By HELEN O'NEILL, Associated Press
STAMFORD, Conn. (AP) — Alexis Molina was just 10 years old when his mother was abruptly cut out of his life and his carefree childhood unraveled overnight.
Gone were the egg-and-sausage tortillas that greeted him when he came home from school, the walks in the park, the hugs at night when she tucked him into bed. Today the sweet-faced boy of 11 spends his time worrying about why his father cries so much, and why his mom can't come home.
"She went for her papers," he says. "And she never came back."
Alexis' father, Rony Molina, who runs a small landscaping company, was born in Guatemala but has lived here for 12 years and is an American citizen. Alexis and his 8-year-old brother, Steve, are Americans, too. So is their 19-year-old stepsister, Evelin. But their mother, Sandra, who lived here illegally, was deported to Guatemala a year and a half ago.
"How can my country not allow a mother to be with her children, especially when they are so young and they need her," Rony Molina asks, "and especially when they are Americans?"
It's a question thousands of other families are wrestling with as a record number of deportations means record numbers of American children being left without a parent. And it comes despite President Barack Obama's promise that his administration would focus on removing only criminals, not breaking up families even if a parent is here illegally.
Nearly 45,000 such parents were removed in the first six months of this year, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Behind the statistics are the stories: a crying baby taken from her mother's arms and handed to social workers as the mother is handcuffed and taken away, her parental rights terminated by a U.S. judge; teenage children watching as parents are dragged from the family home; immigrant parents disappearing into a maze-like detention system where they are routinely locked up hundreds of miles from their homes, separated from their families for months and denied contact with the welfare agencies deciding their children's' fate.
At least 5,100 U.S. citizen children in 22 states live in foster care, according to an estimate by the Applied Research Center, a New York-based advocacy organization, which first reported on such cases last year.
And an unknown number of those children are being put up for adoption against the wishes of their parents, who, once deported, are often helpless to fight when a U.S. judge decides that their children are better off here.
Immigration lawyers say that — despite the ICE policy changes — they see families destroyed every day.
"I had no idea what was happening," says Janna Hakim of the morning in 2010 when a loud knocking at her Brooklyn apartment door jolted her awake. It was the first Friday of Ramadan, and her Palestinian mother, Faten, was in the kitchen baking the pastries she sold to local stores.
Janna, then 16, and her siblings were all born here. None knew that their mother was in the U.S. illegally — or that a deportation order from years earlier meant she could be whisked away by ICE agents and her family's comfortable New York life could come crashing to a halt.
"It was horrible, horrible," Janna says, describing the shock of seeing her mother in an ill-fitting prison uniform behind a grimy glass panel in a detention center in Elizabeth, N.J. She was deported after three months. Her family fell apart.
Janna's 13-year-old brother began wetting his bed, she said, and her 15-year-old brother began hanging out with gangs and experimenting with drugs. Her father, who has a prosthetic leg and relied on his wife for help, grew despondent. And her mother, back in Ramallah living with her own mother after more than 20 years away, grew desperate, unable to sleep or function or think about anything except her family.
"I am not a criminal. I am the mother of American children and they need me, especially the younger ones," she cried over the phone. "How can a country break up families like this?"
Critics say the parents are to blame for entering the country illegally in the first place, knowing they were putting their families at risk.
"Yes, these are sad stories," says Bob Dane, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which advocates tougher enforcement against illegal immigration. "But these parents have taken a reckless gamble with their children's future by sneaking into the country illegally, knowing they could be deported."