Deporting Disparities

Immigration law divides Central Americans

In addition to the fear of what is happening in their native countries, refugee families worry about the impact of moving on their children who were born and raised in Houston.

"My daughters are Americans now," Conchita says. The girls prefer rap music over salsa, and they wear American clothes. "I want to be a teacher and a doctor," says her ten-year-old daughter. "And I want four children."

Juan says his two American-born boys could not adjust because they know little Spanish and "love to play American football" rather than soccer.

Parents who are rounded up by immigration face critical decisions about their children -- whether to keep them when they are deported, give them up for a U.S. adoption or simply refuse to admit to immigration authorities that they even have children.

"We have every kind of problem you can imagine," says Venegas of the Honduran Consulate, "but there is nothing we can do about it."

In a recent case, Venegas refused to sign any deportation papers for a mother being separated from her two children. INS agreed to provide the U.S.-born offspring with "travel documents" so they could return with her.

"Having a child here does not entitle you to a benefit or allow you to stay here," says Barrows. "But we are not out to break up families."

"That's a lie," says Silva. "They want to break up families so we can all go back."

Though many Central Americans, deportable or on temporary status, must remain virtually invisible, Silva's and Aguiluz's organizations are rallying for better treatment of those refugees. They have staged protests and marches, addressed church and civic groups and counseled immigrants about their rights. "Most people don't know what's going on," said Silva. "It's up to us to tell them."

They also are lobbying for a congressional bill that would allow refugees from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Haiti to apply for permanent resident status, although passage seems doubtful in a Republican-controlled Congress.

As long as the immigration disparities exist for Latin Americans, the uncertainties remain over their future. Carlos's family vowed to return if they are ever forced back to El Salvador.

"Our home is here," says Conchita.

E-mail Russell Contreras at russell_contreras@houstonpress.com.

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