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Enforcement Policy Leaves Behind “Orphans of Deportation”
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Enforcement Policy Leaves Behind “Orphans of Deportation”

Brian Tapia of Bend, Ore., was 19 when his mother left. “When it happened at first, I used to cry all the time. Every night. Usually in the bathroom, taking a shower. I used to cry there. That was the only time I had time to,” said Brian, who has two younger siblings.

In Tijuana, Mexico, Liliana Ramos has developed a morning routine. “Every day, when I first wake up, I thank God for giving me another day,” she said. “I pray for my children — that all goes well for them, and I look at the weather. I look at the weather here and I look at the weather there.”

In a two-part radio series, Jordana Gustafson of Oregon Public Broadcasting detailed the family’s new, divided life. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement says 200,000 people deported between 2010 and 2012 said they had U.S. citizen children, many of whom have become “orphans of deportation.”

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Jordana’s Story Behind the Story

Nearly three years ago, immigration agents showed up at Liliana Ramos’s place of work and detained her for an outstanding order of deportation. She convinced authorities to give her nine months to get her things in order. She transferred custody of her children, taught the oldest to pay bills and tried to prepare all three for her leave-taking. In September of 2011, she kissed them goodbye, drove her Jeep down to the border, and crossed into Mexico.

More than anything, this story was emotionally difficult – primarily for the family, but also for me as the journalist, asking young people to recall and talk about the most difficult and painful experience they have known. Because of the children’s situation, logistics were often a struggle as well. Sometimes they returned my calls or texts, and sometimes they didn’t.

Several times, I had to rely on a local organizer there who has a big heart and is friends with the family. He would call the kids or drive to their home. It took months to get signed releases from the mother in Mexico so that I could send in FOIA requests to immigration agencies. I learned later that while she was amenable at first, she got scared. The organizer called her and spoke to her about the importance of telling her story and ultimately got her to sign the releases.

The most useful part about the IJJ fellowship conference was meeting other fellows who are now colleagues. I’m in regular contact with several of them: Mirela helped me find an immigration policy analyst that met editorial muster (difficult because most everyone are advocates); Eileen put me in touch with journalists in Mexico who connected me to stories and contacts and took care of me while I was there; Zaidee and I have had several conversations about reporting stories for her air; Andrea and I have talked about story ideas in Oregon and promoted each others’ stories (etc etc etc).

I also found meeting the senior fellows to be extremely useful. I have called on Dan, Diane and Martha for their expertise and advice throughout the process. Dan’s twitter feed is particularly useful in my reporting – he’s also answered questions by email. Diane and Martha connected me with useful sources. Martha sent me FOIA request templates. Diane’s and Martha’s presentation on where to find data, how to write and send FOIA requests, and how to use both of these to inform story pitches and ideas… was excellent. I will use this forever.

In researching this story, I found that good statistics on immigration are hard to come by. For example, ICE has statistics on how many deportations it orders, but not on how many individuals are deported. ICE has statistics on how many of those ordered deported said that they have children in the US, but there are no hard statistics on just how many children have lost a parent to deportation. There are various numbers that journalists cite over and over without sourcing. It took me some time to figure out where these numbers came from; they were often put out by advocacy organizations, and the estimates seemed to vary greatly. So my advice would be: check and double check sources for immigration statistics and be careful/accurate about how you characterize the statistics you use.

I had a very positive response to this story (aside from the few comments online declaring that these children were anchor babies and not actually American citizens). People told me they were touched and that the tape was powerful. I heard that Karleen, the thirteen year old, arrived at school the next day to lots of hugs and words of encouragement from her middle school teachers.

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