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The human cost of immigration enforcement

In the two decades since they slipped out of Mexico and into the shadow world of illegal immigrants, Concepcion Mendoza and his wife, Ibed, have made a passable life in America.

Ibed Mendoza, 37, clutches a photo of herself and husband Concepcion Mendoza, 39. Concepcion was deported to Mexico after 19 years of marriage in the United States, where they worked and raised three boys.  ( SHARON GEKOSKI-KIMMEL / Staff Photographer )
Ibed Mendoza, 37, clutches a photo of herself and husband Concepcion Mendoza, 39. Concepcion was deported to Mexico after 19 years of marriage in the United States, where they worked and raised three boys. ( SHARON GEKOSKI-KIMMEL / Staff Photographer )Read more

In the two decades since they slipped out of Mexico and into the shadow world of illegal immigrants, Concepcion Mendoza and his wife, Ibed, have made a passable life in America.

They've labored at farms, packing houses, and fast-food joints on both coasts, settling eventually in a rented house in South Jersey. They produced three sons, all U.S. citizens born on U.S. soil.

One day last March, with the boys at school, Ibed was at work, cooking and cleaning at a Vineland, N.J., church, when her phone showed a missed call from an unfamiliar number, and three from Concepcion. Apprehensive, she dialed him, but got no answer. She then called the stranger.

Her heart sank when an immigration officer in Cherry Hill picked up and put her husband on the line. Concepcion's voice quavered.

"Mi corazon" - "my sweetheart," he began. "They arrested me."

Two weeks later, he was deported to Mexico. Ibed Mendoza, 37, and her sons suddenly found themselves in an increasingly common quandary, one that is turning the complex immigration debate even knottier: When a parent is deported, then what?

Still undocumented, and now without the family's main breadwinner, Ibed has put in long days packing blueberries and slinging burgers. Food stamps, available to her sons, prop up the budget.

Tears overtake her when she ponders her options. She could abandon life here and return to Mexico and her husband, but her sons, ages 10, 14 and 16, want to stay.

"The education here is better," said the eldest, Uriel, a sophomore and soccer standout at Buena Regional High School. "I can do a lot better here than over there."

Ibed also could wait for her husband to sneak back across the border, though she frets about his safety.

"Sometimes in the night I say, 'I will go back to Mexico tomorrow,' " she said, eyes brimming. "But when I wake up, I say, 'No.' "

Family men and women

Migrants, particularly from Mexico, once typically were unattached male laborers. Now they often are family men and women who put down roots.

About four million U.S.-citizen children have at least one undocumented parent, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, a research organization in Washington. And that number is headed up.

Since 2005, illegal crossings of the nation's southern border have plummeted 80 percent because of tough enforcement and the recession. But the proportion of adults who cross, get deported, and try to cross again is growing.

In the first decade of the 21st century, about 8 percent of all deportees, not just Mexicans, had U.S.-citizen children, according to an analysis of federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) data by the Applied Research Center, a New York think tank.

But in the first half of 2011, 22 percent of all deportees had U.S.-citizen children.

Many repeat crossers tell immigrant-aid groups that their families are the magnets drawing them back.

Journalist Seth Freed Wessler interviewed deportees at the border for the August edition of the magazine Good. "Family, community, the perks and responsibilities of established existence," he wrote, "beckon impossibly from the north. The border is more than a physical barrier. It is a psychological torment."

Partisans on all sides of the illegal-immigration debate say the growing legion of undocumented people with U.S.-citizen children presents wrenching policy choices:

Ratchet up pressure on parents so they leave voluntarily, with or without their children.

Hunt them down for deportation.

Or permit parents who pose no threat to public safety to work here legally, though not necessarily on a path to citizenship.

"Immigration policy right now is creating mostly female-headed households, [putting] children in a vulnerable situation," said Joanna Dreby, a sociologist at the State University of New York at Albany and author of a newly published academic article, "The Burden of Deportation on Children in Mexican Immigrant Families."

But rejoining a deported parent is fraught with risk, she warned. "Research shows that when U.S. kids go back to Mexico, they suffer academically, their health care isn't as good, their aspirations can't be met."

U.S. Rep. Jose Serrano (D., N.Y.) aims to tackle the problem with the Child Citizen Protection Act, a bill that he introduced in 2006 but that has yet to clear committee. It would give immigration judges more leeway in halting parental expulsions.

"These children deserve the same treatment as any other American citizen, which includes not having the government break up their family," Serrano said.

Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington group advocating strict immigration controls, opposes the bill.

"Children often suffer for the mistakes of their parents," he said. "If a parent takes out a loan he can't pay and the bank forecloses, you don't get to keep the house.

"Supporters of open borders created the situation that allowed these immigrants to give birth here. Now they are using it as an excuse for gutting enforcement even more."

More time in the U.S.

The day 39-year-old Concepcion "Chon" Mendoza was deported, he had already spent more time in America than in Mexico - 10 years in California, 11 in New Jersey.

He was 18, an ambitious kid from Guanajuato in search of work, when he crossed the border near San Diego.

He was working on a Santa Ana celery farm in 1993 when Ibed arrived, fresh from a trek that took her from the town of Cuatla in south-central Mexico across the desert to San Diego. She was 18 and promptly found work as a nanny.

They met at a dance and started to date. By 1995, Ibed was pregnant. They went back to Mexico to marry, then took another run at California, where Uriel was born.

Their plan was to send money home, build a house in Mexico, and move back. But two years later came their second son, Isaias. Ibed and the boys went back to Mexico to live with Chon's parents in Guanajuato. He stayed in California to earn as much as he could.

Six months later, they were still apart.

"Hey, I'm married with you, not your mom," Ibed told him in a call. "Are you coming?"

He returned briefly but was lured north again, this time for a better job in construction in New Jersey.

By 2000, unable to bear the separation, Ibed joined him. She recalls the sparkle of snow on the ground, and telling Chon, "I am in America with you now. This is where we stay."

She found a job at a commercial laundry. They rented a house in Hammonton. In 2002, son Eliab was born. Despite some ups and downs, they were happy.

With their boys growing up as citizens, the parents also wanted to emerge from the shadows. But they suspect bad advice about how to legalize their status may have targeted Chon for removal.

In 2010, a friend recommended they see a man in North Jersey, a Haitian American who held himself out as an immigration lawyer.

He charged $4,000 to process their filings with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and sent them to the USCIS service center in Northeast Philadelphia to be fingerprinted.

As time passed, the man wanted more money, Ibed said, so they paid another $4,000 in installments. And waited.

They were still waiting in March, when Hammonton police stopped Chon for not signaling when changing lanes. He was ticketed for that, and for driving without a license.

He was paying his $388 fine at the Hammonton Municipal Court ticket window when a man approached, opened his jacket to reveal the ICE insignia, and took him away.

Did submitting their fingerprints lead to her husband's arrest, Ibed wonders?

She later learned - and still it gnaws at her - that the man who advised them to do so was not a lawyer, but a registered legal consultant. His license had been revoked by the New York state disciplinary board on April 15, 2010 for "intentional fraud."

Detention center

From Cherry Hill, Chon was taken to the ICE detention center in Newark.

Ibed spoke to him by phone but did not visit, fearing she too would be arrested.

However, expelling her would not be a high priority for the government. In a June 2011 memo on prosecutorial discretion, ICE Director John Morton said agents can consider community ties, "including family relationships," and whether the immigrant has a U.S.-citizen child.

Chon's situation was more complicated. Both he and his wife had illegally crossed the border, usually separately, many times. But he had once been caught, formally expelled, and banned from coming back. He came back anyway. That gave him a "record of illegal reentry," making him a more significant quarry.

In an attempt to save him, Ibed paid $500 to a lawyer, only to be told a few days later that nothing could be done.

She gave another $500 to a second lawyer, who visited Chon in detention. He held out hope of possibly stopping the deportation because Chon had lived in the United States for more than 10 years.

Within a day of that visit, Chon was awakened by guards in the middle of the night, and told to get ready to move.

Chained hand and foot, and wearing thick restraining belts, he and about 50 other illegal immigrants were taken to Newark Liberty International Airport. They were flown to Brownsville, Texas, packed onto a bus, driven across the Mexican border to Matamoros, and set free.

Low on cash, he borrowed $70 from another prisoner for the 24-hour bus ride to his parent's house in Guanajuato.

Now, with nothing but time on his hands, he worries that his wife will have car trouble, that the household bills will overwhelm her.

In the United States, he could make $300 a week in landscaping, three times that much running a backhoe. In Mexico, the factory jobs he applies for pay $80 a week. He can't send money to Ibed. In fact, every two weeks she sends money to him.

In a phone interview from his parents' home in Guanajuato, he said he yearns for his family, and soon may try to cross the border again.

"For now, that is the plan," he said, "but we will see what happens."

On a warm summer night, Ibed carries a folding chair to a grassy field where Uriel is playing soccer. She watches his team charge back and forth. If her husband were here, she said, this would be a typical family night. Instead she is alone, under the lights.

When the opposing team scores, the goalie blurts something in Spanish.

"The goalie is mad," she said. "But that's the game. Somebody wins. Somebody loses."