Loving across the border

How a family split apart by deportation keeps in touch

How a family split apart by deportation keeps in touch
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This series explores how we maintain relationships with our loved ones when they are far away.

By Joanna S. Kao

Published on Saturday, July 4, 2015


Loving Long-Distance

This series explores how we maintain relationships with our loved ones when they are far away.

LYNN, Mass. — Vivian de Leon was nervous a few years ago when she introduced her boyfriend to her father. There were the usual worries. What was going to happen? Would they get along?

In de Leon’s case, there was one more wrinkle: Her boyfriend and her father weren’t in the same room. They met over Skype, since her father was deported to Guatemala in 2011 after living in the United States for more than a decade.

“They spoke for two hours. I have no idea what they were talking about,” she said. “But everything went fine.”

De Leon, a 21-year-old nursing student, is one of more than 660,000 people covered under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and one of 5.5 million people in the U.S. with at least one undocumented parent.

Over 275,000 parents with U.S.-born children were deported from 2011 to 2013, and there are many deportees who aren’t counted who have undocumented children in the country. De Leon and her dad have lived apart for nearly half her life.

More than 275,000 parents with U.S.-born children were deported from 2011 to 2013

Congress required U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to provide reports on the number of deported parents claiming U.S.-born children beginning in 2010. The reports, which were not available upon request from ICE Public Affairs, are given to the Appropriations Subcommittees on Homeland Security in both the House and Senate. Organizations like Colorlines, the Applied Research Center and the Huffington Post have filed Freedom of Information Act requests for this data.

Fiscal Year Quarter Number of deported parents
FY10 Q4 23,913
FY11 Q1 22,830
FY11 Q2 23,572
FY11 Q3 22,914
FY11 Q4 23,064
FY12 Q1 22,692
FY12 Q2 22,302
FY12 Q3 22,645
FY12 Q4 20,878
FY13 Q1 NA
FY13 Q2 and FY13 Q3 39,410
FY13 Q4 and FY14 Q1 33,000
Source: Colorlines, Huffington Post
Note: De Leon was not born in the U.S., but her father is a part of this dataset because de Leon's younger brother was born in the U.S.

Her family life has been punctuated by periods of togetherness and separation. When de Leon was 3, her father left their home in Guatemala City to pursue better economic opportunities in the U.S. She, her mother and her sister (who was 2 months old when her father left) stayed in touch with him several times a week via phone calls and letters that de Leon still saves. In 2004, when gang members started to move into their neighborhood and threatened her extended family, they moved to join him.

After a brief adjustment period when her parents learned how to parent together again, her family got into a routine. Her parents worked multiple jobs throughout the week, and on weekends they would go to a local park, get dinner at a Chinese restaurant or visit the mall. De Leon and her siblings — her younger brother was born several years after they moved to the U.S. — settled into their home in Lynn.

But her life changed once again in 2011. Her father was arrested while driving to work and was detained at the Suffolk County Jail. He was deported back to Guatemala around Christmas-time in 2011.

Vivian de Leon and her father have been separated for nearly half her life

Source: Vivian de Leon

Not having a parent around can be difficult on practical levels. For de Leon, being the oldest, she felt she had to help take care of her younger siblings, “at the same time trying to juggle work now and making sure that I was doing good in school,” she said.

For her mother, it was harder to discipline her children. De Leon said that when they were younger, they would complain to their dad when they didn’t like how their mother was disciplining them. Her brother, now 8, is now doing that with her.

And there are bigger decisions that are harder to help with from afar. De Leon is planning to purchase a car, and her father (who worked as a mechanic in the U.S.) isn’t able to help her much from Guatemala.

Aside from the day-to-day issues, she has seen his deportation take a deeper emotional toll. After he was deported, she saw her siblings’ personalities change. She said her sister was visibly hurt when her father was deported, especially since she was just entering her teenage years. “It was very tough. It was tough on all of us,” de Leon said.

Their family isn’t unique. Studies from Human Impact Partners, Urban Institute and others found that deporting parents — or even facing the risk of deportation — has negative effects on their children.

The studies found that children with undocumented parents showed an increased risk for having poorer physical and mental health. A study by Human Impact Partners showed that 70 percent of children with undocumented parents in the study showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder while only 40 percent of children with documented parents exhibited the same symptoms.

De Leon has pulled through despite the odds against her. For now, she and her father rely on phone calls and Skype to keep in touch, but she knows it isn’t the same as being able to see him in person. During a recent Skype conversation, he sent her a video of a daughter about to get married and a father who is miles away. “He feels that’s going to happen to him,” she said. “He’s going to be in Guatemala and Skyping in into my wedding, and he’s not able to walk me down the aisle.”

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