SAN DIEGO -- Just a stone’s throw from the international border that separates Tijuana from San Diego, Manuel and Maribel* have just finished a supervised visitation with their three U.S.-citizen children.
The visit took place in a little room in the Department of Homeland Security building that sits right on the border here. The couple is carrying the leftovers of all the goodies they brought with them — pizza, juice, these little chocolate cupcakes the kids love.
The couple has two boys, 7 and 10 years old, and a girl who is 9. The family lived near Mission Viejo in Southern California.
Manuel called the U.S. home for 23 years, and his wife 13 years.
Manuel said he doesn’t like to remember the event that threw his family’s life into turmoil.
“It’s hard,” he said.
“And embarrassing,” his wife chimed in.
“We didn’t think about the consequences,” Manuel said.
Shortly before Christmas 2011, the couple was caught stealing toys from a store. They were deported, and Manuel’s mother was given temporary custody of their children.
Now they’ve been trying to get their kids back —to join them in Tijuana — for more than a year.
"We've done everything they asked,” Manuel said of the caseworkers overseeing the court-ordered family reunification plan.
“They ask us to do therapy, we go. They ask us to get jobs, we're working. They asked us to get a home, well, we have a place to live," he said.
But the couple says the American social worker handling their case still seems unconvinced they’re fit to have custody of their children.
And they say she has expressed doubt about whether the couple is legitimately meeting the requirements of the case plan, even though the Mexican child welfare agency has verified each step.
The couple is exasperated.
“It seems like such a long time,” Maribel said. “It’s really painful to be without (the kids), especially after these visits.”
The couple thinks if they could just be present at one of their family court hearings to show the judge and social worker what they're really like, how they’ve changed, maybe it would help their case.
But they can't, because they're barred from going back to the U.S.
This puts the parents at a disadvantage, said Seth Wessler, a journalist with the online publication Colorlines who has reported extensively on cross-border dependency cases.
"I heard over and over again from caseworkers and attorneys in these cases that when mothers and fathers aren't in the courtroom, it makes it much more difficult for those parents to argue to get their kids back," Wessler said.
In dozens of interviews with caseworkers, lawyers and family court judges, Wessler said he perceived a sort of bias against placing children in Mexico.
"It's often about poverty in Mexico. It's often just about fear about Mexico itself," Wessler said.
Raquel Amezcua assists with cross-border dependency cases for Children and Family Services of Orange County. She said the agency is extra cautious when placing children in Mexico.
"Media shares all the things and horrible things that are happening in Mexico, and we all read that, we're all aware of that," she said.
But, Amezcua said, in recent years the agency has begun to work closely with the Mexican consulate to facilitate cross-border cases.
“We work with the consulate very carefully and we ask them 'What about this city? What did the home study say? What's the crime rate? Will they be employed?' All those factors are considered," she said.
Amezcua also said they apply extra scrutiny to these cases because once the child is across the border, the American child welfare agency can't follow up and see how it's working out. It's out of their jurisdiction.
Deported Parents Face Hurdles To Reunite With US-Citizen Children
Back in Tijuana, Maribel unrolled a thick stack of handmade posters, cards and letters given to her by her children during their visit at the border.
The couple has come to terms with the abrupt end to their life in the U.S. They've found that life in their home country isn't as hard as they feared.
But it won’t be complete, they say, until a judge rules that their children should be reunified with them in Mexico.
“We want to move forward,” Manuel said, “start new and forget about all this. But we haven’t been able to turn the page, and we don’t know why.”
*Their real names are being withheld at the request of the couple so as to not jeopardize their dependency case.