Family life a complex affair for immigrants

Illegal status creates fault lines

By Maria Sacchetti
Globe Staff / May 11, 2009
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When school lets out for the summer, Eliane will take her only son to Logan International Airport and put him on an airplane to Brazil. She will miss his birthday party in July, his soccer games, and all of his summer vacation.

Eliane will stay behind because she is an illegal immigrant, unlike her 5-year-old American son and a sister who will escort him to South America. If she leaves the United States, she will not be allowed back in.

"I don't like it," she said, speaking on the condition that her last name not be used for fear of deportation. "When I have my papers, he won't ever go with anyone else."

For families such as Eliane's, made up of illegal and legal immigrants, life is a dizzying array of complications, disappointments, and fears. Having legal papers determines who can work, drive a car, and afford to go to college, but also who can rush out of the country to sit by a parent's deathbed, dance at a wedding, or visit grandparents.

Such mixed-status families are at the heart of the national debate over immigration, which is expected to intensify as soon as this month as President Obama attempts to tackle illegal immigration. Advocates are pushing for a path to legal residency for the nation's 11.9 million illegal immigrants, in part because so many are related to American-born children.

But critics say illegal immigrants should not be rewarded for breaking the law, whatever their family ties.

"It's a consequence of what happens when parents make bad decisions," said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Center for Im migration Studies, a think tank in Washington, D.C., that favors stricter controls on immigration.

For many illegal immigrants, there is little benefit in being related to someone here legally. US laws limit relatives' ability to sponsor immigrants, and having an American child does not confer legal status.

About 4 million American-born children in the United States have at least one parent in the country illegally, according to a report by the Washington-based Pew Hispanic Center.

In Massachusetts, about 30,000 children are in that predicament.

Parents who are illegal immigrants say that having US-born children is a strong incentive to remain in the country.

Maria, a 43-year-old housecleaner, earns more than double what she had as a science teacher in Brazil. But her 6-year-old daughter, and a baby on the way, will have even more opportunities in the United States to go to college and have thriving careers. Because of that, she ignores her 86-year-old mother's pleas to move back home.

It is also difficult for brothers and sisters who were on equal footing in their homelands but have different legal statuses here.

Eliane, 44, who comes from a big family in Brazil, said one sister has legal status, while she and another sister do not.

When her sister received her legal papers through her husband, Eliane could not help but feel a pang of jealousy.

"I was happy for her, but a little sad for me," said Eliane, who has been here since 2001 and works as a housecleaner.

Erica, a 28-year-old from Brazil, has two sons: One is 11, and was caught with her crossing the US-Mexico border illegally in 2001. Her other son, 5, is an American citizen, born here years after she was released at the border pending a court date that she never kept.

The younger child is always begging her to take him to Brazil, but the 11-year-old never asks to go. He struggles in school and has trouble sleeping, worried about his family getting caught.

"He's always anxious," she said in a near whisper, as the boys played in another room. "I think he wants to go to Brazil, but he's afraid. He knows he can't come back."

Erica and her boys live in Boston with an uncle, who has a green card and a driver's license. He drives the family around on weekends to reduce the chance of them getting caught. (Illegal immigrants cannot get a driver's license in Massachusetts.)

Often, she wonders what it must be like to be here legally.

"It must be fantastic," said Erica, who cleans houses here after having worked on a farm in Brazil. "It's like you're free. For us, it's like being in jail. We are always afraid."

Critics of illegal immigrants say parents created this scenario by disobeying the law, and they blame politicians for failing to enforce it. But advocates for immigrants say the United States created the problem by allowing so many illegal immigrants to stay.

"This is a very clear indication that immigration reform affects everyone," said Eva Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition. "The debate is not just about the undocumented. It's about families and citizen children."

In Chelsea, a 22-year-old woman is caught in the middle: She is the daughter of a legal immigrant and the mother of an American child. She arrived from Honduras on a tourist visa when she was 14 and never left.

The difference between the woman and her mother is stark: Her mother drives a car, has a stable job with benefits and a nice apartment. But the woman, who asked that her name not be used, walks to work at a grocery store, rents a tiny $550-a-month flat in a moldy basement. She never drives.

Maria Sacchetti can be reached at