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Over 5 Million Children Caught Up In Illegal Immigration Debate

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The national immigration debate largely focuses on adults. But there are more than five million children living in the U.S. whose parents are here illegally. When those parents are deported, many of those young people are left to fend for themselves.

Special Feature Crossing The Line: Border Stories

Envision San Diego takes a closer look at illegal immigration, exploring why migrants take big risks to work in the U.S., what happens to the children of deported parents, and how this region benefits from -- and pays a price for -- its unauthorized migrant labor pool.

The national immigration debate largely focuses on adults. But there are more than five million children living in the U.S. whose parents are here illegally. When those parents are deported, many of those young people are left to fend for themselves.

A group of high school students in Vista goes over their classroom assignment before the final school bell rings.

This class is like any other in San Diego County except for one big difference. Each student is either pregnant or has a baby. Most have family to fall back on. But one student is not so lucky.

Amy is 16 years old. She's living in Vista illegally. She didn't want to give her last name for fear of getting caught.

Amy says her family was smuggled into the U.S. from Mexico when she was in fourth grade.

She says her family lived peacefully in the shadows of the law for almost a decade.

Then immigration officials arrested Amy's mother at a bus stop in Vista last year and she was deported. Amy was at school.

“I came home from school and the phone rang when I got there,” Amy recalled. “It was my mom and told me she got deported.”

She was eight months pregnant at the time. Amy was not able to see her mother before she was deported.

“After that, my sister decided to go with her. My dad stayed with me (in Vista) to work for a little bit and then he left (to Mexico). He didn't want to leave my mom alone," Amy said.

Amy says it was an agonizing decision, but she and her parents agreed Amy should stay with her boyfriend.

But things began to fall apart when Amy and her boyfriend separated. Within just a few months, Amy was homeless.

The plight of children like Amy was highlighted in a recent study by the non-profit Urban Institute. Researchers noted that at least 100,000 parents living and working in the U.S. illegally have been detained or deported over the past decade, often in workplace raids. They've left behind thousands of children.

The study finds when those kids are separated from their parents, they suffer a wide range of financial, social and emotional hardships. The most common is not having a stable place to live.

“For the time being, they are homeless,” said Martha Flores, a social worker in Vista. “Usually someone will step in (to help) like a family member, a friend, or the church but it's temporary.”

There is at least one law firm in San Diego helping kids like Amy who are caught up in the immigration process. Casa Cornelia offers free legal service to unaccompanied minors in the U.S.

Director Carmen Chavez works to get parents' status legalized so she can reunite the families in this country. But she says, more often than not, the young people end up living with relatives or friends. Others enter the foster care system.

She says still others simply fall through the cracks.

“They are cases where children end up in the streets of San Diego,” Chavez said. “Some of them are U.S. citizens, some of them are foreign born, but they just weren't detained alongside the mother. What happens to those kids is very tragic."

Chavez believes U.S.-born children should have a court appointed legal guardian who can fast-track a petition so one of their parents can legally live in the U.S.

San Diego Congressman Brian Bilbray, chairman of the Immigration Reform Caucus, disagrees. He believes this is a calculated strategy to move the legalization issue.

“We'll start with the children, we'll use that as excuse to get some people in, and then once we allow the parents of children to get amnesty, we'll give it to everybody," said Bilbray.

Regardless of what side people take on the immigration debate, immigration policies and enforcement have resulted in the separation of countless young people from their parents. That reality might prompt adults in the immigration debate to start focusing on the children who have been left out of the picture.

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