The day Marisa’s 14-year-old son was taken into custody from Orange County’s juvenile hall by immigration authorities in the summer of 2012, she set about trying to get answers.
She wanted to know why her son Alex had been referred to the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency and where immigration agents were taking him.
Since he is a minor in the juvenile justice system, Voice of OC is using the pseudonym of Alex, for the minor, and Marisa for his mother to protect the minor’s privacy.
Marisa tried to get answers from the Orange County Probation Department, but said she was given the run-around.
For decades, the county agency has referred juveniles suspected of being undocumented to ICE, but Marisa did not know that this was an official practice followed under directives issued by the probation department.
When she questioned one probation officer to find out who had referred Alex to ICE, the officer told her it wasn’t juvenile hall.
Another probation officer told her ICE arrived every week at juvenile hall and asked for a certain number of juvenile files — and that Alex’s file was among them.
Marisa was able to confirm through a probation officer that an ICE agent had interviewed her son in juvenile hall. The officer explained that her son would be processed at an ICE facility in Los Angeles then turned over to her.
“[The probation officer] told me not to worry, that (ICE) would return him to me. ‘Nothing will happen, they’re going to take him, but they’ll return him to you,’” Marisa recalled the officer telling her.
But Alex told her he would be sent to Texas, and no one she reached, including the probation officers with whom she spoke, could tell her where her son would actually be sent.
“They caused me so much pain because I didn’t know where he was. The only thing I knew is that they were going to send him to Texas,” said Marisa in Spanish.
Alex is the eldest of Marisa’s five children.
After calling the Mexican consulate in Santa Ana, she learned that ICE had transferred Alex to the custody of a federal agency charged with the care of unaccompanied minors, the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which then placed him in a Fullerton group home for immigrant youth in deportation proceedings.
Alex was one of the fortunate ones. Attorneys representing juveniles referred to ICE throughout the state say most of their clients have landed in facilities outside of California, in states such as Indiana, Texas, and Washington.
In two other Southern California ICE referral cases followed by Voice of OC, one juvenile was sent to group homes in Washington and the other minor landed in a detention facility in Yolo County in Northern California.
Grateful that her son stayed in Orange County, Marisa immediately filed the paperwork to get permission to see him, and visited him in the group home. She told his case manager that she would do everything necessary to have him returned home.
“I explained that I’ve always fought for him. Always. They need to return him to me. He needs to be with his family,” Marisa recalled telling the case manager.
“He was scared. You arrive and you see all these kids who don’t know what their fate is.”
Marisa knew that no good could come from taking Alex out of his home and depriving him of the behavioral and educational services he was receiving.
In December 2012, after Alex had spent four months in federal custody, the Office of Refugee Resettlement prepared to return him home.
Marisa knew she was at a crossroads. Not only did she have to ensure that her son stayed on track and out of trouble with the help of his mental health treatment, she had to fight to keep him in the United States.
At the time, she was undocumented and recently separated from her husband, Alex’s stepfather, after a rocky marriage during which she said she was physically abused.
What she didn’t realize is that as an abused spouse she could potentially qualify for legal status in the United States. So after meeting with attorneys and mental health advocates, she decided to petition for legal residency through the Violence Against Women Act, not just for her sake, but to help save her son from deportation.
She knew the road would be difficult, with nothing guaranteed, especially given the family’s shaky financial status. But the Probation Department’s procedures had opened her eyes to the perils of a juvenile justice system that cooperated with immigration authorities.
“What they’re doing has to stop,” said Marisa. “They’re violating the rights of these children.”
The California legislature recently passed a bill that seeks to clarify that juvenile court records should remain confidential regardless of a minor’s immigration status.
The bill is now making its way to Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk.
But for juveniles, like Alex, who are still in deportation proceedings, and those who have already been deported, the state legislative changes come too late. Legal scholars say an existing law that protects the confidentiality of all juveniles in California should have prevented minors such as Alex from being referred to immigration authorities in the first place.
In the three years that Voice of OC has followed Alex’s deportation proceedings, he has experienced a tumultuous adolescence, and his record reflects that.
When ICE transferred him to the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, his mental health and behavioral issues worsened at the Fullerton group home where he was placed.
During the four months he was there, probation records show that he was involved in two altercations, including an assault on one of his teachers that was reported to police.
Alex was subsequently found delinquent of assault and battery, and the court ordered him to complete a 15-day community work program.
After the incident, Alex’s case worker noted that his behavior improved, and that he received a variety of services including mental health therapy and anger management classes. The report, however, also noted that the services that Alex had received prior to being taken into custody by ICE had been terminated, an interruption that immigration attorneys and mental health experts caution impedes the rehabilitation of juveniles.
When Alex was released from ORR custody to his mother shortly before Christmas 2012, he appeared to have wised up to the consequences of his actions. In an interview a few months after his release, Alex, then in ninth grade, talked about leaving behind his troubled days.
“Now it’s high school, it’s a whole different deal,” he said. “I’m closer to becoming a grown up and I gotta, you know, straighten up.”
For years, Alex has dreamed of joining the military and going to medical school to become an anesthesiologist. But until an immigration judge makes a decision on his deportation proceedings, he knows his future hangs in the balance.
“I don’t like to think of that because then I’ll get paranoid. I’ll just wait for it to happen. Whatever happens, happens,” said Alex.
It pleased Marisa whenever she heard Alex discuss his plans for joining the Marines.
“I tell him I’m proud of him despite all that we’ve been through, all the problems that we’ve had,” said Marisa.
A Family in Flux
The months leading to Alex’s immigration court date in spring 2014 were filled with upheaval as his mother struggled to keep her family together.
Divorced from her ex-husband and without a job because of her undocumented status, Marisa managed to keep the family afloat with government assistance she received for her four youngest children, who were born in the United States.
At one point, the family had to squeeze into a bedroom she rented in a Santa Ana apartment, where Alex and one of his younger brothers slept on the floor.
Meanwhile, her quest for legal residency had moved forward. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) approved her petition under the Violence Against Women Act – aimed at supporting victims of domestic violence – and for the first time in years Marisa started to feel hope.
Alex, as both a victim and witness of the domestic abuse, was approved as part of her petition. But the process of getting her green card had just begun. Marisa now had to petition the government to adjust her status to legal resident. In the meantime, the government informed Marisa that her employment authorization application had been approved.
On a sunny February day in 2014, we met near an ice cream shop in Tustin after she received the news by mail. She couldn’t stop smiling as she showed me the letter from USCIS.
“Things are going to change. Yes, things have to change,” she said as Alex skateboarded in circles around the picnic table where we sat near a fountain.
Despite the good news, stress was evident in her tired eyes. Living in one bedroom had taken a toll on the family, but especially Alex, whom she said had been acting especially rebellious with her, talking back when she tried to discipline him.
“It’s cost me a lot to keep him on track,” said Marisa.
Alex’s immigration proceedings were moving forward slowly. The paperwork tied to his mother’s Violence Against Women Act petition had not yet been sent to the Department of Homeland Security attorney on his case, and so his prior immigration court hearing date had been rescheduled for April.
When I asked Alex if he was relieved to have qualified under his mother’s petition, he told me he was happy but couldn’t feel relieved.
Not yet, at least.
One day, if he became a legal resident, the first thing he would do is join the Marines, he said.
“Once I join the military, then I’ll be happy,” he said
He asked Marisa if he could have money for a scoop of ice cream, so she handed him a few dollars and he headed into the ice cream shop.
She described the relief she has felt since hearing she would be getting her employment authorization card. She began a computer course so that she can apply for secretarial jobs once she receives the card. And beyond that, she said she wants to return to school to earn her high school diploma and one day study immigration law to help other youth like Alex.
Finished with his ice cream cone, Alex tucked his skateboard under his arm and headed down the street to visit his girlfriend.
The late afternoon sun cast a golden glow on his face, and Marisa shook her head as she watched her son walk away. Tears stood in her eyes and a look of sadness flashed across them.
“Be careful [Alex],” Marisa called out to him as he walked away.
She unzipped her purse and pulled out a tissue to wipe her eyes. She remembers how much pain she felt when immigration authorities first took Alex into custody.
But if the immigration authorities hadn’t taken him, she said, she would not have pressed to find a way to legalize her own status in order to save him from being deported.
“I started the process to help him,” she said.
Coming Friday: Will Alex’s deportation proceedings be halted? We follow him to immigration court and find out.
This project was made possible with the generous support of a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism and through a H.F. Langeloth journalism fellowship with The John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Yvette Cabrera is a long-time Orange County journalist and Voice of OC contributing writer. You can reach her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.