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Monday, June 21, 2004

Chicago Tribune | When the law splits families

Chicago Tribune | When the law splits families

When the law splits families
Father's Day rally in Pilsen calls attention to plight of children born in the U.S. whose illegal immigrant mother or father may face deportation

By Oscar Avila
Tribune staff reporter
Published June 21, 2004

Maria Isabel Benitez flouted the law, authorities say, by sneaking into the country from Mexico just hours after she was barred from entering. To many, she typifies illegal immigrants who harm U.S. citizens by taking jobs and straining social services.

But when Benitez was picked up last month by immigration authorities who would eventually deport her, those most directly affected were three U.S. citizens: her school-age children, who returned home one day with the panicked question: "Where's Mommy?"

Across Illinois and the nation, immigrant families increasingly find themselves straddling the boundaries of the law. A growing number of children pursue their dreams as U.S. citizens, born with the full rights of this country. Many of their parents, here illegally, watch with pride but also with the fear that their families could be split or uprooted without warning by deportation.

The growth in "mixed-status families" like the Benitezes, who now make up the vast majority of immigrant families, follows decades of lax immigration enforcement that has allowed undocumented foreigners to plant roots in the U.S. with little interference from authorities.

That has muddled the traditional arguments about who belongs in the U.S. and who doesn't. Critics of illegal immigration contend that parents use their citizen children to circumvent immigration requirements, and some would make citizenship less automatic for the children.

About 125 supporters joined two of Benitez's children, Rodolfo Jr. and Brenda, for a Father's Day rally in Pilsen on Sunday to urge lawmakers not to break up other families. Rodolfo Jr., sipped on a lime snow-cone and Brenda clutched a stuffed brown bunny as their father, who also is a U.S. citizen, told the crowd that his family is not unique.

"So many congressmen say this is a country that has good family values, good religious values. Then they go to work and they sign laws that break up families," Rodolfo Benitez said in an interview. "They don't want to accept or admit that this is hurting U.S. citizens."

Fox takes stand

After the Benitezes became a cause celebre in Chicago's Hispanic community, Mexican President Vicente Fox told a Cicero audience last week that he would order his foreign minister to press U.S. authorities to let the mother back into the country.

Census data show that 85 percent of immigrant families with children have at least one non-citizen parent and one U.S. citizen child. The Washington-based Urban Institute reports about 2.7 million U.S. citizens under 18 have at least one parent who is an undocumented immigrant.

Martin Barrios, 34, of Cicero said he has lived here since 1985, long enough for his three children to feel like Chicago is their home. Now that Barrios faces deportation, he worries about his children, who only know Mexico from vacations.

"A child is like a plant. If you don't take all their roots back to Mexico, they aren't going to grow and survive," Barrios said.

Barrios' 10-year-old son, Alan, said: "I don't want my father to leave my side, but I don't want to go to a country that isn't mine."

In Congress and the courts, authorities are weighing the question of whether it is fair to punish U.S. citizen children for the immigration sins of their parents.

Crisanto Leyva is urging a federal appeals court in Chicago to overturn his deportation, arguing that it would violate the rights of his two citizen children, who essentially would be deported with him. Immigration lawyers hope the case will set a precedent for the treatment of mixed-status families.

Under a 1996 law, illegal immigrants can get their deportation suspended if they have lived here longer than 10 years, have a clean criminal record and can prove that the deportation would represent "exceptional and extremely unusual hardship" to a close relative with legal status.

The federal courts have used the standard of comparing the children in question with other U.S. citizen children of undocumented immigrants. Since it is not unusual for citizen children to return with their parents to Mexico, few parents win their appeals, attorney Rosalba Pina said.

But Pina, Leyva's attorney, argues that the children of immigrants should be compared with children of U.S. citizens. By that standard, the Leyvas' two citizen children, Richard and Christine, will suffer if they return to the inferior education and unfamiliar environment of Mexico.

"The judge should compare Christine and Richard to John Smith's kids down the block, to any citizen child," Pina said. "When we are born here, we have the expectation of living in this country, of studying in this country. If you don't get that chance, in a sense, what they're creating is second-class citizens."

In their court filings, Department of Justice lawyers counter that overturning Leyva's deportation would unfairly give him special rights via a third party, his children.

Critics of illegal immigration have little sympathy for those parents, saying they have children in the U.S. as a way to stay in the country.

Some lawmakers complain that these "anchor babies," once they turn 21, will be free to petition the U.S. government to sponsor other relatives for legal entry.

Just as galling, critics say, is that illegal immigrants such as Maria Benitez use their U.S. citizen children to elicit public support for staying in the country.

"I think there's a real racket going on, that if they come here and have a child, they know it would be a perfect way for them to stay," said U.S. Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.).

Foley has sponsored bills to eliminate the 14th Amendment, which grants U.S. citizenship to any child born in this country. The amendment was enacted to guarantee citizenship for freed slaves.

Foley's legislation, which has languished in Congress, would grant citizenship only to the children of naturalized citizens or immigrants with green cards, similar to policies held by Britain and other nations.

Opponents fight back

Meanwhile, lawmakers in Arizona and Colorado have pushed measures that would add requirements for undocumented immigrants who seek non-emergency local services, even if they would also be discouraged from seeking services for their citizen children.

"If people are afraid that they will get turned in if they take their legal citizen child to apply for a school lunch program or whatever, I'm not worried about that," said Kathy McKee, state director for Protect Arizona Now, which is organizing a petition campaign. "Maybe they need to go back to the country where they are not illegal."

But other policymakers worry about data showing that immigrant parents are less likely than citizen parents to obtain health insurance and benefits for children who are U.S. citizens and eligible.

"The person with the strongest claim is the child, but the parent is the gatekeeper to the social service system and the safety net. It becomes a real barrier," said Michael Fix, director of the Immigration Studies Program at the Urban Institute and an expert on mixed-status families.

Illustrating the delicate dance of mixed-status families, undocumented parents in Illinois who apply for KidCare, a government health insurance program, often have to provide letters explaining that the name on their paycheck stub--used to prove income eligibility--differs from their real name.

The Illinois Department of Public Aid accepts those letters and does not notify immigration authorities that parents presumably are working with fake Social Security cards, a department spokesman said.

But as the policy debates continue, supporters of immigrant rights say families such as the Benitezes provide a powerful emotional symbol for their desire to legalize the nation's undocumented immigrants.

"We ask the Lord, on this Father's Day, that God open the hearts of all to help these families," said Rev. Jose Julio Jaramillo of Providence of God Catholic Church at Sunday's rally. "If we are your sons, you have given your inheritance and your land to all of us, not only a few."

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