TIJUANA, Mexico -- Hundreds, if not thousands, of deported parents are trying to reunite with children left behind in the United States. In 2011, some 1,500 children in Southern California were removed from detained or deported parents and placed in state care.
That’s according to the Applied Research Center, a think-tank specializing in race issues that previously published a report, "Shattered Families." In it, the ARC projected that between 2012 and 2014, 15,000 more kids could face a similar fate.
Israel Soriano's young son is one of them.
"I've had a very bad experience in TJ," Soriano tells me. Soriano, who's now 27, didn't really have to explain. Scars on his face tell part of the story. Recently, he said, he was jumped and robbed while walking home from work.
Soriano is still new to Tijuana, and is still trying to adjust to life in Mexico. He grew up in Orange County, California, after his mother brought him to the U.S. as a baby.
"I didn’t even realize I was an immigrant until I was like 14 years old," he said. But Soriano was deported two years ago, at age 25, after a drug arrest.
"I was in a nightclub with ecstasy pills and they arrested me," he continued. "The thing is that I had never been to jail. I am also a father, so… they were telling me that if I didn’t come out of jail, that they were going to adopt my son, if I didn’t fight for him and all that."
Soriano pled guilty because he thought it meant he would be released from jail faster. He didn't think the plea had any immigration consequences. But it did: permanent, mandatory deportation, with no right to counsel or appeal.
His 2-year-old son is now with a foster family in California while Soriano tries to prove to the state that he's fit to parent. That includes taking classes on raising a child and regular drug testing.
For children who do become wards of the state, reuniting with a parent can be difficult, if not impossible. That's true for anyone, but detained or deported immigrants sometimes face even higher barriers.
Because of general processing backlogs, immigrants can be kept in detention for long amounts of time. That means parental rights can be terminated before a parent has a chance to be released to or prove they're fit to regain custody.
Candi Mayes is the director of the nonprofit Dependency Legal Group in San Diego. Her team of lawyers is contracted to represent dependent children—that is, kids without legal custodians.
Mayes said immigration policies and child welfare policies don't work well together—in fact, the time frames sometimes clash.
Worse, it can be hard to locate parents being held in detention facilities, or those who have already been deported.
"Some of these detention facilities are not easily accessible," Mayes said. "Trying to make sure the communication is happening between the kids and the parents, just knowing that everybody is OK is a huge deal, it can take ten days for anybody to get that information."
Reunification attempts are even more difficult when a crime is involved, which is often the case. A 1996 change to immigration laws in the United States expanded the definition of "aggravated felonies," meaning that some misdemeanors now count. Those deported under such a conviction are banned from the U.S. for life.
That means deported parents deal with someone like Janet Barragán. She's the international liaison for San Diego County's child welfare agency, and helps guide Mexican parents through the steps necessary for them to reunite with children left behind in the U.S.
"Most of them stay in Tijuana," Barragán said. "Although they are from the interior, they stay in Tijuana, so we help them navigate and access those systems in Tijuana."
So how many families are face this kind of separation?
The numbers are hard to ascertain. In San Diego County, the agency responsible for child welfare doesn't track data on how many kids in foster care have been removed from detained or deported parents.
But, according to data from a FOIA request filed and recently published by journalist Seth Freed Wessler, more than 12,000 immigrant parents of American kids were deported between 2010 and the last quarter of 2012—and that's in Southern California alone.
Lauren Mack, a spokesperson for Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, relayed a prepared statement from the agency on the issue.
"As outlined in the agency's June 2010 Civil Enforcement Priorities memo, ICE will typically not detain individuals who are the primary caretakers of children, unless the individual is legally subjected to mandatory detention based on the severity of their criminal or immigration history," the statement read.
In California, two new bills, the Call for Kids Act and the Reuniting Immigrant Families Act, aim to help separated families by mandating phone calls for detainees and by giving child welfare more time to reunite parents and kids.
But for Soriano, there's nothing to do but wait. He expects to bring his son to Mexico by June 2013, although at times he has doubts.
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"I'm supposed to have him in a safe environment," he said. "I love my son, and I want him to be with me, but that's one of the things that crosses my mind… Mexico can be really very scary … like, I am putting his life at risk? A father is supposed to want the best for his son."
"I know how much better it is over there," Soriano said. "It's a lot better than what I have seen here in Mexico."
He also hopes the child's American foster mom stays in contact—as a formal godmother.
"I am very grateful to this woman for taking care of my son and treating him as her own," he said. "I know you get attached to the baby that you take care of every day, I want her to be part of my son's life."
This report was produced and reported by Erin Siegal, Joel Medina, and Beth Caldwell, whose independent journalism is funded by a 2012-13 grant from the Soros Foundation.