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US immigrant raids spur fears in children

Crackdown has new impact on young citizens

While waiting to see a US House member, Felicitas Valencia, left, held 3-month-old daughter Jocelyn Romero as other children of illegal immigrants from Chicago gathered around her. (Nikki Kahn/Washington Post)

WASHINGTON -- As the government's crackdown on illegal immigrant workers has intensified in recent months, so have the consequences for a large group of US citizens: American-born children of illegal immigrants.

Numbering at least 3.1 million, according to an analysis by the Urban Institute and the Pew Hispanic Center, such children range from teenagers steeped in iTunes and MySpace to toddlers just learning their ABCs.

Until recently, their parents' illegal status had limited impact on these children's lives, because, although every year hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants are detained attempting to cross the US border, once they make it in they are rarely caught.

But the increase in raids against companies employing illegal workers is beginning to change that.

In December, immigration agents descended on six meat-processing plants belonging to Swift & Co. and arrested 1,297 illegal workers. At one plant, in Worthington, Minn., the workers had at least 360 US-born children and probably many more, according to a local pastor who raised money for them.

Similarly, of about 360 workers arrested during a raid of the Michael Bianco Inc. manufacturing plant in New Bedford last month, about 110 were the sole caregivers for one or more children in the United States, according to federal and state authorities.

Last Thursday, Jessica Guncay, a chubby-cheeked fifth-grader, joined the ranks of children who have been separated from a parent when immigration agents raided a Dixie Printing and Packaging Corp. plant in Baltimore where her parents were working under false Social Security numbers.

During an interview in her Baltimore home the next day, Jessica, 10, said that although she had known her Ecuadoran parents were in the country illegally, she never imagined they would be arrested.

"I feel sick inside," she mumbled, staring at her white sneakers.

Her mother, Ana Tapia, who sat next to Jessica on the family's brown velvet couch, pulled her daughter in for a tearful hug.

Though Jessica's father, Jury Guncay, 45, remains in custody, Tapia, 40, was released several hours after the raid so Jessica would not be left without anyone to care for her. But the black monitoring bracelet around Tapia's ankle testified to the limited nature of that reprieve: She must remain under partial house arrest until her case comes up in immigration court.

Her chances of winning a stay of deportation appear slim.

Under rules adopted by Congress in 1996, a judge cannot allow illegal immigrants to remain in the United States merely because they have a child who is a US citizen. Instead, parents must prove that if they were deported the child would suffer "exceptional and extremely unusual hardship" -- a standard often interpreted to apply to serious medical cases only.

So Tapia is wrestling with a dilemma that has become increasingly common for illegal immigrant parents: leave her child to be raised by relatives in the United States or take her along to an unfamiliar country offering far fewer opportunities.

In Maryland, she noted, she and her husband earned $11.25 an hour and were able to provide Jessica with a computer, a modest but tidy brick house, and free access to an elementary school she loves.

Before leaving Ecuador 14 years ago, they could barely afford to sublet a single room on Guncay's wages as a metalworker . Now Tapia worries he will no longer qualify for even that job because Ecuadoran factory managers prefer younger workers.

"I don't even know how my husband and I are going to survive there, let alone support Jessica," Tapia said in Spanish.

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which seeks to limit immigration, said he has sympathy for children in Jessica's situation -- but no more so than for any other child victimized by a parent's mistakes.

"Kids often pay for the bad decisions of their parents. If you do something wrong that sends you to jail, well, your kids suffer for that. If you are careless with your mortgage and lose your house, your kids suffer along with you," he said. The parents "knew what they were doing when they had kids here, knowing that they were still illegal immigrants."

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