Friday, December 19, 2008
(13-year-old Jesus served at Mass for Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City - St. Joseph at Holy Cross Church on the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.)
The form of immigration policy in the U.S. is continually debated and never resolved by those responsible - namely, the U.S. Congress. Consequently, states and bureaucracies take over with sometimes disastrous consequences.
The Catholic Key this week looked at the practical effect of a failed immigration policy on one family and that family's community: A mother who's lived and worked and paid taxes here legally for two decades is forced back to a city and country she no longer knows, leaving three U.S. citizen children to fend for themselves. One daughter becomes the mother of her two grade school siblings and the local Catholic Church comes to aid a family the state seeks to divide.
Below is Marty Denzer's "Three Children Left Behind" from this week's Catholic Key print edition:
KANSAS CITY - She's not much older than a child herself, but Leslie, 20, has stepped into the breach left by her mother's voluntary return to Mexico to care for and raise her brother and sister.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, immigration and legalization issues have become hugely important. Attaining legalization and citizenship has, in the words of Jean Ferrara, principal of Holy Cross School, gotten so ridiculously long and expensive a process that it has created a third class of people - the vulnerable.
Researchers from the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington, D.C., have found that there are more than 3 million children born in the United States with one or both parents whose residency status is questioned.
Jesus (13) and Marbhely (14) attended Holy Cross School for several years before Immigration and Naturalization Services came for their mother, Maria Gonzalez.
Leslie, the oldest of four children, said her mother came to the United States legally more than 20 years ago and settled in California. She married and her four children were born in California. Six or seven years ago, Maria, having made the decision to separate from her husband, moved to Kansas City with the children. Shortly before the move, Maria's purse and personal documents were stolen.
The market for false documents and stolen Social Security numbers is a booming one, and legal residents with Hispanic last names are particularly vulnerable. In a recent story in The Kansas City Star, Linda Foley, founder of the Identity Theft Resource Center in San Diego and a victim of identity theft herself, said identities can be bought for as little as $30. Good quality counterfeits can cost more, she said, and stolen identities can be sold over and over again.
Not knowing this, Maria filed a police report and figured all she had to do was replace the documents - especially her Social Security card and drivers license.
She replaced the documents and moved to Kansas City's Old Northeast, where she had family and friends, and enrolled the younger children in Holy Cross School. Leslie attended Northeast Junior High and High School.
Maria got involved with Holy Cross Parish and the community. The little family survived two home burglaries and began looking into another place to live. They found a home they liked and started the move-in process.
"My mom made a lot of sacrifices to get this house and send Marbhely and Jesus to Holy Cross," Leslie said.
One Sunday morning in July, shortly before Leslie's 20th birthday, Maria went grocery shopping. There was a knock on the door. Leslie answered and found Immigration and Naturalization agents asking for her mother. She said the agents refused to tell her why and left.
"When my mom got home, we told her about the INS agents, she panicked. We were all panicky, so we went to my auntie's house. We had never had anything like this happen before," Leslie remembered.
Maria contacted an immigration attorney to look into the situation. Within a few days she learned that it was a case of identity theft, but INS authorities suspected that Maria might have been involved in the theft for profit and tracked her to Kansas City. Her attorney advised that as she was unable to prove otherwise, it would be better for her to return to Mexico voluntarily rather than face deportation.
"Mom had been in this country more than 20 years. Her lawyer told her that she'd just have to go back to Mexico and fight her way back," Leslie said.
Rather than letting Maria return alone to a village in Mexico where she knew no one anymore, Leslie, Marbhely and Jesus accompanied her to the village she had left when she was 16. There was no family left there, no body they knew, only strangers.
Before they left, Maria contacted Ferrara for proof that the two younger children had been enrolled at Holy Cross, in part so that they could return to the U.S. with few hassles.
Leslie, who was still in school, had to return to Kansas City a week later.
"I didn't know what to do with myself when Marbhely and Jesus were still in Mexico," she said with a rueful laugh. "I was so used to getting them up and ready for school and taking care of them when my mom had to work or wasn't there, I just had no one and nothing to come home to."
Jesus returned to Kansas City shortly after Leslie. Marbhely came home at the end of September. Leslie was glad to see them.
"Now they are home and there is somebody to talk to and yell at. I'm not alone."
Marbhely liked Mexico but likes Kansas City more. "It was awesome and had some pretty cool cities, but the people were not so cool. I got to ride a donkey, which was cool. But there's a lot of crime there and it's better here."
Jesus was more succinct. "The village where mom lives now, Poz de Ibarra, is a little place with dirt roads. It's just not the same as the United States."
Marbhely said the village was in the center of a web of roads leading to a larger city.
"The houses are made of concrete and there are stores in the houses," she said.
After Leslie returned to Kansas City, she contacted Ferrara to see about getting her siblings back in the school. Ferrara said that when the children left at the end of the previous academic year, there remained unpaid tuition. As a matter of course, Catholic schools withhold grades when there is unpaid tuition or fees.
She worried about the two young teens so, following her conversation with Leslie, Ferrara worked out the past-due tuition issue with Marlon De La Torre, diocesan superintendent of Catholic schools, and re-enrolled Jesus and Marbhely.
De La Torre, who is of Hispanic heritage, said "Dignity tells me these children need an opportunity and we can offer it. They need assistance and if we can help, we'll help. Catholic social teaching says we should do what we can to help maintain the dignity of an individual. And that's what we try to do."
Leslie was relieved; she was concerned that Jesus, lacking a strong father-figure and without his mother's presence, might be ripe for recruitment by one of the more than 400 "community-based gangs" (gang members growing up on the same block, in the same area, or attending the same school) in Kansas City's central and northeast neighborhoods.
Ferrara said the gang recruiters, "Faganesque characters (as in the aging pickpocket recruiter in Dickens's Oliver Twist) go after and recruit children as young as fourth graders." The Kansas City Police Department Gang Squad estimates that 20 percent of gang members in the area are Hispanic, ranging in age from 12 to 49.
Ferrara described Jesus as "amazingly worthwhile, a beautiful kid whose only ticket to a future is Holy Cross."
Jesus said he liked computer classes best and is thinking about taking up karate classes.
Leslie added, "My mom enrolled them at Holy Cross and I want to keep them there to prevent Jesus from getting into a gang."
"Right," Jesus interjected. "It's always me and always my fault!"
Leslie said that when Jesus and Marbhely miss a homework assignment or something important, Ferrara calls her to let her know.
Leslie is attending nursing school at Penn Valley Community College and working full-time to support the three of them. An aunt and a family friend watch over the little family and give them advice and rides to and from school if needed. Maria’s second oldest child, a mother of two toddlers, Daniel and Ezekiel, helps with rides and stays with Jesus and Marbhely when she can. When they are at home, they stay in the house, a little afraid of street gangs and other not so nice people that venture into the area. The house is small, but immaculately kept.
Marbhely gives Leslie credit for taking care of them and keeping the family together, but she misses her mother.
“Even when I hate my sister and she gets on my nerves, I know she’s doing it for a reason. But it’s just not the same. We call mom and she calls us to make sure we’re doing our homework and watering her plants, but she’s not here to get on our nerves like other moms. I miss her a lot.”
Father Joe Cisetti, pastor of Holy Cross, Ferrara, De La Torre and their teachers do their best to shield the little family from the instability, isolation, fear and depression that often follows the departure of a parent.
Father Cisetti provided a Thanksgiving dinner for the little family a few weeks ago with donations from friends and parishioners.
“It was very nice,” Leslie said “You know, sometimes I am overwhelmed. I know I have a lot on my shoulders but who else is going to do it? I may have had to grow up too fast, but mom sacrificed to get us what we have and to keep Jesus and Marbhely in school. I want to keep things the ways she wanted them. I don’t want to be a failure in her eyes. We just have to be strong and keep God on our side.”
De La Torre and the Catholic Schools Office are planning to help with their Christmas.
Leslie put up a small tree and hung stockings nearby. The three young people said they were going to their sister’s house for Christmas. “We feel that family is more important than presents this holiday,” she said.
De La Torre said, “Maria did not do anything inherently wrong. She was here legally, then someone stole her purse and the system got her.”
Leslie nodded, “My mom is a good person with kids and grandbabies. She was on top of things.”
According to immigration attorney Suzanne Gladney, a person who is forced to leave the United States, either voluntarily as Maria did or deported, is eligible to return to the United States assuming they can be legally admitted. A sibling or child who is over the age of 21 and a legal resident, naturalized citizen or American- born, may apply for their re-admission. If the person has no family, an employer may apply.
“My mom is going through the process,” Leslie said. “She is doing paperwork and waiting for interviews. It’s going to take a while.
“We hope to go visit her in Mexico in January or February.”
In the meantime, if there are children under the age of 18 left behind who are eligible for public benefits, they can get them, Gladney said.
The three young people don’t talk too much about the situation they are in, because as Marbhely said, “It brings that horrible week all back.”
Leslie said, “We were just shaking, not sleeping or eating. We didn’t want our mom to go.”
De La Torre said, “These are just regular people who are trying to make it. This kind of thing happens more often than we know.
“We just have to have hope.”
Posted byJack Smithat1:26 AM