Leaving The Kids Behind: An Immigration Story

Sandra Hughes is a CBS News correspondent based in Los Angeles.
In the past year, our Government has stepped up its immigration enforcement efforts, resulting in more than 200,000 deportations. But many of these illegal immigrants are leaving something behind: their children. Born in the U.S., these kids are automatically US citizens. And though no one can tell us how many have stayed behind, we know they are out there. Our CBS News team met three of them last Friday afternoon at their home in San Diego. 16-year-old Leslie, 13-year-old Marcos and 9-year-old Adeline Munoz are struggling to get by without their parents who have been deported to Mexico.

Abel and Zulma came here 18 years ago on a temporary visa with a sick infant who later died. They overstayed the visa and had 3 more children. They had purchased a home, paid taxes, and joined community groups. Abel worked as an electrician, while Zulma volunteered at her children's school. They decided it was time to come out from the shadows, to become legal citizens. So they hired a lawyer to make their case. But a judge denied their petition, and, unbeknownst to the Munoz's, placed them on a list of visa violators that were ordered for deportation.

The family was spending an evening at home last February when there was a knock at the door. Marcos, the 13-year-old son, was the first to see who it was. He ran upstairs, out of breath and said to his sister, "They are here!". "Who?" she asked him. "Immigration", he answered. "NO!" was all she could get out. Officers from Immigration Customs Enforcement filled their house, handcuffed their father and removed the parents from the home. The children were left in the custody of an aunt.

But it is 16-year-old Leslie who has taken on the responsibilities of her parents: paying the bills, making sure the younger two finish their school work. It has become a terrible burden for her. Although there are five bedrooms in the house, the three kids all sleep in their parent's room, to comfort one another in their parents' absence. But the comfort of her older brother and sister are not enough for nine-year-old Adeline. The day before our visit, Adeline had a birthday (turning 8 to 9, the same age as my own daughter) I asked her if they had celebrated her birthday. She said no, and with a tear in her eye, told me she didn't want to celebrate her birthday without her parents. She said it just wouldn't be the same to have a party without mom and dad, so she would do without cake and ice cream and presents.

On Fridays the children pack up and hitch a ride with someone down to the U.S. border to reunite with their folks. Abel and Zulma are staying with her parents in a cramped apartment in Tijuana. We followed along for part of the visit and the first thing I noticed is that even though they were in staying in very poor conditions, the kids didn't seem to notice. 13 year old Marcos who had barely talked in San Diego was now all smiles and Adeline was chattering away at her mom and her grandmother. A bunny was hopping on the half gutted floor and two mutts were tied up in the kitchen. The entire family slept in one room of this concrete block, 2 bedroom apartment.

When I asked the parents how they could just leave their kids in the U.S., tears welled in Zulma's eyes as she explained how she didn't want to deny her children the opportunities of the United States by bringing them to the slums of Tijuana. "What a choice," I thought to myself.

According to Rosemary Jenks of the immigration reduction group called Numbers USA, it's a tough choice, but when making the decision to stay in this country illegally, parents set themselves up for this. Jenks says the government is finally taking U.S. immigration policy seriously and that because of that she thinks fewer people will come to this country and stay illegally putting themselves in the situation of the Munoz family.

Right now, the Mexican border is what divides this family. And it will for the foreseeable future. The parents want desperately to come back, legally. But unless a judge changes his mind, it is not possible. In the meantime, Leslie has put their house up for rent to cover the mortgage payment and they've been selling things from the house to help pay bills. But neither the children nor their parents know how long they can hold out.