The Great Divide of Citizenship

Times Staff Writer

Maria Flores trekked with her four children across mountains into the United States, planning to earn some quick money and go back home to Mexico City.

Seven years later, she is still here. Her fifth child, Brandon Rodriguez, was born in the U.S., making him a citizen.

So for Flores, the question of whether Congress loosens or strengthens immigration laws, whether it puts undocumented workers on a path to citizenship or deportation, is not so much political as deeply personal.

That’s why she skipped work and kept her children out of school Monday to march for immigrant rights: She dreads seeing her family split up. She wants all of them to share equally in what the U.S. has to offer.


“We’re planning a future for our children, but [politicians] are planning another future,” said Flores, 31, a housekeeper who lives in Los Angeles. “They are deciding our lives.”

Flores’ family is among tens of thousands of mixed nationality in the region with huge emotional stakes in the congressional debate over illegal immigration. In many cases, parents are worried about being separated from their U.S.-born children or being forced to return, with them, to Mexico.

They are hoping for legalization but fearful of arrest.

“In a lot of ways, the mixed-status families have the most at stake,” said Randy Capps, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan research organization. “They realize how much they have been affected, and could be affected, by this.”

Nearly two-thirds -- an estimated 3 million -- of all children of illegal immigrants are citizens, according to data compiled by the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan research group.

“People think ‘legals’ live in this house and ‘illegals’ live in this house,” said immigration attorney Carl Shusterman. “It’s not usually that simple.”

Families of mixed status have long lived with the threat of being divided, prompting undocumented parents to make strategic decisions about where to live, work and travel. But in recent months, as Congress has been wrestling with immigration issues, their anxiety level has risen.

A House bill passed in December would make illegal immigrants felons, while a Senate proposal would create a path toward residency and eventual citizenship. Another proposal being floated in the Senate would limit the possibility of legal status to illegals who had married U.S. citizens, had U.S. citizen children or had otherwise put down “deep roots” in the U.S. A group of Republican legislators has introduced a bill that would no longer grant birthright citizenship to children born to illegal immigrants.

Flores said she has spent the last seven years building a life and a home for her and her children. All of that now hangs in the balance.

“If the government decides tomorrow we are criminals, we are going to lose everything,” she said. “We are going to be sent home how we arrived, with nothing, only the great pain that we lost so much time.”

Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Virginia Kice said the agency should not be blamed for splitting parents and children.

“These families made decisions, often years ago, that put the unity of their families at risk,” she said. “The fact that someone has a U.S.-citizen child does not change the fact that they are here illegally.”

Many opponents of illegal immigration say such people shouldn’t be allowed to stay in the U.S. just because their children were born here. Some groups call the children “anchor babies,” because they sometimes are used to fight their parents’ deportation and, when the children turn 21, they can petition for their parents to become legal residents.

“The presence of citizen children is not by itself sufficient reason for them to stay,” said Steve Camarota, director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies, a conservative think tank based in Washington, D.C. “If you do that, you convey to everyone who has played by the rules and waited that they are dupes.”

Diana Hull, who runs Californians for Population Stabilization, said illegal immigrants give birth here to stake a claim in the country.

“Of course this is a magnet,” she said. “They come here obviously, deliberately to have a citizen child.”

Hull said children born of illegal immigrants should not have an automatic right to citizenship. Although she is sympathetic to the youngsters, she said, they are a potential drain on public services, and the state and the nation cannot afford them, let alone their families.

“The impact on California is that citizen children [of illegal immigrants] add to the population growth,” Hull said. “We can’t sustain this kind of growth.”

But parents who face deportation and use their citizen children as a defense rarely succeed. Under a legal change 10 years ago, parents were required to prove that their deportation would cause “exceptional and extremely unusual hardship” to the children.

L.A. immigration attorney Alary E. Piibe said he recently won a case in which the child had a form of hemophilia, but lost one involving a child who had a mild learning disability. “It is heartbreaking,” he said. “Clearly something has to be done. Congress has to figure out something to do with these people.”

Parents ordered deported face a Hobson’s choice, prompting some to leave their children with relatives in the U.S. but more to go further underground, said another Los Angeles immigration attorney, Peter Schey.

“Their children come first,” he said. “If that means you have to break a law, then you break a law. That happens a thousand times over every day of the week.”

Benjamin and Londy Cabreras -- he from Mexico and she from Guatemala -- came here illegally in the 1980s and are fighting to stay in the country with their U.S. citizen daughters, Diana, 14, and Jocelyn, 12.

In a rare decision, a Los Angeles immigration judge ruled in 2002 that the parents could stay because their eldest daughter was academically gifted and her studies would be “savagely and permanently interrupted” by her parents’ deportation.

The government appealed the case, and the battle continues. As legislators hammer out immigration legislation, Benjamin Cabreras, a waiter, said they should consider the effect it could have on families like his. He believes that he and his wife, a teacher’s assistant, have earned the right to be here legally because they have worked hard and paid taxes, without receiving any help from the government. They have not decided what to do if they lose.

“It’s not right for us to be split up,” said Cabreras, 38. “It would destroy the whole family. We are not the only ones who would suffer. Our daughters would too.”

Diana said that she wants to attend college in the U.S., but that “this might ruin it.”

Maria Ortega, 29, and Adrian Elizondo, 38, are living here illegally with their undocumented son and two citizen daughters. Ortega said that she didn’t come to the U.S. intending to have children but that the years passed and it happened.

If legalization legislation succeeds, Ortega said, they can stop driving without licenses and working with fake papers. But if tougher enforcement prevails, she fears they will no longer be able to hide from agents.

“It’s illogical” to divide families, Ortega said, because her daughters could end up in foster care in the United States at a significant cost to the government.

Despite being U.S. citizens, children born to illegal immigrants are more likely to live in poverty and crowded housing and less likely to have health coverage than children born to citizens, experts said. Citizen children in mixed-status families are eligible for public assistance, but their parents often fear that seeking government help could lead to deportation or hurt their chances for future legalization.

“They are going to be reluctant to get health, nutrition and other kinds of benefits that their children are entitled to,” said Michael Fix, vice president of the Migration Policy Institute think tank. “Parents worry that they won’t be able to become citizens because they are a ‘public charge.’ ”

Guadalupe Aguilera, 39, crossed the border illegally from Mexico nearly two decades ago and now has five U.S.-born children. She earns $425 a week working two jobs -- as a clerk at a retail warehouse during the week and a cook at a pizza parlor on the weekends.

She and her live-in boyfriend pay $1,250 for a two-bedroom apartment but lack health insurance for their family.

Aguilera said she doesn’t want to teach her children to be dependent on the government, so the only public assistance they receive is from the federal Women, Infants and Children program to buy groceries for their youngest children, Carolina, 3, and Veronica, 1.

Aguilera, who has participated in the recent rallies for immigrant rights, said she would be able to get a better job and provide more for her children if she could become a legal resident or a citizen.

“I lose a lot by being undocumented,” she said. “I lose money that I could give to my children.”

Her eldest son, Marvin, 17, said he doesn’t know what he will do if his mother and stepfather are deported. “I work,” he said, “but I can’t support everyone.”