AKRON, Ohio — In the year since her husband was deported to Mexico for working in America without legal status, Leonor Ferreyra has struggled as a single mother.
At 3 a.m., she rises to feed her infant son, who suffers ear infections. At 6 a.m., she reports to work in a window factory. At night, she often fills out paperwork to try to stall her own expulsion to Mexico, which a judge ordered last year and then agreed to delay.
Ferreyra came to America illegally 18 years ago with an uncle after her mother disappeared and her father died. She pays her mortgage, has never been charged with a crime, and is desperate to remain with her three young children, all of whom were born in America and thus are entitled to stay.
“It is a lot of pressure,” said Ferreyra, 36. “My whole life is here.”
The Obama administration has deported a record number of illegal immigrants in the last three years, and a little-noticed effect has been the breakup of thousands of families. One in five people deported last year — more than 93,000 in all — were parents of U.S. citizens, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The overwhelming majority had criminal convictions, had reentered the country after being deported, had ignored a judge’s order, or otherwise had been identified under federal guidelines as priorities for forced removal, ICE figures show.
But about 10% — including Ferreyra — did not fit those categories, and immigration activists argue they should be exempt from deportation. Some advocates further contend that parents who enter the country illegally to stay with their children should be granted greater leniency.
“Parents should not be separated from their children,” said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who has proposed a law to protect parental rights during deportation proceedings. “Let’s deport gang members and criminals instead of the parents of young U.S. citizen children.”
Opponents argue just as forcefully that immigration laws should be enforced irrespective of the effect on families.
Granting waivers to such parents would amount to “de facto amnesty,” said Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley), who chairs the immigration subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee. “We’re talking about people who have already exhausted all appeals and the judge dropped the hammer.”
The Obama administration last year ordered immigration agencies to focus on deporting people who pose a threat to public safety or are “repeat and egregious” immigration law violators, rather than those who simply are here without documentation.
In addition, immigrant communities have embraced a new program that allows young undocumented immigrants who came to America under the age of 16 to apply for work permits and temporary protection from deportation.
The deferred deportation program provides no protection for their parents, however.
Immigration authorities tend to deport fathers more often than mothers, studies show. But that often leaves single-parent families that struggle to pay bills. One apparent result is an increase in abandoned or abused children.
More than 5,000 American-born children of deported parents are in foster care around the country, according to the Applied Research Center, a New York City-based liberal think tank. It predicts that figure will triple in the next five years if policies don’t change.
“The state is creating fragile families and low-income, single-parent households,” said Joanna Dreby, an sociologist at the University at Albany, State University of New York.
Dreby, who spent five years interviewing immigrant families in northeast Ohio and central New Jersey, said many children of illegal immigrants had developed a fear of police. She said the children often had behavior linked to psychological trauma, such as bed-wetting, uncontrolled crying and insomnia.
The issue has drawn sufficient attention that the Department of Health and Human Services is preparing to fund a yearlong national study on how immigration enforcement affects the welfare of children.
“This is a relatively unexamined area,” said Ajay Chaudry, deputy assistant secretary for human services policy.
Chaudry recently visited health clinics and preschools in immigrant communities in California, Texas, Georgia and North Carolina. He said that local officials described a “great deal of fear” among illegal immigrant parents, and that some families were afraid to use government health programs.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement policy is to not detain or deport people who are primary caregivers for children, except for repeat immigration violators and convicted criminals, said Brian Hale, an ICE spokesman.
“For parents who are ordered removed, it is their decision whether or not to relocate their children with them,” Hale said.
Esperanza Pacheco must make that choice by Sept. 20, when she is scheduled to be deported from Painesville, a Cleveland suburb, to Mexico, which she left in 1995. She hasn’t decided whether to take her four U.S.-born daughters back to Guanajuato, where drug cartels engage in violent clashes, or leave them behind.
Pacheco’s husband, a landscaper, was deported to Mexico last summer for the second time. He was a priority for deportation because he was convicted of a felony in 2006 as a repeat immigration violator.
Pacheco, 40, also has a criminal record. She was convicted in 2002 of child endangering, a misdemeanor. She says she left two of her girls, then 6 and 3, alone in her trailer when she went to apply for a job. Immigration officials granted her a stay of deportation last year, but the deferral is about to expire.
She has filed a petition to stay, but she knows immigration agents may come for her. So she has hung a black purse with copies of important documents and family photographs — her deportation bag — on the wall next to her bed.
“Everything I care about most is in here,” she said, pointing to the nylon satchel. “When they come, I don’t want to be running around trying to find things.”