don't have everything they need, that they are not keeping up with their schoolwork, that they aren't safe. Some days, they talk on the phone as many as a dozen times.

The afternoons are the worst, she said. "That's when they need me the most. Here I feel helpless."

She and Muñoz think about trying to sneak across the border, but they worry about the risks. They are trying to find another attorney to see if there's a way to return legally. And they are closely watching the news and hoping for a change in the law.

Shortly after the children arrived in Tijuana, the family went for a walk to get tacos and ice cream. Adilene stayed within arm's reach of her mother. Muñoz wrapped his arm around Marcos and kissed him on the head. He teased Leslie about her outfit.

"Look at that sweater — it is half a sweater," he said. "We can't even afford a whole sweater."

At a nearby restaurant, Muñoz said a quick grace before the meal.

"We give thanks for the life we have," he said. "Even though we are far, we are still very close."


anna.gorman@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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