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Immigrants frustrated by laws that take kids from home

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
New York

Maria arrived at the Bronx foster care agency carrying fruit juice and potato chips for the weekly two-hour visit with her children. She waited anxiously by the elevator. Usually, she brought tortillas and other Mexican foods for the children, but this day in spring 2001, she’d been rushed.

Maria, who asked that her name be changed in this story to protect her in court, had spent the morning talking with her social worker. Maria is one of a growing number of Mexican parents in New York City losing their children to the foster care system. In her case, she is caught up in a spiral intended to prevent women and children from violence.

The elevator door opened, and Maria’s 7-year-old son rushed into her arms. She kissed his face and thick, dark hair and hugged her 6-year-old daughter.

The children’s foster father handed Maria her youngest daughter. With a brown plump face and an open smile, the baby is a tiny version of her mother. Now 18 months old, she was taken into foster care just three months after her birth.

They were taken into foster care in 1999 when her husband was accused of sexual abuse by a relative. Maria herself was considered an accomplice for not having prevented the alleged crime. Although the charges against her husband were dropped, her children have not been returned.

Holding the baby, Maria began asking, “Don’t you remember Mommy? A kiss for Mommy?” The baby smiled and looked around for her siblings, while Maria buried her tear-stained face in the baby’s blue jacket.

This was not the family life Maria had envisioned when she left Guerrero, Mexico, eight years ago.

Maria’s situation is repeated many times in New York City’s Mexican community, where a largely undocumented population has grown dramatically in the past 20 years.

According to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Mexicans are the largest undocumented group in the United States. In New York City, the number of Mexicans grew from 62,000 in 1980 to an estimated 200,000 in 2000, according to the Department of City Planning.

In East Harlem, the growth has led residents to rename 113th Street “Little Mexico.” It is this same East Harlem that in 1999 had the highest rate in Manhattan of children taken into foster care, according to a report released last summer by the city’s Administration for Children’s Services.

Because of their status as undocumented workers, parents like Maria have a harder time meeting the administration’s mandates -- its requirements before children can be returned to their homes.

“The immigrant status is the real barrier for these families. It sets them up to not get their kids back,” said Ilze Earner, one of the founders of The Immigrant and Child Welfare Project in East Harlem. “On the top of that, you get the stereotypes that these families can’t take care of their kids.”

New York City is not the only place with a boom in the Mexican population. Throughout the Midwest and Southeast, a jump in the Mexican community has led to situations similar to that in East Harlem. In Nebraska, where the meatpacking industry has attracted Mexican migrants, the idea of “a stable home” has, in some cases, resulted in mandating that Mexican parents who are residents become citizens before having their child returned.

“Why would you require someone to be a citizen to get their kid back? It’s not legally justified,” said Milo Mumgard, executive director of the Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest.

Maria said she has not thought about her documentation status, only her three children.

“I haven’t been able to sleep. I haven’t rested,” Maria said. Holding a wet tissue, she recounts the evening police officers and social workers took her children. “The children started crying,” Maria said.

“They kept saying, ‘Mommy, don’t let us go! We’re scared of the police!’ I promised them that wherever they’d be, I’d get them back.”

Representatives of the Administration for Children’s Services emphasize that the department does not want to separate families. It is simply responding to calls usually received from schools, police officers, social workers and hospitals.

Family and child welfare advocates, however, have a different version. In New York City, a number of highly publicized cases in which children died in their homes changed how the administration handled reports of child abuse and neglect.

“They’re responding to pressure from the press,” said Daisy Vasquez of New York City’s Puerto Rican Family Institute. “Before they used to warn. Now they don’t think twice. They take the child and then investigate. They are investigating for a year, and the children are out of the family for a year and a half.”

For Maria, 24, getting her children back has been difficult. Parents who are undocumented workers and often employed for low wages are required by the city to meet the same criteria for housing and child-care as parents entitled to government assistance. Maria learned that if she wanted her children back, then she had to leave her husband and find employment and suitable housing on her own. She had never worked outside the home.

“It’s setting people up for complete failure,” said Earner, who has also witnessed children not being placed with relatives who are themselves undocumented.

Caseworkers argue that undocumented relatives do not provide a stable home. Undocumented immigrant parents are also often suspected of wanting to take the children out of the country, even though they usually do not have the resources to do so.

The first days after the separation were the hardest, Maria said. She was not given a phone number for the foster care family and had no way of contacting her children. “I spent time crying, wondering if they had gone to school, if they had already eaten,” Maria said.

Maria did meet the administration’s mandates. She left her husband, got work at a butcher store and rented an apartment in East Harlem with a city housing subsidy not based on immigration status.

“I’ve done everything they told me and still I don’t have my kids back,” Maria said.

In family court, Maria’s only legal representation has been the court-appointed lawyer. Last December, the city’s Special Child Welfare Advisory Panel released a final report stating that lack of adequate legal representation was the most critical issue for parents in family court.

“It’s an economic question,” said Esperanza Chacon, the emergency services coordinator at the Tepeyac Association, an organization for Mexicans that is funded in part by the New York archdiocese. “It’s really easy for people to fall into this.”

Maria is increasingly afraid. Once children have been in foster care for 15 months, the city can begin terminating a parent’s rights and offering the children for adoption. On June 22, she was due back in court. The move to adoption is part of federal legislation former President Clinton passed. It is meant to prevent children from lingering in foster care. The Administration for Children’s Services reports that the number of adoptions has almost doubled in the last four years.

Maria, who continues praying to the Virgin of Guadalupe and attending Mass, is becoming more desperate. “I’m losing my mind. In this country, if you’re not crazy, they make you crazy,” she said.

At the end of a weekly family visit in the Bronx, Maria carried her youngest daughter outside where the foster care father hails a cab. The baby is scheduled to see a speech therapist soon. She rarely speaks, opting instead to point with her fingers. On the street, she pointed to a low tree branch in someone’s yard. Maria whispered to her in Spanish and they lingered by the tree.

The cab pulled up, and there was a flurry of kisses and hugs. Maria squeezed the baby one last time.

National Catholic Reporter, June 29, 2001