Children of the deportedby Elizabeth Baier, Minnesota Public Radio
It's a story that's made headlines for years -- immigrants who are living in the U.S. illegally are detained and sent back to their home countries. A lot of times, they leave families behind, including U.S.-born kids.
Minneapolis, Minn. — Celia Hernandez, 17, is one of them. Hernandez and her family live in Minneapolis, and for the last year and half, they've tried to keep their family from falling apart.
It was fifth period at Roosevelt High, when Celia Hernandez got called to the main office. She walked down the hall, past rows of red lockers and into a conference room.
When she saw the school's Spanish interpreter and an assistant principal inside, she knew something was wrong.
"They sat me down and they were like, 'Your mom called and said your dad was deported,'" Celia recalled.
Earlier that morning, after Celia had left for school, agents with Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Fugitive Operations Team arrested her dad outside the family's home in Minneapolis, according to ICE spokesman Tim Counts.
Authorities considered Jorge Hernandez a fugitive, because he had ignored an earlier order by a federal immigration judge to leave the country, Counts said.
Celia said when she heard the word deported, she felt like her dad had died.
"Because their stuff is left behind ... his shoes," said Celia, fighting back tears. "You feel like you want everybody to know, because it's wrong and they shouldn't do that."
Celia knows her parents broke the law many years ago when they crossed the border into the U.S. But she never imagined she'd have to assume the role of part-time parent because of that decision.
Her family is what authorities call a mixed-status family.
Mom and dad entered the country illegally, while Celia and her younger brother and sister are U.S.-born citizens. Those circumstances were bound to throw Celia into a situation way beyond her control.
Celia remembers the last conversation she had with her dad while he was in jail, waiting to be deported.
"I just heard him crying on the other side of the phone," she said. "He just said my name and he was crying and he just said, 'Take care of my brother and my sister.'"
A FAMILY'S HISTORY
Celia sifts through a box of home videos with her younger brother and sister. They've been living in an illegally converted storefront with their mother since they lost their house late last year.
The videos captured moments Celia likes to call the family's happier times. They find one of her brother's second birthday. Celia's dad is speaking in the background, as the family begins to sing happy birthday.
Celia says moments like that made her feel they were like a typical American family.
But her family was actually more like the thousands divided because of deportations. From 1998 to 2007, the U.S. government estimates more than 100,000 immigrants with U.S.-born children were deported.
Immigrant advocates estimate the number of kids left behind is much higher.
In all, approximately five million U.S. children have at least one parent who's in the country illegally, according to a 2007 report by the Urban Institute and the National Council of La Raza.
In Celia's case, the story began nearly 20 years ago, when her parents embarked on a journey north in search of a better life.
They left Axochiapan, a city in the Mexican state of Morelos, where they both worked as school teachers. Six months after getting married, they crossed the border between Tijuana and San Diego.
Marina Hernandez was three months pregnant with Celia.
"It was difficult and traumatic, but not as much as it is now," Marina said of the border crossing. "People tell me it's horrible, what they have to go through now."
The couple wanted to work for a few years and save some money before returning to Mexico.
Instead, they found work in Minnesota. Jorge Hernandez worked at a local recycling company. And Marina Hernandez rented a storefront on Lake Street, where she sold party decorations for baptism, weddings and coming-of-age parties for Latinas, called quinces.
By this point, neither parent considered moving back to Mexico an option.
"We were happy," Marina said. "We lived off of our work. We had a small business and we had bought a house. We felt accomplished."
LOST HOME, NEW HOPES
On this day, Celia is driving to the family's old house in the Longfellow neighborhood of Minneapolis. The family lived here for seven years, until Celia's dad was arrested.
Outside the house, she walks across a snowy yard and explains how her mom tried to keep up with the $2,500 monthly mortgage payments after her dad was gone. But it was just too much money, and within a year, the bank forclosed on the house.
Celia walks around the yard. There's some trash on the ground that brings memories of the old life flooding back. She walks toward the front door, to see if there's any mail. She says she comes by about once a week to check.
Inside the mailbox, she finds a bundle of mail. She hopes there's something for her, especially college letters.
In the classroom, Celia has always excelled. And after her dad's deportation, she found that if she focused on school, she could forget about everything that was going on at home, even if it was just for a few hours.
She spots an envelope with her name on it from the Horatio Alger's Association.
She won a $4,000 scholarship from the organization and the letter was a final confirmation.
Getting this money for college is a big deal for Celia. Like many children of immigrants, she'll be the first in her family to attend a U.S. college.
Celia was accepted into four of the five schools she applied to. She's decided attend Hamline University in St. Paul because, among other things, the school offered her a generous financial aid package.
"I'm excited!" Celia said with a grin on her face.
FEARS FOR THE FUTURE
Still, Celia has fears about the future. She worries her mom may one day be deported, too.
Marina Hernandez remembers how hard it was to keep herself and the family together the first few months without her husband.
"We slept together, the three kids and me, in the same bed because we were so scared," Marina Hernandez said. "I think it was the trauma that the quick separation caused. It was just like he had been in an accident or died. That's how it was." But Celia's dad wasn't dead.
A year after the deportation, Marina Hernandez was desperate to reunite her family. She wasn't willing to wait for immigration reform, or some other legal way to do so.
So in November, she paid a coyote $2,500 to bring her husband back across the border.
But the family had been so damaged by the separation, they weren't able to come together again. Celia says her dad now lives on his own in a small studio in Minneapolis. And she doesn't want to see him anymore.
"He's totally different. He's not even like my dad anymore," said Celia. "Sometime he comes by and gives my mom money for us. He just comes, gives her the money, turns around and walks away."
Instead of getting stuck in the past, Celia is using this experience to find her voice as a youth activist.
She speaks publicly about immigration reform because she knows her story echoes with many families in the Twin Cities. And she's not afraid to tell people her story.
In 2008 -- seven months after her dad was deported -- she spoke at an immigration rally on the steps of the State Capitol.
In her speech, she said she represents thousands of other children of undocumented workers, and she wants to encourage them to defend their rights as citizens and push for immigration reform.
It's Friday night, and like a typical 17-year-old, Celia is enjoying the music of a favorite band.
A foot away, her younger brother Jorgie is playing with some toys, which he keeps in a laundry basket.
It's clear Celia feels an obligation toward her siblings that most teens don't even have to consider.
"You can't just say 'Oh, I'm not going to go to college,'" she said. "I want to go to college and I want to do really good. I want to get a good job, and someday get a house, so we can all be happy again."
Shortly after the interviews were done for this story, Celia and her family were kicked out of their illegal storefront apartment. They stayed with family and relatives for a few weeks, and are now in a new apartment -- that's legal.
- All Things Considered, 04/14/2009, 4:49 p.m.