BY JILL REPLOGLE -- It’s a hot Monday afternoon in Tijuana. Daniel Bribiescas is headed out the gate of the Madre Asunta shelter for migrant women and children. Young, energetic, with an easy smile — Bribiescas is the shelter’s full-time lawyer, helping deportees piece back together their lives and often, their families.
Today he’s taking a new client — 24-year-old Tania Velasquez — to the local office of Mexico’s child welfare agency.
Velasquez crossed into the U.S. illegally in 2006 and lived in Anaheim until her run in with the police last year. She and her husband were stopped and the officers found drugs on him. They both landed in jail. He’s still behind bars in the U.S. on criminal charges. She plead guilty to a misdemeanor possession for personal use — even though she says she's never used drugs.
Velasquez says she pled guilty because her lawyer told her she'd get out of jail immediately, and she thought she'd be with her three-year-old daughter.
But instead she was moved to an immigration detention facility, where she spent six months before being deported to Mexico in May. She says immigration agents forced her to sign her deportation papers — a commonly alleged practice that's now the subject of an ACLU lawsuit.
Velasquez's daughter has been staying with a friend in California for more than eight months now. And now that Velasquez is out of detention, she has one goal: to get her daughter back. To do that, she’ll have to prove to an American judge that she can provide a suitable life for her child in Mexico.
On the way to the child welfare agency in Tijuana, Bribiescas, the lawyer, coaches Velasquez on the first steps.
A place to live and a job, he says. Those are the first two things a deported parent needs in order to show they’re serious about wanting their kids back. And they're difficult hurdles. Many show up here penniless and without any kind of identification, proof of work experience or school records.
But Velasquez seems determined. She already has a job at a restaurant, and she’s saving up money to get her own place.
Back at the shelter, Velasquez shows me photos of her daughter.
The girl poses in a princess dress with pink and yellow tulle. In the background are the palm trees and green grass of a southern California suburb. What’s she like? I ask.
She’s very sweet, she says. Very friendly, very active, very intelligent…She goes on and on.
The big problem with cross-border dependency cases is the parents and children often only have photos. It’s often nearly impossible for them to see each other if the kids live in, say, Chicago, or if the parents have returned to hometowns in Mexico. So the emotional distance between them grows. Plus, parents can't be physically present for family court proceedings and meetings with social workers.
Bribiescas says that’s why he always recommends that parents stay near the border, in Tijuana or Baja California. Because they actually might get to visit with their kids.
Velasquez is terrified of losing the girl to an adoption in the U.S. It's unknown how many children of deported immigrants have been adopted, but its a big anxiety for many of these deported mothers here in Tijuana.
Velasquez says she and her daughter have never been separated.
Always together. There's nothing better than a child being with her parents, she says.
Currently, immigrant parents with deportation orders have a very hard time proving they shouldn't be deported — even if they have U.S. citizen children who would be left behind. The immigration reform bill under debate in the Senate includes provisions that could delay or waive deportation for parents of U.S. citizen children.
And the bill could give deportees like Velasquez - with minor criminal records and strong family ties in the U.S. — a chance to apply to return to the U.S. legally.
For now, Velasquez is focused only on getting her daughter back with her in Mexico.