Sin País

PBS Premiere: Aug. 9, 2012Check the broadcast schedule »

In Context

In general, to be able to apply for an immigrant visa, a foreign citizen must fall under one of three immigration categories: family reunification, employment sponsorship or humanitarian cases (refugee and asylum adjustment). According to the Migration Policy Institute, the majority of people who wish to obtain lawful permanent residence in the United States qualify because they are family members of U.S. citizens or residents, employees of U.S. companies or refugees or asylum seekers who have been granted protection in the United States.

A mixed-status family is one in which family members have different immigration statuses--some members are U.S. citizens and/or legal residents while others remain undocumented, despite family and marriage ties to the United States. In Sin País, Sam, Elida and Gilbert Mejia were born in Guatemala, while Helen and Dulce were born in the United States and therefore are both U.S. citizens.

A report from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security revealed that during the period from January 1, 2011 to June 30, 2011, each of 46,486 of the immigrants removed from the country by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement claimed to be the parent of at least one U.S. citizen child. This number is a record high.

In January 2012 the Applied Research Center reported that more than 5,100 children of immigrants have ended up in foster care after their parents were detained or deported. Nearly a quarter of these children are California residents. The report prompted the California State Senate to vote in favor of a bill that would authorize juvenile court judges to provide detained or deported parents additional time to stay in the country while they apply for hardship waivers that could ultimately lead to legal residency. The bill also requires state child welfare authorities to guide counties on how to work with foreign consulates, which often serve as liaisons between deported parents and the child welfare department.

Under current law, undocumented immigrants face a ban from the United States for three to 10 years before they can apply for legal re-entry. Many detained parents are therefore faced with the decision to take their United States-born children with them or to leave them behind while they find a legal way to immigrate (which many never do).

However, applying for legal re-entry can be a daunting task. Even after the three- to 10-year waiting period, the process of obtaining immigrant visas is confusing and lengthy. Technically, immigrant visas become available each month to those whose priority dates (dates on which their petitions were filed) are listed in the U.S. State Department visa bulletin, but such dates frequently change. Mexican visa applications from 1993 are currently being processed and applicants from the Philippines have been waiting almost a quarter-century, since 1988. The same number of immigration visas are available for each country, regardless of population or visa demand.

United States-born children of immigrants must be 21 in order to sponsor their parents. In Sin País, Helen is only 14. A report released by the Urban Institute in 2010 shows that parental deportation can be detrimental to a child. Research shows that children of deported parents exhibit significant behavioral changes, including anxiety and anger, and face increased odds of lasting economic turmoil and social exclusion. The report also revealed that 45 percent of parents who were deported in 2011 were not apprehended for any criminal offense, but rather were victims of targeted raids.

Caption: Sam and Dulce Mejia-Perez outside of Quetzaltenango, Guatemala
Credit: Photo courtesy of Theo Rigby

» Foley, Elise. "Immigration Enforcement Separated Thousands of U.S.-Born Children From Parents." The Huffington Post, March 30, 2012.
» Migration Information Source. "Legal Immigration to the United States."
» New American Media. "ICE Deported More Than 46,000 Immigrants with U.S. Citizen Children Last Year, Report Finds."
» "The Society Pages." "Wait Times for U.S. Family Reunification Visas."
» Southern California Public Radio. "Immigrant Visas."
» Migration Policy Institute.
» Southern California Public Radio. "Mixed-status Families.
» Yoshikawa, Hirokazu and Carola Suárez-Orozco. "Deporting Parents Hurts Kids." The New York Times, April 20, 2012.