The scars of childbirth were still healing on Amelia Reyes Jimenez's stomach in 2008 when police came to her Phoenix apartment and took her three-month-old daughter from her arms.
Three and a half years later, Reyes Jimenez and her four children have become statistics in the U.S. crackdown on illegal immigration. Each year thousands of children of undocumented immigrants, like Amelia's kids, wind up in foster care when their parents are arrested for immigration violations. Some are even adopted by U.S. citizens while their parents are held in federal detention centers or deported back to their native countries.
Reyes Jimenez's son and three daughters are now living in foster care in Phoenix, and are awaiting possible adoption. Reyes Jimenez is back in Mexico, her parental rights terminated by an Arizona judge, and she cries when she remembers the raid that began it all.
"My daughters were calling, 'Mommy, my Mommy,'" said Reyes Jimenez. "I felt destroyed. I felt like I would never see my girls, even worse [the baby] was so small. I had just bought her cradle and her stroller."
A new study by the human rights group Applied Research Center estimates that as of summer 2011 there were at least 5,100 children of detained immigrants in foster care in 22 states.
"It's clearly a systemic problem," said Rinku Sen, executive director of ARC. "It happens again and again and again in multiple states, multiple counties, different ICE agents, different detention centers, different judges." Though the report did not say how many kids had been adopted, ARC did find that detained parents were at risk of permanent separation from their kids because of deportation.
"It's sort of like saying, okay, you came here as an undocumented immigrant, we're going to break up your family, we're going to keep your kids," said John De Leon, and attorney who represents the Guatemalan and Mexican consulate in immigration cases. He says he has seen the issue grow into a national problem over the last decade.
The police came for Amelia Reyes Jimenez in 2008 to arrest her for one count of child endangerment, a misdemeanor, because she had left her 13-year-old son Cesar, who is severely disabled, alone in her apartment. Jimenez says she thought that Cesar was with her two older daughters and their father, but he had taken the girls to the park and left Cesar home alone.
When she arrived home with baby daughter Erica in her arms, she found the police waiting.
"The only thing they asked was if I was illegal and whether or not I had my papers," she said. She told them she had no papers. She was handcuffed.
Reyes Jimenez was sent to a detention center an hour outside Phoenix. It would be six months before she had any contact with her children, and nearly two years before she would see them again in person.
"I didn't know anything about my girls; they didn't give me any reasons," she said. "I would ask about them and nobody would answer."
Reyes Jimenez, who pled guilty to the misdemeanor, then spent nearly two years fighting deportation. Ultimately, she was loaded onto a bus and dropped off in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, just across the border.
"It's very sad, very horrible because you're living a life, and then you come here and it's very strange," she said. "I feel empty without my children."