What Happens To U.S. Citizen Kids After Their Only Parent Is Deported?
Courtesy of the Fomperosa Garcia family.

What Happens To U.S. Citizen Kids After Their Only Parent Is Deported?

On Thursday morning, Yennifer Sanchez, 23, accompanied her father to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for what he believed would be a meeting to discuss his application for asylum.

She figured he’d be done soon, and then they’d be able to start planning for her brother’s 17th birthday dinner that night. What she didn’t expect was that, by the day’s end, she’d become her two younger siblings' sole guardian.

An hour after his meeting began, ICE agents came out and handed a green bag to Sanchez. It contained all of Juan Carlos Fomperosa Garcia’s legal documents.

They told her that her father, an undocumented immigrant who was born in Veracruz and had spent the past two decades in the United States, was being detained.

Two hours after that, he called to tell her that he was going to be deported.

“We had just been talking about what we were going to do for my brother’s birthday, and how this summer we were going to go to Harry Potter World at Universal Studios in Orlando because that’s what he loves,” Sanchez said through tears at a press conference organized by LUCHA on Thursday night.

“My father is not a criminal; he’s not one of those people that you hear about on the news like Mr. Trump says. He’s not a rapist. He’s not a drug dealer. And he’s not a murderer. My father is an honest, working family man that loves everyone who he meets.”

ICE reports that Fomperosa Garcia was deported to Nogales, Sonora,  Friday morning.

"Relevant databases indicate Mr. Fomperosa Garcia has been previously repatriated to Mexico three times, including a formal deportation in 2014," Yasmeen Pitts O'Keefe, a spokesperson for ICE, said in a statement.

"Last year, he was again ordered removed by an immigration judge .... In addition to a lengthy immigration history, databases show Mr. Fomperosa Garcia was convicted in 2015 of a federal misdemeanor charge."

But his story raises a question that’s likely to become more common under President Donald Trump’s new, harsher immigration policies: What happens to the U.S.-born kids of deported parents?

Fomperosa Garcia is a single father. That means that his three kids — Yennifer, 23, Yessy, 17, and Karla, 14 — are now on their own. All three are U.S. citizens.

Yennifer is staying at her father’s house to take care of the younger kids for now.

“They’re going to keep going to school, and I’m going to work," she said at a news conference Friday. "We’re going to get through this.”

She says that they have relatives in Arizona who can provide additional support. And LUCHA has started a fundraiser for anyone interested in helping the family financially.

What will happen, though,  in the long term — such as whether Yennifer will be able to get legal guardianship of her younger siblings — is uncertain.

“I can only imagine how difficult that is,” Abril Gallardo, program manager for LUCHA,  pointed out. “She’s 23, and is the head of the household now.”

Theirs is not a unique situation. A 2016 study by the Migration Policy Institute found that 5 million children under the age 18 have at least one parent who is in the United States illegally. Out of that number, 79 percent are U.S. citizens.

It’s not a new problem, either: Between 2003 and 2013, the MPI notes, 3.7 million immigrants were deported. Roughly a quarter to a fifth of those were the parents of U.S.-born children.

But the new administration has led to heightened fears.

Ever since Trump was elected president, Aldo Gonzalez, LUCHA’s immigration services coordinator, has seen an increase in the number of undocumented parents wanting to appoint temporary guardians for their kids in the event that they’re deported.

“Before the election, we hardly ever got that question,” he said. “Now, we get it all the time. There were seven or eight people who came and sought us out in the past week.”

The process is fairly simple and straightforward, Gonzalez said. But some attorneys take advantage of parents’ fears by charging exorbitant fees.

“People will pay a lot of money because they’re scared,” he says.

This was the second high-profile case in metro Phoenix.

Last month, Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos was deported, leaving her two teenage children behind. Their father is still in the U.S., but he also is undocumented, leaving an uncertain future for their children.

"We aren't criminals, we just work, we don't do anything bad. Our community now lives in fear of being separated from our families," Jacqueline Garcia de Rayos said before she and her brother, Angel, attended Trump's first speech to Congress.

Fear is spreading in immigrant communities.

“There is definitely more of an alarm after the inauguration and now again with the executive order,”  Dulce Juarez, outreach coordinator for the American Civil Liberties Union, said. “Immigrant families are starting to realize, oh my gosh, he’s really coming after us. It’s sinking in.”

Before Trump was elected, Juarez got a request every month or so to conduct community know-your-rights meetings. Since November, she’s been asked to appear before schools, churches, or community groups twice a week. And it’s accelerating.

Most of the questions immigrants ask involve how to find legal help if ICE contacts them, and what happens to their kids if they get deported. Juarez tells them to have a power of attorney document signed right away.

She’s hearing stories from school officials describing children who tell them they haven’t seen their parents for a while, she says.. By state law, schools have to report such situations to the Department of Child Safety.

Caseworkers there are trained to reunify families if they can. For children of deportees, that often means somebody in the extended family. If that’s not possible, those children go into the foster-care system.

Otilia Díaz, an immigration and family attorney in Phoenix, says that often,  relatives of kids like the Garcia children have to choose between coming forward to adopt them and risk being deported, or letting them be placed into foster care with strangers.

“They go into the foster-care system because the parents are not around. At one point they are adoptable. A lot of times there isn’t a family member who can take them, and if there is, they are in the same situation, here illegally.”

It's not clear how many children wind up in foster care because their parents have been deported. The Arizona Department of Child Safety doesn't track that kind of data.

Rhetoric from Washington has ratcheted up worries, but so, too, has Trump’s policy. Now, there is uncertainty over how ICE agents will carry out the policy, and stories like those of Juan Carlos Garcia's family fueling fear.

“We don’t know what the enforcement is going to look like,” Juarez said. “They are still figuring out how they will roll out the enforcement. We still don’t know what to expect.”

We do know what the policy says. Executive Order 13768 is sweeping.

On paper, it continues the policies of the Obama administration: Deport violent criminals first, then triage lesser offenders.

But the Trump plan says it will prioritize the removal of foreign nationals who have been convicted of any criminal offense, charged with one, or committed one that could be charged. Also on the top tier for deportation: anyone who defrauded a government agency or abused a program to get public assistance.

Trump also added a catch-all to deport immigrants who “in the judgment of an immigration officer, otherwise pose a risk to public safety or national security.”

In a report, researchers at the Migration Policy Institute described the expansion as sweeping.

“The priorities stated in this section of the executive order are very broad,” they wrote, “and ultimately could include the entire undocumented population.”

It’s too early for any reliable measure of how widespread the enforcement of these provisions is. But we do know what the government was doing until September.

According to a report issued by ICE in December, the government deported 240,000 people in the federal fiscal year that ended on September 30, the lowest number of the Obama years.

Of those, 94 percent were  priority one deportees, the ones with felony convictions.

Almost all of the people who were deported without a criminal conviction were caught near the border and thrown out.

Given the current climate, LUCHA is encouraging undocumented immigrants to plan ahead and prepare for the worst if they have a check-in scheduled with ICE. That means finding an attorney who can accompany them to the meeting, as well as connecting with an organization like LUCHA that can provide support.

“The check-ins will be inevitable,” LUCHA's Gallardo said. “But it is important that people think of a plan for what happens after the check-in if that person is taken into custody.”

Otilia Díaz predicts that people will become unwilling to check-in for their annual ICE hearing. She says she tells her clients never to break the law, but advises them that if they attend the hearing, there is a real chance they could be deported.

“In my opinion, they are changing the rules,” she said.

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