Ana, 37, keeps a daily vigil by the phone in Guadalajara, Mexico.
With the exception of two brief court-supervised visits, Ana hasn't spent time with her three daughters or son since 2008, when she left her children in the care of her ex-boyfriend in Phoenix. She went to run an errand and her ex took their daughters to a park and left her son home alone. The police were called; Ana was arrested on child abuse charges. Her four young children were handed over to child welfare authorities.
An undocumented immigrant who, as she put it, had "made a little life" for her family in Arizona, Ana was deported in May 2010. The plight of Ana and her children illustrates how systemic failures by immigration and child welfare authorities can traumatically split immigrant families -- now happening in the thousands, according to immigration advocates.
Now, she spends hours by the phone. "Their voices kept me going," said Ana, who asked that her real name not be used to protect her family's privacy.
Her oldest girls, now 11 and 12, no longer speak Spanish.
Two weeks ago, there was a call from Arizona. But it wasn't the girls. Instead, Ana got more bad news: Her parental rights had been terminated. "The lawyer said I can't talk to the girls anymore," she said. "I don't know what to do."
Nina Rabin, Ana's lawyer in Tucson, said her client's story haunts her. Human tragedies in which parents and their children risk being separated forever are occurring with "alarming frequency," Rabin writes in an article titled "Disappearing Parents: Immigration Enforcement and the Child Welfare System" in the latest issue of the Connecticut Law Review.
"The destruction wreaked on her life and the lives of her four young children encapsulates many of the systemic problems with our current immigration enforcement regime," writes Rabin, a law professor and director of the Bacon Immigration Law & Policy Program at the University of Arizona College of Law.
Ana said she last heard from her children more than three months ago.
"The girls don't speak Spanish," she said, fighting back tears. "That was a shock. I need a translator to talk to my girls."
An unprecedented increase in the deportation of undocumented immigrants has resulted in an estimated 5,100 children languishing in U.S. foster homes, according to a report called "Shattered Families," released last month by the New York-based Applied Research Center. The advocacy group projects that figure could triple in the coming years.
"This is happening all over," Rabin told The Huffington Post.
In the first six months of 2011, the Obama administration deported 46,000 parents of children who are U.S. citizens, according to the ARC report. Government data shows a total of 397,000 deportations in fiscal year 2011, with half of the expulsions involving people with criminal records.
Rabin said the "intertwined but uncoordinated workings of immigration enforcement, criminal proceedings, and the child welfare system" combine to tear families apart.
"A practical disconnect between state and federal agencies creates Kafka-esque results in which immigrant parents are trapped," she wrote.
For Ana, it was a nightmarish journey that began in 1995, when she set across the U.S.-Mexico border with her blind and partially paralyzed son -- then only a few months old -- in her arms.
She hoped to find better medical care for the boy, now 15. In Mexico, Ana had been abandoned by her own family as well as the boy's biological father, who she said told her that their son was a "monster."
A smuggler escorted Ana and her infant son through a dark, damp tunnel from Mexico into Arizona. She eventually made her way to Phoenix, where she worked cleaning homes and enrolled her son in a special school. Over the next 10 years, she had three girls during an on-and-off relationship with a man from Central America.
"I made a little life there," she said. "I didn't return to Mexico. I never left the state of Arizona. I was afraid that if I left, I would never get back."
In the summer of 2008, Ana's "precarious world came crashing down," as Rabin put it, when she left three of her children with her ex-boyfriend while she went to get a money order. Her son was left alone. A neighbor heard his cries and called the police.
Ana, who had no prior criminal record, and her ex-boyfriend were charged with child abuse. The girls' father decided not to fight his removal and was deported months later.
"After one week, they wanted to remove me as a voluntary deportation," Ana recalled. "I said, 'I will never leave my children. I didn't do anything wrong.'"
In the law review article, Rabin said: "For the next fifteen months, as her immigration case slowly proceeded through the immigration court system, Ana remained ... unable to see or communicate with her children, who were in two separate foster homes."
Ana ended up pleading guilty to misdemeanor child endangerment, a less serious charge than child abuse.
The ARC report and Rabin's own research found that parents essentially disappear once they are in federal detention. Immigration and Customs Enforcement routinely denies parents access to programs needed to fulfill child welfare case plans with the state, according to the report.
"Due to the isolation of detention centers and ICE's refusal to transport detainees to hearings, parents can neither communicate with/visit their children nor participate in juvenile court proceedings," the report said. "Child welfare caseworkers and attorneys struggle to locate and maintain contact with detained parents."
Rabin said family separations occur "largely under the radar screen" and are facilitated by a lack of communication and coordination between federal immigration and state child welfare authorities.
"The speed with which Ana's relatively minor criminal infraction triggered her disappearance into immigration detention, without any ability to communicate or coordinate with (child protective services), would have grave and lasting effects on the children's dependency proceedings that would unfold over the next months and eventually years," Rabin wrote.
In a briefing with Spanish-speaking reporters last month, President Obama acknowledged that immigration enforcement was splitting up families despite laws intended to keep them together.
"I'm not here to pretend that this hasn't happened," Obama said when asked about problems chronicled in the ARC report. "I think we have to keep putting pressure on those responsible ... to make sure that children aren't torn from their parents without due process and the possibility to stay with their children."
In a statement, ICE spokeswoman Gillian Christensen called the ARC report misleading, saying child welfare authorities "independently remove children from a home when there are concerns for the child's safety and care."
"ICE works with individuals in removal proceedings to ensure they have ample opportunity to make important decisions regarding the care and custody of their children," according to the statement. "Furthermore, as outlined in the agency's June 2010 Civil Enforcement Priorities memo, ICE will typically not detain individuals who are the primary caretakers of children, unless the individual is legally subjected to mandatory detention based on the severity of their criminal or immigration history."
The statement added: "ICE is sensitive to the fact that encountering those who violate our immigration laws may impact families. ICE uses prosecutorial discretion in releasing individuals from ICE custody for humanitarian reasons such as being the sole caregiver of minors and when we are aware that the detention of a non-criminal alien would result in any child (U.S. citizen or not) being left without a parental caregiver."
In Guadalajara, Ana recalled the day she was deported alone to a country she fled more than ten years ago as "the saddest, ugliest day of my life."
Now, she sits by the phone. At night, she works at an American-owned factory assembling cellphones.
"The last time we spoke, the little one was singing to me in English," Ana said. "She said, 'Mommy, I want to come to your house.' But the social worker forbade me from telling her we would be together. I couldn't reassure her. That hurt."
Before her parental rights were terminated, Ana said, she completed a regimen of parenting courses and therapy sessions in hopes of being reunited with her family.
"I only want my children back," she said.
Ana said she misses birthday celebrations with her children and strolls in the park. Several post cards that she mailed to her children were returned. Photos the girls promised never came.
"More than therapy, I need my children," she said. "I ask God that they stay healthy and not forget their mother."
Asked if she has considered returning to the U.S., Ana said: "I would do anything to see them again. A mother would do a thousand things to be with her children."
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