SAN DIEGO -- On a hot Monday afternoon in Tijuana, Daniel Bribiescas is taking a new client, 24-year-old Tania Velasquez, to the local office of Mexico’s child welfare agency.
Bribiescas is a lawyer who works for the Madre Asunta shelter for migrant women and children. His job is to help deportees piece back together their lives, and often, their families.
Velasquez, like many of Bribiescas’s clients, is working to regain custody of her child. The 3-year-old girl has been staying with a friend of the family since Velasquez’s run-in with the law in Anaheim, Calif. last year.
Velasquez must now prove to an Orange County caseworker and a family court judge that she can provide a suitable life for her daughter in Mexico.
Nearly one in four immigrants deported from the United States between July 2010 and September 2012 has a child who is a U.S. citizen, according to the online journal Colorlines. That's more than 200,000 people.
Velasquez crossed into the U.S. illegally in 2006. Last year, police stopped her and her husband, and they found drugs on him.
The couple landed in jail. Velasquez’s husband is still behind bars in the U.S. on criminal charges.
She pled guilty to a misdemeanor possession for personal use — even though she says she's never used drugs.
“I pled guilty and signed a paper because my lawyer told me I would get out right away,” Velasquez said. “I signed out of ignorance, because I thought I’d be with my daughter.”
Instead she was moved to an immigration detention facility, where she spent six months before being deported to Mexico in May.
Velasquez said immigration agents forced her to sign her deportation papers — a commonly alleged practice that's now the subject of an ACLU lawsuit.
Now, out of detention but barred from entering the U.S., Velasquez has one goal — to get her daughter back.
On the way to the child welfare agency in Tijuana, Bribiescas, the lawyer, coached Velasquez on the first steps.
“A place to live and a job,” Bribiescas said. These are the first two things a deported parent needs in order to show they’re serious about wanting their kids back.
They're difficult hurdles. Many deportees are released at the border penniless and without any kind of identification, proof of work experience or school records.
But Velasquez seems determined. She already has a job at a restaurant, and she’s saving up money to get her own place.
Back at the shelter, Velasquez showed me photos of her daughter posing in a princess dress with pink and yellow tulle. In the background were the palm trees and green grass of a Southern California suburb.
“She’s very sweet," Velasquez said. “Very friendly, very active, very intelligent…” She went on and on.
One big problem with cross-border dependency cases is that the parents and children often only have photos. It can be nearly impossible for them to see each other if the kids live in, say, Chicago, or if the parents have returned to hometowns in the interior of Mexico.
So the emotional distance between them grows. Plus, parents can't be physically present for family court proceedings and meetings with social workers.
Bribiescas said that’s why he always recommends that parents stay near the border, in Tijuana or Baja California, because they actually might get to visit with their kids.
An estimated 5,000 children of deported parents are in foster care, according to the Applied Research Center, which publishes Colorlines.
It's unknown how many children of deported immigrants have been adopted, but Velasquez is terrified of losing custody of her child permanently.
She said she and the girl had never been separated in the past.
“We were always together,” Velasquez said. “There’s nothing better than a child being with her parents.”
Reuniting Children With Deported Parents Brings Extra Scrutiny
Currently, immigrant parents with deportation orders have a very hard time proving they shouldn't be deported — even if they have U.S. citizen children who would be left behind. The immigration reform bill under debate in the Senate includes provisions that could delay or waive deportation for parents of U.S.-citizen children.
And the bill could give deportees like Velasquez, with minor criminal records and strong family ties in the U.S., a chance to apply to return to the U.S. legally.
For now, Velasquez is focused on getting her daughter back with her in Mexico.