Skip to main content

Listen

Read

Watch

Schedules

Programs

Events

Give

Account

Donation Heart Ribbon

Special Project: America's Wall: Decades-Long Struggle To Secure US-Mexico Border

Deportation Pushes Mothers Into Endless Cycle of Illegal Crossings

Audio

As deportations of undocumented immigrants have increased over the last year, so has the separation of mothers from their kids. But for many women, that reality is pushing them into an endless cycle of illegal border crossings and deportations.

— A month ago, 34 year-old Veronica Vargas got into a fight with her husband. The neighbors called the police and Veronica was charged with battery. Her immigration status was checked at the local jail, and she and her husband were processed for deportation.

Their kids were left behind in their Los Angeles apartment, obviously distraught, and under the care of the couple's oldest daughter.

"I have a daughter who's older than 18," says Vargas, teary-eyed. "And she's been able to take care of my 7 year old while I'm gone."

Vargas is now at a shelter for deported women in Tijuana, still wearing the clothes she had on the day she was deported. After living in the U.S. for more than 20 years, Tijuana is not her home, and all she can think about is finding a way back into the States to be with her daughters.

"There's nothing I can do about it now," she says. "We are here and our children are there, and they really need us."

But as far as Vargas and other undocumented mothers are concerned, bringing their kids to Mexico is simply not an option. These women typically spend a couple of weeks at shelters along the border, sharing stories, cooking together, and plotting their return -- even if that means a costly and dangerous journey and risking deportation once again.

Mary Galvan is a social worker at the Tijuana shelter where Vargas is staying.

"We're seeing a lot more women who have been in the States for more than 20 to 30 years," says Galvan, claiming that this trend is tied to an increase in deportations to Mexico. "Once they're deported, the only thing that interests them is finding a way to get back to be with their children again."

But Galvan says it's increasingly difficult for that to happen.

"Parents need to show that they have a solid home, and a solid job; that they've taken parenting classes. Things that wouldn't take you less than a year to fulfill."

Back in San Diego, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, says the agency follows standard procedures and takes the children left behind into careful consideration.

"We always give them the opportunity to make the decision on their own: Do you want to take the kids with you, or what do you want to do?" states Robin Baker, ICE Field Office Director for detention and removal operations in San Diego. "But we are not taking sole care givers or both a mother and a father and leaving kids in an empty house. It does not happen," he says.

Over the last year, ICE has carried out almost 400,000 deportations. A recent investigation by the Center for Investigative Reporting and The Washington Post found that in order to reach a quota, ICE fast tracked deportations of people without a serious criminal background, including immigrants like Veronica Vargas. At the same time, government statistics show that immigration judges are turning down a growing number of deportation proceedings, contradicting ICE directives.

Sean Riordan says all this isn't doing much to actually stop the cycle of illegal immigration. He is a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU, in San Diego.

"Common sense says that you don't want that cycle occurring," he says. "You don't want families torn apart in the first place, you don't want to force people to make those difficult choices to violate the law again."

But at the Tijuana shelter for deported women, mothers like Rosamaria Peñaloza say that crossing illegally is the only way. She is the mother of a 4 year old back in the States. And now she sits in a living room at the shelter with another child on the way.

"I had to leave my daughter with her aunt, and that's not the same thing," she says, in between sobs. "It's not easy to get back to the States, but I will. Somehow."

Want more KPBS news?
Find us on Twitter and Facebook, or subscribe to our newsletters.

To view PDF documents, Download Acrobat Reader.