CANCITA, Mexico — Since they joined their deported parents in Mexico, 7-year-old Adriana has stopped screaming “Papa!” in her sleep and 10-year-old Yadira’s asthma has eased. Pedro, 15, doesn’t break into tears anymore, and Adrian, 12, thinks of his new life as an adventure.
For now, these American children are trying to ignore the wrenching decision they have to make by the end of summer: Stay with their parents in this bone-dry village where they bathe in a canal and use an outhouse, or return alone to some of America’s best schools in Palo Alto, Calif.
Tens of thousands of families are facing similar choices, and even more soon could if Congress goes ahead with an overhaul of U.S. immigration laws.
About 3 million U.S.-born children have a parent who is living illegally in America, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, and since 2004 the government has been deporting illegal immigrants at a record rate.
The Senate is expected to begin debate Monday on a sweeping bill that would provide a pathway to citizenship for 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. The bill would limit the importance of family ties, capping visas for parents of U.S. citizens at 40,000 a year and changing a preference system that for four decades has favored such ties.
Pedro Ramirez Sr., 38, was banking on that system to give him and his wife a path to citizenship once their eldest son turns 18 in two years. Now he’s not so sure: The new proposal would place more emphasis on potential immigrants’ skills and education, and his deportation may rule him out anyway.
Ramirez never went to school. He sneaked across the border as a 16-year-old boy, learning English as he worked his way up from a minimum-wage factory job to night supervisor at an Albertson’s supermarket.
His promotion – and the jump in salary from $6 to $16 an hour – allowed him to move his family from the rough streets of East Palo Alto to quiet, suburban Palo Alto, home to Stanford University.
He and his wife also applied for residency, but were denied after their lawyer was disbarred. Immigration officials say they evaded notices to appear in court.
Back in Mexico, the family has spent their savings of nearly $10,000 unsuccessfully fighting for residency. Friends, parents and teachers from Pedro Jr.’s Gunn High School – No. 79 in the country last year, according to a Newsweek ranking – have raised $2,000 for the family.
Before his father was deported in February, Pedro’s biggest problems were how to get into UCLA law school and persuading his football coach to let him be quarterback. Now, he says he might have to get used to the family’s two-room shack and bathing in a canal to keep the family together.
“If I go, I want to go with everybody,” he said.
His mother, Isabel, said she’ll let her children decide what they want to do. If they return to California, the boys would live with an aunt in Newark, Calif., and the girls with their fifth-grade teacher in Palo Alto.
She said the past few months have been traumatic enough.
After Ramirez was deported in February, Pedro Jr. broke into tears in his math class and couldn’t concentrate. He was appalled by his mother’s monitoring ankle bracelet, saying: “You’re not a criminal!”
“I feel betrayed,” by the U.S. government, Pedro Jr. said.
Isabel, 36, tries to make life in Mexico as normal as possible for the children. She bought a cushioned toilet seat for the outhouse, but it slides off the wooden bench. She incessantly sweeps the dirt floor of the shack where she cooks and splashes bleach on the ground to keep away the flies.
But it’s a losing battle. Cancita has no running water and no telephone service. It’s also in the middle of one of Mexico’s most violent regions – the western state of Michoacan.
Earlier this month, a half-dozen military helicopters swooped into Cancita after gunmen in a nearby town killed five soldiers in a midday shootout. The troops frisked Pedro Jr. and his father as they went house-to-house looking for drugs and weapons.
“I was a little nervous,” Pedro Jr. admitted sheepishly.
But his main fear is for what will happen to his parents. If they stay in Cancita, there is no work. If they try to return to the U.S., they’ll have to go illegally through the dangerous desert.
If the children stay in Cancita, they’ll have to learn to read and write in Spanish. Adrian, a seventh grader, is struggling with “Los Tres Cerditos” – “The Three Little Pigs.”
Pedro Jr. spends his days burning rap songs on his dust-covered computer and transferring them to his MP3 player, which the neighbors think is a cell phone.
Yadira said when she explained the device could play songs from the Internet, they asked: “What’s the Internet?”
“I don’t want to go to school here. It’s no good. There’s nowhere to play,” she said. But she added: “I don’t want to go back and leave my parents.”