Pleading to Stay a Family

Bertha Rangel, left; Brenda Benitez; Brenda's father, Rodolfo; and Brenda's sister, Andrea, 8, wait to see a lawmaker on Capitol Hill.
Bertha Rangel, left; Brenda Benitez; Brenda's father, Rodolfo; and Brenda's sister, Andrea, 8, wait to see a lawmaker on Capitol Hill. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 2, 2007

As the government's crackdown on illegal immigrant workers has intensified in recent months, so have the consequences for a large subgroup of U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S.-born children and probably many more, according to a local pastor who raised money for them.

Similarly, of 361 workers arrested during a raid of the Michael Bianco Inc. manufacturing plant in New Bedford, Mass., last month, about 90 were the sole caregivers for one or more children in the United States, according to federal and state authorities.

On Thursday, a chubby-cheeked fifth-grader named Jessica Guncay joined the ranks of such children 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 home in Pikesville 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.

Although 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 U.S. 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.

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