As the government's crackdown on illegal immigrant workers has intensified in recent months, so have the consequences for a large group of U.S. citizens: American-born children of illegal immigrants.
Numbering at least 3.1 million, according to an analysis by the Urban Institute and the Pew Hispanic Center, such children range from teenagers steeped in iTunes and MySpace to toddlers just learning their ABCs.
Until recently, their parents' illegal status had limited impact on these children's lives, because, although every year hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants are detained attempting to cross the U.S. border, once they make it in, they are rarely caught.
But the increase in raids against companies employing illegal workers is beginning to change that.
In December, immigration agents descended on six meat-processing plants belonging to Swift & Co. and arrested 1,297 illegal workers. At one plant, in Worthington, Minn., the workers had at least 360 U.S.-born children and probably many more, according to a local pastor who raised money for them.
Similarly, of about 360 workers arrested during a raid of the Michael Bianco Inc. manufacturing plant in New Bedford, Mass., last month, about 110 were the sole caregivers for one or more children in the United States, according to federal and state authorities.
Last Thursday, Jessica Guncay, a chubby-cheeked fifth-grader, joined the ranks of children who have been separated from a parent when immigration agents raided a Dixie Printing and Packaging Corp. plant in Baltimore where her parents were working under false Social Security numbers.
During an interview in her home in Pikesville the next day, Jessica, 10, said that although she had known her Ecuadoran parents were in the country illegally, she never imagined they would be arrested.
"I feel sick inside," she mumbled, staring at her white sneakers.
Her mother, Ana Tapia, who sat next to Jessica on the family's brown velvet couch, pulled her daughter in for a tearful hug.
Though Jessica's father, Jury Guncay, 45, remains in custody, but Tapia, 40, was released several hours after the raid so Jessica would not be left without anyone to care for her. But the black monitoring bracelet around Tapia's ankle testified to the limited nature of that reprieve: She must remain under partial house arrest until her case comes up in immigration court.
Her chances of winning a stay of deportation appear slim. Under rules adopted by Congress in 1996, a judge cannot allow illegal immigrants to remain in the United States merely because they have a child who is a U.S. citizen. Instead, parents must prove that if they were deported the child would suffer "exceptional and extremely unusual hardship" -- a standard often interpreted to apply to serious medical cases only.
And so Tapia is wrestling with a dilemma that has become increasingly common for illegal immigrant parents: leave her child to be raised by relatives in the United States or take her along to an unfamiliar country offering far fewer opportunities.
In Maryland, she noted, she and her husband earned $11.25 an hour and were able to provide Jessica with a computer, a modest but tidy brick house and free access to an elementary school she loves.
Before leaving Ecuador 14 years ago, they could barely afford to sublet a single room on Guncay's wages as a metalworker. Now Tapia worries he will no longer qualify for even that job because Ecuadoran factory managers prefer younger workers.
"I don't even know how my husband and I are going to survive there, let alone support Jessica," Tapia said in Spanish.
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which seeks to limit immigration, said he has sympathy for children in Jessica's situation -- but no more so than for any other child victimized by a parent's mistakes.
‘Kids often pay’
"Kids often pay for the bad decisions of their parents. If you do something wrong that sends you to jail, well, your kids suffer for that. If you are careless with your mortgage and lose your house, your kids suffer along with you," he said. The parents "knew what they were doing when they had kids here, knowing that they were still illegal immigrants."
Krikorian applauded the new efforts against employers of illegal workers as a welcome departure from years of lax enforcement of immigration laws within U.S. territory.
In fiscal 2004, for instance, the government deported only about 51,000 immigrants who had been in the United States for more than a year, accounting for just 3 percent of the number of immigrants expelled and less than 1 percent of the nation's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants.
Krikorian said lawmakers would only make matters worse by granting judges more discretion to allow those now being arrested to remain in the United States if they have U.S. citizen children, as proposed in a bill recently introduced by Rep. Jose E. Serrano (D-N.Y.).
"You'd be making having a kid an automatic get-out-of-jail-free card," Krikorian said. "You'd basically be saying that every illegal alien gets to stay permanently just because they had a kid once they crossed the border."
Krikorian also cautioned that by pushing the issue, immigrant advocates will strengthen sentiment in favor of revoking the automatic citizenship granted to nearly anyone born on U.S. soil -- a right set forth in the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.
Indeed, many commentators refer to U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants as "anchor babies" or "jackpot babies," because once they turn 21, they could sponsor their parents for U.S. visas.
Immigrant advocates, however, are increasingly putting such children at the forefront of their lobbying efforts, convinced that they offer the most compelling argument for granting illegal immigrants opportunities to legalize.
"Once the average American citizen learns the facts, they are not going to want these families to be separated. This is about the family values our country holds most dear," said Emma Lozano, co-founder of Familia Latina Unida in Chicago, one of several groups that have coalesced around the issue across the country.
Although still relatively unknown on the national level, the groups -- which include Freedom Families of New York and Million Babies March of Nebraska -- have been regularly busing members to Capitol Hill the past two years.
Last Tuesday morning, the latest delegation from Familia Latina Unida spilled out of a Greyhound bus onto a Washington street. Most of the 28 children in the group wore brown T-shirts printed on the back with the words "Born in the U.S.A. Don't take my Mommy or my Daddy away." The adult parents and chaperones had circles under their eyes from the 14-hour overnight drive from Chicago.
In most cases, their immigration troubles predate the acceleration of worksite raids, stemming instead from mistakes made while applying for legal status, such as leaving the United States to visit a sick parent while their application was still pending. But the subtle and not-so-subtle signs of stress in the children offered a glimpse of what may await those whose parents are now getting picked up in raids.
There was 8-year-old Juan Manuel Castellanos, who, three years after his parents fled their home to avoid arrest, still races to close any doors or windows lest "Immigration comes for my Mom."
There was 11-year-old Tania Del Valle, who has Asperger syndrome and took three months to understand that her father had been deported to Mexico, then wept uncontrollably for weeks.
And then there was quiet, preternaturally serious 13-year-old Brenda Benitez, who said she tries hard not to snap back when her mother tells her to change the television channel, because her mother is fighting deportation and "I know she may not be here forever."
Before their meetings with lawmakers, Lozano gathered the children in a church to practice recounting their stories.
"OK, so why are you here?" Lozano asked Juan.
"Because I'm trying to get my Dad and my Mom papers," the boy answered confidently in English.
"And what are they trying to do to your Mom and Dad?" Lozana prompted.
"They're trying to take them to Mexico," he said, his voice suddenly becoming smaller.
"And what's going to happen to you if that happens?"
"I'm going to be left all alone!" he said, bursting into sobs.
His mother, Consuelo Castellanos, watching from a pew nearby, dabbed at her own tears and admitted to mixed emotions.
"I'm really worried that this is going to traumatize him even more," she said in Spanish. "But I'm also amazed and proud. I don't know where he gets this bravery. Normally, he's so shy, but he's so determined to fight for us."