Equal Voice

Accidental Foreigners: America’s Forgotten Citizens

March 19, 2013

By Cindy Carcamo | Special to Equal Voice News

SAN JOSE CALDERAS, GuatemalaJeidy knows she’s different.

The 5-year-old with dark eyes and an impish smile toys with earthworms in her front yard, devoting her day to play. In the kitchen, her 11-year-old sister, Jocelyn, fixes lunch. Another sister, Jennifer, sweeps leaves, her 10-year-old hands swaying back-and-forth.

On this soggy weekday morning last year in a village in the southwest region of Guatemala, most children were at school – but not these girls.

Their mother, Maribel, explains that the uniforms and supplies needed to outfit Jennifer and Jocelyn cost too much for the family’s meager income.

Jeidy is still too young to go to school. But there’s no doubt about it, her mother says. The youngest will attend when she’s old enough. They’ll scrounge up the money somehow, she insists.

The difference?

Jeidy was born in the United States. A passport declaring her U.S. citizenship separates her from her older sisters, providing a noteworthy status, in a sense, and a host of different rights by birth.

She is not alone.

Jeidy is one of the thousands of children born in the United States to parents who migrated to the country for working opportunities usually out of reach back home. These children returned to their parents’ birthplace after their mothers and fathers were deported.

In the first half of 2011 alone, about 46,500 parents who have a U.S.-born child were deported, according to media reports citing federal statistics.

More than 100,000 parents of children who are U.S. citizens were deported from the U.S. between 1998 and 2007, according to a Department of Homeland Security report.

Immigration plans from President Obama and Congress have yet to outline specifically, at least to the public, whether these U.S. citizens and their families would be covered, the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles said.

Born in the USA

This generation of U.S. children straddles two worlds.

By birth, they have the full rights of a first-world nation. By circumstance, they are growing up amid the challenges of a developing country.

In essence, U.S. immigration policy has created a new generation of citizens living in exile, said Víctor Zúñiga, dean of the School of Education and Humanities at the Universidad de Monterrey in Mexico.

He’s studied the phenomenon for more than a decade. “This has never happened in the history of the two countries,” he said.

“The United States is indirectly, removing these children from the country by deporting their parents.”

In Mexico alone, according to 2010 Mexican census figures, half a million U.S.-born children were being educated in that country, more than half of whom were brought to Mexico between 2005 and 2010.

The same situation exists in other Latin American countries, such as Guatemala.

Immigration experts and aid officials say that many communities in the parents’ home countries lack the resources to absorb the U.S.-born children into local schools and provide the same education they would have received in the United States.

In Guatemala, schools in some rural communities hold classes only twice a week because they don’t have enough staff or the classrooms are poorly equipped.

Yet, many Guatemalan parents with U.S.-born children hope the young people will return to their birth nation as adults and eventually pull the entire family back to the United States and out of poverty, said Clara Gordillo de Reyes, a regional delegate for the National Council for Migrants from Guatemala.

“What will happen to these children if they return to the United States and they’re not prepared? They won’t know the language. They will fail,” Gordillo de Reyes said.

From Postville, USA, to San José Calderas

San José Calderas, Guatemala, is home to a contingent of U.S.-born children with names such as Joe and Jonathan. They are relegated to live without basic necessities such as potable water, health care and consistent education.

This area is best known in the United States for its association with a 2008 federal immigration raid on a meat-packing plant in Postville, Iowa, where many village residents worked although they were undocumented.

Workers who lacked documents were detained and eventually deported. Those who had U.S.-born children were forced to make the decision to uproot their kids, knowing they would be taking them to communities where resources are scarce and poverty abounds.

About 300 families live in San José Calderas, about an hour-and-half drive west of Guatemala City.

Gordillo de Reyes knows of 35 children in the village who were born in the United States and returned with their parents from Postville.

But Gordillo de Reyes thinks there may be three times that number in the village. Some may not need her agency’s services. Some parents are afraid to come forward under the misperception that U.S. government officials would take away their daughters and sons if they were to discover that they live in such impoverished conditions.

She visits the community often, attempting to dispel that myth and provide the people with services such as vocational workshops, English classes and money to improve homes and roads.

Families’ Hopes Pinned to U.S.-born

On a drizzly day last year, Gordillo de Reyes told Hernández that she would try to get government aid for the family so that all her girls can attend school, not just Jeidy.

But the expectations the parents place on these children may not come to fruition, said Hirokazu Yoshikawa, author of the 2012 book, “Immigrants Raising Citizens: Undocumented Parents and Their Young Children.”

“The parents might expect that their kids, as U.S. citizens, will have some advantage,” Yoshikawa said.

“(But) if they grow up in a rural, disadvantaged area in Guatemala and don’t have a lot of access to English language opportunities, they will likely lose a lot of it and come to America … very much like first-generation immigrants.”

Although some U.S.-born children arrive in Latin America in adolescence and recall their life in the United States, others left at a very young age.

That’s the situation with most of the children in San José Calderas. The majority were uprooted from Postville as toddlers.

“These children came when they were very little … at 2 or 3 years of age and don’t remember their life there,” Gordillo de Reyes said.

Jose Daniel Lopez Guerra has no real memory of his U.S. life because he was 2 years old when he left Postville.

Regardless, the 5-year-old’s mother Elma Guerra Garcia pines for her former life in Postville at such length that the boy constantly talks about how he wants to return to Iowa.

“Mom, when are we going to go back?” Jose asks his mother constantly. “It’s really sad here.”

Jose talks about how the refrigerator was always fully stocked with milk and other goodies. Now, it isn’t. His mother tells the same story a bit later.

The boy rushes to a water-stained armoire plastered with dog-eared and yellowed pictures of his grandparents back in Iowa. Carefully, he pulls out his U.S. passport, which is next to a pair of oversized shoes he hopes to wear soon. They’re from Iowa, he points out.

“This is important,” he says proudly of the passport.

Families’ Fears

In San José Calderas, medical care is a luxury.

Lusvin Anibal Lopez Marroquin says he’s at a loss with his son Jose’s situation. About two years ago, his 7-year-old boy fell and injured his right eye. Jose, born in the United States, endured one surgery but needs another. The operation will have to wait because it costs an equivalent of $130 – too much for a father who is out of work, Marroquin explains.

“I just don’t know how to get that money,” he says. The 27-year-old father of three bites his lower lip and looks away, attempting to hide the tears in his eyes.

Sending Jose and his 5-year-old brother, Jonathan – also U.S.-born – to live with extended family members in their birth country isn’t an option, the father explains.

The family doesn’t want to separate. They’d rather live in poverty but stay together, he says.

Marroquin had a job as a security guard for a landowner. He quit, fearing for his safety. Someone had gunned down a guard at a neighboring ranch.

“I need to be alive to take care of my children, even if that means we won’t have much money,” he says.

The security situation in Guatemala has worsened over the years, and the nation has one of the highest violent-crime rates in Central America. Between January and September 2012, an average of 95 murders per week was reported in Guatemala, according to the U.S. State Department.

Extortions and kidnappings are common. Local officials, some of whom are inexperienced and underpaid, are unable to cope with the problem.

Gordillo de Reyes said sometimes these migrants are targeted and become victims of extortion because there’s the belief that they may have done well enough in Postville to pay a ransom for a loved one.

Families fear a U.S.-born child from the village may be the next target, Gordillo de Reyes said.

Maria Magdalena Lopez said she fears her 8-year-old son, Joe, may be the next victim in San José Calderas. Soon after her family returned to Postville in 2008, her husband Jose Cruz Tajtaj received a letter threatening him with death if he didn’t hand over money.

Afraid, the family paid the money. Lopez wouldn’t say exactly how much.

About a year later, the family received another letter. This time, the father returned to the United States without documents, and Lopez and Joe moved to a neighboring town. They never paid and heard nothing else.

Lopez now wants to send her son back to her husband in Postville.

“I just can’t go with him to his country,” Lopez says. She has no legal status in the United States and said making the trek would be too dangerous.

Gordillo de Reyes, who helped launch the migrant program a few years ago, said the stories she hears from families in San José Calderas still give her chills. She tries to put on a brave face to the children and families who need her help.

“Sometimes I just have to smile and give them an encouraging word, a breath of hope that their situation will change,” she said, closing her eyes to stop her tears.

“Though, in some cases we know there’s no hope, we have to give them hope, to keep them going in this life.”

As the United States moves forward with comprehensive immigration reform plans, this group of U.S. citizens stands the chance of becoming accidental foreigners and enduring the same poverty their parents yearned to escape.

And that poverty can occur either in the country of their parents or the place where they were born.


This is the second part of a two-story series looking at different sides of U.S. immigration policy and the impact on people. The reporting for this story took place in 2012. The story also received support from the International Center for Journalists and Slake: Los Angeles. Journalist Cindy Carcamo is now a national correspondent and Arizona bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times. The first story, “The True Cost of Food,” looked at farmworkers, U.S. agriculture and immigration reform. 

2013 © Equal Voice for America’s Families Newspaper

Accidental Foreigners: America’s Forgotten Citizens