American Families United

Euan Hague interviews American Families United (AFU) president Kathy McGroarty-Torres about the impact on children of having one parent trapped in immigration limbo.

Euan Hague (EH): Why did you get involved with American Families United?

Kathy McGroarty-Torres (KM): My husband and I got married eleven years ago. Ten years ago, the US government rejected my petition to bring him into the US as my spouse due to his previous illegal entries. We were faced with the “10-year bar” which maintained that he had to spend ten years outside of the country before we could even try to apply again for a visa, which would also require a waiver. In essence, my only two legal options were to remain exiled with my husband for ten years or to live separated from him.

EH: How have you, and your children, been affected by your husband’s immigration status?

KM: This is a hard question to answer because the truth is that it’s hard to think of what hasn’t been affected by Ines’s status. Everything—from the jobs we pursue to the places we live—is affected by the limitations of his status. After our two sons were born, I returned to full-time work much faster than I would have liked because Ines couldn’t possibly earn enough to support us adequately and he couldn’t possibly receive benefits that would provide health coverage for the kids and me. In fact, this is the same reason I continue working full-time even though I am in graduate school now. We don’t take family vacations because we are anxious about leaving the confines of our immigrant-friendly community. Since Ines can’t leave the country, I have taken my boys to visit my in-laws in Mexico on my own. For ten years, Ines has not been able to see his parents and brothers and sisters. Last year, his father passed away and he had to experience the burial through a home video.

I would also add that, as our two sons get older, I’m feeling increasingly anxious to truly set down permanent roots somewhere. When they were very young, my husband and I imagined we could pretty easily move with them to Mexico or some other Latin American country if his status made life in the US untenable for us. However, now that they are in school, I can see them growing deeply attached to their friends here—I can see them feeling like they are a part of the larger community. This makes it much harder to imagine how we could tear them away from their home here and it has given me extra incentive to work to make it possible for us to remain in the US permanently.

On the flip side, I think that we’ve done a pretty good job of giving our kids a relatively normal childhood in spite of these inconveniences and stresses. My sons see nothing unusual about the fact that their papa is a stay-at-home dad. And they are completely accustomed to the knowledge that he can’t travel outside of the country. They don’t really know how limited we are in terms of where we can live and where we can travel. They have benefited enormously from living in a community that is extremely immigrant friendly.

EH: How many children does AFU estimate have at least one undocumented immigrant parent?

KM: It is estimated that over five million children in the U.S. live with at least one undocumented immigrant parent. It is very difficult to figure out how many mixed-status families there are because so many of them live hidden from view and never even attempt to petition for an adjustment of status. [. . .]

EH: How are children affected by having one parent who is, in current terminology, an undocumented immigrant?

KM: This is a tricky question as there is such a wide range of circumstances. On a most basic level, undocumented immigrant parents who are present in the country are resigned to working in low-wage jobs with no benefits. This obviously has a detrimental effect on the whole family and their opportunities. An undocumented person also cannot receive government support and does not have access to institutions that we commonly consider important for normal functioning. In most states, a person without a social security number cannot get a driver’s license, open a bank account, or get car insurance. This kind of exclusion generally leads communities of undocumented immigrants to be wary of all formal institutions—this means that an undocumented immigrant parent will also be less likely to willingly enter or spend extra time in public places including schools and community centers.

Of course, this is all assuming that the undocumented parent has never been deported. At this point in our country’s history, record numbers of undocumented immigrants are being deported in home raids and workplace raids. Sometimes a simple traffic stop will lead to an immigrant’s detention. Many of these immigrants are parents. Children who have experienced the sudden loss of a parent are clearly impacted on a much more profound level than children whose undocumented parents have successfully remained “in the shadows.” We are starting to see statistics demonstrating a direct connection between aggressive deportation programs and an alarming number of cases of PTSD, depression, and anxiety disorders in the affected children left behind.

EH: Is there a psychological, educational, developmental dimension?

KM: Healthy, normal development depends on children feeling confident that the world is generally a safe and secure place. At some point in time, a child with an undocumented immigrant parent will learn that the world for his/her family is decidedly less safe and secure.

Also, kids are inherently affected by their parents’ level of anxiety and stress. Living with undocumented status means that you always know that a simple daily occurrence—a traffic offense, for instance—could lead to deportation. The result is that immigrants are more likely to stay close to home, limit social interaction to immediate and extended family, and only travel to get to work. While many children with undocumented immigrant parents are not told the details of their parents’ status, they commonly know that their family lives with limitations that don’t exist for other families. I think the result is an elevated level of anxiety and insecurity for the child that is often overlooked by parents, teachers, and others who care for the child.

EH: What have some families done to try to ensure that children are not impacted upon by a parent’s immigration status?

KM: In many families, immigration and undocumented status are simply never talked about directly. Many parents want to protect their kids from the details of their status. It’s hard for anyone to imagine how you would tell your child that you committed a civil offense. It’s even harder to imagine how you would tell them that the punishment would involve leaving the country forever. It just feels like too much for even the adults in the family to accept, so they try to keep status as a secret. Unfortunately, kids end up hearing about immigration raids in the news and they hear relatives discussing friends and family getting deported or caught “trying to cross” [the border]. The unfortunate truth is that these kids often learn about undocumented status in spite of our best efforts to shelter them from it. In fact, there is research evidence to demonstrate that many children of immigrants believe that all immigrants risk being deported since the subtleties of status are rarely explained to them.

EH: How is family life different for the children of undocumented immigrants?

KM: I think that families with undocumented members tend to stay more isolated from the larger community. Some of this is cultural and some of it comes from fear of being exposed. At the same time, I think that there is a certain closeness that comes out of this isolation; the extended family becomes an important source of support and community. For mixed-status families like my own, a lot of the responsibilities that involve public institutions—working, managing bank accounts, interacting with doctors, teachers—falls to the citizen parent. I don’t know that any of this is necessarily bad for the children—it’s just different.

Of course, when kids get to an age or have an experience that forces them to learn about the risks inherent in their parents’ status, it’s a totally different picture. Aside from the risks and anxiety related to status, these are also kids who will often be asked to start contributing to the household income at a much younger age. The truth is that the wages that an undocumented worker earns aren’t nearly sufficient to pay for much beyond the necessities of life. A child who hopes to someday go to college will likely hear from an undocumented immigrant parent that he will have to work in order to make that dream a reality.

EH: What are your concerns for the children in families like your own, where one parent is undocumented?

KM: I have nightmares about kids who have watched ICE agents enter their homes and walk off with a parent in handcuffs. I think regularly about kids whose parents were home one day and in detention with a deportation order the next. These aren’t paranoid visions—this is what’s happening right now and it’s hard to imagine how these kids can possibly hope to have a normal life after this kind of trauma. I worry about how these kids will ever learn to feel safe in the world and I wonder how they can possibly learn to feel proud of our country and feel protected by its laws.

I am always anxious when my husband Ines has to drive around the city because any kind of traffic violation could lead to severe outcomes for our whole family. Ines has also been assaulted in the street and violently threatened by a neighbor. In both cases, he refused to report the incidents to the authorities for fear of becoming apprehended himself.

EH: How can people get in touch with AFU in Chicago?

KM: As the AFU president, I am generally the point person for people with questions in the Chicago area. I can be reached at kathy@americanfamiliesunited.org. We also have a website where anyone can join as a member (www.americanfamiliesunited.org).