A Mother Deported, and a Child Left Behind
New York Times
November 24, 2004
By NINA BERNSTEIN
In April of last year, when her mother dropped by federal immigration
headquarters in Manhattan to complete some paperwork, 8-year-old Virginia Feliz
became part of a growing tribe of American children who have lost a parent to
Her mother, Berly, 47, who migrated to the United States illegally a decade ago,
went to the immigration office on a routine visit to renew her work
authorization. But because an old deportation order had resurfaced, she was
quickly clapped into handcuffs, and within hours placed on a plane to her native
Honduras, unable to say goodbye to her husband and little girl.
"I'm not happy; I'm sad," said Virginia, who lives in a small Bronx apartment.
"Because it's not fair that everybody else has their mom except me." She dropped
onto a couch next to her disabled father, Carlos Feliz, an American citizen who
was born in the Dominican Republic, declaring that she hates her last name,
which means happy in Spanish.
No one keeps track of exactly how many American children were left behind by the
record 186,000 noncitizens expelled from the United States last year, or the
887,000 others required to make a "voluntary departure." But immigration experts
say there are tens of thousands of children every year who lose a parent to
deportation. As the debate over immigration policy heats up, such broken
families are troubling people on all sides, and challenging schools and mental
health clinics in immigrant neighborhoods.
Officials at the Department of Homeland Security say they are simply enforcing
laws adopted in 1996, which all but eliminated the discretion of immigration
officers to consider family ties before enforcing an old order of removal.
"There are millions of people who are illegally in the United States, and it's
unfortunate, when they're caught, seeing a family split up," said William
Strassberger, a spokesman for federal immigration services. "But the person has
to be answerable for their actions."
Federal officials said they leave time for parents to make arrangements for
their children, and refer them to a social service agency if necessary. Many
parents arrange to leave American-born children with relatives or friends;
others, especially those who have no one to assume responsibility for a child,
take the children along when they are expelled.
"People refer to that as a Sophie's choice situation," he said. "Where the child
is going to be is left up to the parent."
As a practical matter, arrangements for a child left behind may be hasty at
best, said Janet Sabel, who directs the immigration law unit of the Legal Aid
Society. One mother about to be deported to Nicaragua last year was told to
leave her four children with her husband, Ms. Sabel said. But the husband was an
abusive drug user, and finally the mother persuaded the immigration officer to
give her a few days to make other arrangements. A priest referred her to Legal
Aid, which reopened the case, stopping the deportation.
"There's a happy ending to this story," Ms. Sabel said, "but the fact is, there
was total luck in her finding her way to us."
By all reports Virginia Feliz had been a happy 6-year-old before her mother's
expulsion. Two months later, doctors at the Child and Adolescent Mental Health
Program of Bronx-Lebanon Hospital Center found that she had a major depressive
disorder marked by hyperactivity, nightmares, bed-wetting, frequent crying and
fights at school. Now, medical records show, she takes antidepressant drugs and
sees a therapist, but the problems persist.
In a letter to the Department of Homeland Security last year, Dr. Victor Sierra,
the clinic's director, made no bones about the underlying problem: "Absent
mother, secondary to deportation." Another six to eight months may pass before
the American Embassy in Honduras even processes her mother's application to
return, officials say.
In Brooklyn, similar cases cause concern for Birdette Gardiner-Parkinson, the
clinical director at the Caribbean Community Mental Health program at Kingsbrook
Jewish Medical Center. In one, she said, an outgoing, academically gifted
12-year-old began failing classes, mutilating herself and having suicidal
thoughts after her Colombian father disappeared into removal proceedings. In
another case, nightmares and school failure plague the youngest of six children
whose father, a cabdriver with 20 years' residence in the United States, was
deported to Nigeria six hours after he reported for a green card interview,
seemingly for unpaid traffic fines, Ms. Gardiner-Parkinson said.
"The impact is very devastating," Ms. Gardiner-Parkinson said. "When children
lose a family member this way, even though they may have a phone conversation
with them, the physical separation feels like death."
The distress of children left behind in the United States echoes that of
children left on the southern side of the border, say scholars of transnational
migration like Leah Schmalzbauer, a social anthropologist who recently conducted
a two-year research project on families split between Honduras and the United
The numbers are expected to swell, added Ms. Schmalzbauer, now an assistant
professor of sociology and anthropology at Montana State University. Families in
poor countries like Honduras can no longer manage without remittances from the
United States, and women are beginning to replace men as the primary migrants,
filling growing demands here for low-cost elder care, domestic work and other
"There's no protection for that undocumented labor, and even though we speak of
family values, there's also no protection for the children," she said. "The
research shows the emotional impacts are huge, whether they're separated from
parents on this side or on the other side of the border."
To advocates of greater restriction on immigration, such families illustrate the
painful consequences of poor enforcement in the past, and point to the perils of
guest worker programs like one proposed by President Bush.
"Once you let the person stay in the United States, it becomes extremely
difficult in our society to make them go," said Steven Camarota, director of
research at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington. "How are you going
to keep them from falling in love, getting married and having U.S.-born
To critics of the sterner laws adopted in 1996, such cases show that more
systematic enforcement since Sept. 11, 2001, is compounding the laws'
contradictions and loss of
"The cornerstone, the bedrock of immigration law is family unity," said Jeffrey
A. Feinbloom, an immigration lawyer who has been working for Mrs. Feliz's return
since her deportation and has been frustrated by delays in processing. "The
interest of the government in removing this woman pales in comparison with her
suffering and her family's. And this child is a citizen, this husband is a
citizen. What about their rights?"
In a telephone interview from Honduras, Mrs. Feliz acknowledged entering the
United States illegally in 1994. She said she made the dangerous journey through
Mexico because she could no longer afford to buy clothes, food and school
supplies for her son, then 13.
Caught within hours of crossing the border, she was soon released on bond and
fled to New York. When she failed to show up in a Texas immigration court, she
was ordered deported in absentia. But like the great majority of such orders, it
was not pursued for years, and Mrs. Feliz went to work, first as a live-in
housekeeper, then in low-wage factory jobs.
After her 1996 marriage, when she applied for a green card, federal immigration
officials not only issued her an official work authorization several times, but
also allowed her husband, as an American citizen and new stepfather, to sponsor
the teenage son she had left in Honduras.
Now that son, Cesar, is 24 and a lawful permanent resident with his own American
child, while his mother is back where she began, without a job or her children.
"I don't have peace because I'm not with my little girl," she said in Spanish,
breaking down. "I don't eat. I don't sleep. I can't be without her - I have no
The hardest part, she said, is that in telephone calls her daughter sometimes
tells her, "You didn't take me with you; you're a bad person."
"I can't handle that," she said.
In the Bronx, Mr. Feliz, 48, who was disabled by a back injury in a workplace
accident four years ago, said he was struggling to support Virginia without his
wife's earnings and was also being treated for depression. He did not have the
heart to tell Virginia her mother had been deported, he added. Instead, he
initially told Virginia that her mother was caring for a sick relative in
Honduras, a story her mother has repeated in telephone calls.
Such lies are commonplace as shaken parents try to shield young children from
the reality of deportation, counselors said. But the deception may only increase
feelings of abandonment, anger and insecurity as the children hunt for reasons
they were left behind.
When the visitor remarked that she was pretty, Virginia, a doe-eyed child with a
caramel complexion, loudly disagreed. "I'm ugly!" she insisted. "I want to be
white, white, white."
Asked about her mother's departure, she said: "I was really mad. How come she
didn't take me?"