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What Happens To American Children Who Are Uprooted With Their Undocumented Parents


There are some 600,000 American children living and going to school in Mexico. That number comes from reporter Brooke Jarvis writing for The California Sunday Magazine. These are young U.S. citizens born to undocumented parents. For many of these kids, the transition to a new homeland and a new school is full of pitfalls. Brooke Jarvis, welcome to the program.

BROOKE JARVIS: Hi. Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: You describe these kids as deported Americans, but technically, none of them were actually deported. They're U.S. citizens. So explain what happened to these American kids.

JARVIS: Right. Well, one of the inviolable rights of citizenship is that you can't be deported. You know, even if you commit treason, that's not something that should happen to you. But what happened is that these children have undocumented parents. And in some cases, they were directly deported, and the family decided to follow in order to stay together. In other cases, as with the two sisters that I follow closely in the piece, they did what politicians 10 years ago were calling self-deportation. If you remember laws like SB 1070 in Arizona and similar laws in South Carolina where these sisters were living, the goal was to make it harder for families to live in America. And it pushed them to return to wherever they came from.

SHAPIRO: So the parents who were undocumented just felt too much pressure and decided they had to leave even if they weren't forcibly removed from the country.

JARVIS: Right. But in the case of the children, you know, you can't return to a place that you've never been.

SHAPIRO: What kinds of challenges do the kids face when they first arrive?

JARVIS: It's very common that, you know, kids - they may speak Spanish with their parents at home. They may hear Spanish, but it's not their primary language. One of the girls that I write about, Ashley, her mother always encouraged her to learn Spanish. And Ashley would say, well, I'm not going to need that. I'm American. And then when they ended up in Mexico, and this is true for many children, suddenly they're trying to learn and take classes in a language that they, you know, may not know at all or only know to speak it, not to read it or write it.

SHAPIRO: And you write that no public schools in Mexico offer Spanish as a second language classes, and less than 5 percent of the teachers speak any English at all.

JARVIS: Right. And so the - what happens commonly is that these children become invisible, even in their own classrooms. And so that means that sometimes students are sitting in the classroom with their needs not being met, but the teachers just think that they're slow or they're not keeping up for some reason. But they don't realize that they have specific needs.

SHAPIRO: So there are obviously huge challenges when kids first arrive in Mexico. And you met and followed some kids who had been there for years. After they've been in Mexico for a while, how do they think of their identity?

JARVIS: Right. That's something that's still very complicated for them to navigate. Even as they start to fit in better in their communities and their Spanish gets better, they still wonder what their futures are going to look like and who they are. Kids give me, you know, sometimes different answers on different days about whether they identified as Mexican or American or what percentage of each. One of the sisters in the story told me that she sometimes gets her passport out just to look at it and to read the preamble of the Constitution, which she had to memorize for a class project back in South Carolina. And she said, I just like to remind myself that I'm from there, too. And I heard all kinds of interesting stories like that.

There were two brothers who had a long-standing argument about which country is better. And one would always say, oh, Mexico is better, and one would say the United States is better. But, of course, in a way, both of them are their countries.


JARVIS: You know, I met a lot of children with U.S. passports, U.S. citizens, who weren't sure if they were actually allowed to re-enter the country. And they weren't sure if they would be allowed to apply for college or for other school. Some were worried that they could do something wrong, you know, something that they didn't expect or understand and they would lose their citizenship.

SHAPIRO: And all of those things are not real threats to them. I mean, of course, they can come back to the United States. They can apply for college. Their rights as a citizen are inviolable.

JARVIS: They're unfounded, but they become real because they exist. You know, if a child thinks that these opportunities aren't available to them, then effectively the opportunities aren't available to them.

SHAPIRO: Most Americans don't see or think about this population of kids. Even in Mexico, they can be very under the radar. What made you decide this group of students was worth looking at?

JARVIS: One reason is that they are so invisible, not just in Mexico but certainly here. One narrative that you often hear about immigration is, oh, immigrants are coming here and they're stressing our services. And this is a case where, you know, actually there's more than half a million American students that schools in Mexico are struggling to provide services for. I think that the way that we think and talk about immigration tends to be very cut and dry, very black and white. And we ignore all of the complicated realities that people experience on the ground and in particular families like these that have a variety of legal statuses within the same family and that that creates all kinds of painful and difficult decisions when the whole family can't live legally and comfortably on either side of the border.

SHAPIRO: That's reporter Brooke Jarvis. Her piece, "The Deported Americans," appeared in The California Sunday Magazine. Thanks for speaking with us.

JARVIS: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.