BY JILL REPLOGLE -- I met Manuel and Maribel just a stone’s throw from the international border that separates them from their three children.
These aren’t their real names. They asked me not to use them because they’ve had a difficult relationship with the Orange County social worker handling their child dependency case. And they’re afraid of making it worse.
They’ve just had a supervised visitation with their children in the Department of Homeland Security building that sits right on the border here. They’re carrying the leftovers of all the goodies they brought their kids.
Pizza, juice, these little chocolate cupcakes that the kids love.
The family lived near Mission Viejo in southern California. Manuel called the U.S. home for 23 years, and his wife 13 years. Their children — two boys, seven and ten years old, and a girl who’s nine — are all U.S. citizens. They say everything was going well until…
Manuel says he doesn’t like to remember what happened. It’s hard. And embarrassing, his wife chimes in. They didn’t think about the potential consequences.
Shortly before Christmas in 2011, the couple was caught stealing toys from a store. They were deported, and Manuel’s mother was given temporary custody of their children.
Now they’ve been trying to get their kids back —to join them in Tijuana — for more than a year.
Manuel says they’ve done everything the social worker and judge have asked them to do. They’ve been through various types of therapy. They have good jobs, they have a home. But, he says, the American social worker handling their case keeps giving them more tasks, and requiring more evidence that they’re doing things the right way — not cutting any corners.
The Tijuana lawyer who's assisting the couple confirmed this.
Manuel and Maribel are exasperated.
It seems like such a long time, Maribel says. It hurts to be without the kids, especially after these visits at the border.
She and Manuel think, if they could just be present at one of their family court hearings. Show the judge and social worker what they're really like, maybe it would help their case. But they can't, because they're barred from going back to the U.S.
Seth Wessler is a journalist with the publication Colorlines. He's reported extensively on cross-border dependency cases.
"So I heard over and over again from caseworkers and attorneys in these cases that when mothers and fathers aren't in the courtroom, it makes it much more difficult for those parents to argue to get their kids back," says Wessler.
And besides this, Wessler says he perceives a sort of bias against placing children in Mexico.
"It's often about poverty in Mexico. It's often just about fear about Mexico itself."
"Media shares all the things and horrible things that are happening in Mexico, and we all read that. We're all aware of that," says Raquel Amezcua.
Raquel Amezcua works for Children and Family Services of Orange County. She serves as a liaison between her agency and the Mexican consulate to facilitate cross-border dependency cases. Amezcua says yes, they're cautious.
"But again, we work with the consulate very carefully and we ask them 'what about this city? What did the home study say when DIF shared that with us?" says Amezcua.
DIF is the Mexican child welfare agency.
"What's the crime rate? Will they be employed?' All those factors are considered."
Amezcua says there's another good reason to apply extra scrutiny to cases where children could be sent to live with family in Mexico: once the child is across the border, the American child welfare agency can't follow up and see how it's working out. It's out of their jurisdiction.
Back in Tijuana, Maribel unrolls a thick stack of handmade posters, cards and letters given to her by her children during their visit at the border.
The couple has come to terms with the abrupt end to their life in the U.S. They've found that life in their home country isn't as hard as they feared.
Manuel says they want to start new and forget about the past. But they can't yet close that chapter — the one they hope ends with getting their kids back — and they don't understand why.