They are the hidden side of the government's stepped-up efforts to track down and deport illegal immigrants: Toddlers stranded at day care centers or handed over to ill-equipped relatives. Siblings suddenly left in charge of younger brothers and sisters.
When illegal-immigrant parents are swept up in raids on homes and workplaces, the children are sometimes left behind -- a complication that underscores the difficulty in enforcing immigration laws against people who have put down roots and begun raising families in the U.S.
Three million American-born children have at least one parent who is an illegal immigrant; one in 10 American families has mixed immigration status, meaning at least one member is an immigrant here illegally, according to the Pew Center for Hispanic Research and the office of U.S. Rep. Jose Serrano. Children born in the U.S. are automatically American citizens and are not subject to deportation.
This past week in Massachusetts, most of the 361 workers picked up in a raid at a New Bedford leather-goods factory that made vests and backpacks for the U.S. military were women with children, setting off what Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick called a "humanitarian crisis."
Community activists scrambled to locate the children, offer infant-care tips to fathers unfamiliar with warming formula and changing diapers, and gather donations of baby supplies. One baby who was breast-feeding had to be hospitalized for dehydration because her mother remained in detention, authorities said.
Child-care arrangements had to be made for at least 35 youngsters.
Officials of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement division released at least 60 of the workers who were sole caregivers to children, but more than 200 were sent to detention centers in Texas and New Mexico.
"What is going to happen to the children? These children are American-born," said Helena Marques, executive director of the Immigrant Assistance Center in New Bedford. "There are hundreds of children out there without their moms, in tremendous need. These babies have become the victims of a problem that legislators can't seem to fix."
One mother was located in Texas after her 7-year-old child called a state hot line set up to help reunite the families, authorities said. The Massachusetts governor said the woman would be returned to Massachusetts.
Massachusetts sent 37 social workers to Texas on Saturday to interview some of the women under arrest. Massachusetts Health and Human Services Secretary JudyAnn Bigby said the parents must be interviewed to make sure their youngsters are staying with responsible adults.
Authorities said some of the women might be so afraid their youngsters will be taken away that they have refused to disclose they have children.
ICE officials defended their handling of the raid, saying ICE made arrangements in advance with social service agencies to care for the children. ICE spokesman Marc Raimondi said all immigrants arrested by ICE are interviewed to determine if they are the sole parent of their children. ICE then can grant humanitarian releases, as they did in 60 cases in Massachusetts.
"We can only base our response by what we are learning by (the state Department of Social Services). What DSS has told us is they are not aware of any child who was left in an inappropriate or risky setting, nor have they had to put any child in foster care," Raimondi said.
As for the parents' ultimate fate, being a single parent or the family breadwinner offers no special protection against deportation, said another ICE spokesman, Mike Keegan.
"They made a decision to come into the country illegally," he said. "It's hard to believe that someone would not know of the consequences when they get caught."
U.S. Rep. William Delahunt said Sunday there would be a Congressional investigation into the raid.
Many of the New Bedford children are in the care of friends or relatives, who are juggling families and jobs of their own. One woman, who asked not to be identified for fear it would put her family in greater legal jeopardy, is looking after the three children of her sister, one of the workers detained in the raid. The children's father and another sister take turns watching the children.
"My sister calls every morning asking about her children," the woman said in Spanish. "She is usually a happy person, but now she is so depressed because she is separated from them, and they are so small."
Two of the children, 4-year-old Angel and 1-year-old Amanda, are U.S. citizens. A 17-year-old came with his mother from Guatemala. Their mother, who came to the United States 10 years ago, has worked in the factory for two years.
"The children go to sleep crying and asking for their mother. They feel her absence," the woman said. "And we can do is wait and wait, and hope they don't deport her."
Under pressure to crack down on illegal immigrants, ICE has intensified enforcement activity around the country. The efforts have yielded results -- since last May, one particular crackdown, called Operation Return to Sender, has snared 13,000 people, while other federal initiatives have caught thousands of others. But the raids have led to a growing outcry from immigrant advocates and activists who say thousands of families are being split apart.
After nearly 1,300 people were arrested in December in raids at Swift & Co. meatpacking plants in Texas, Colorado, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska and Utah, community activists reported hearing of scores of children left on their own. Swift donated $300,000 to United Way agencies to help the families affected by the raids.
Since the December raids hit the Swift plant at Greeley, Colo., Catholic Charities in Denver has provided assistance to about 160 families or individuals, said Ernie Giron, the charity's vice president for mission and ministry. That has included rent or mortgage checks, helping with utility bills, and providing phone and grocery store gift cards.
Giron said the number of people seeking aid has begun to drop from its peak in mid-February. "But a number of families are still hanging on just trying to get through until they have to make some kind of life choice in terms of which way they're going," he said.
In Houston, a newly formed coalition of community groups, churches and advocacy organizations is scrambling to help dozens of families struggling to stay afloat after a husband or wife was taken away. And residents of an apartment complex in Houston that has been raided several times have formed an emergency child care network, which jumps in to care for children left alone by a deported parent.
"The Department of Homeland Security is just carrying out the law they have to carry out. Under the law, there is no legal basis for considering the rights of families. Congress may have to act for that to change," Urban Institute demographer Randolph Capps said.
Rep. Jose Serrano, D-N.Y., is sponsoring a bill now before the House Judiciary Committee that would give immigration judges more discretion in weighing the effect on families when deporting an illegal immigrant.
But any immigration reform legislation will probably have a tough time passing Congress in the current political climate, said Bob Stein, a political scientist at Rice University in Houston.
"Immigration reform seemed like something Democrats and Republicans could agree on, but partisan fighting and the presidential campaigns make it hard for any candidate to carry the battle," he said.
Until 1996, immigration judges were allowed to consider family hardship when deciding whether to deport legal residents charged with certain crimes. That changed under an immigration reform law.
Luissana Santibanez, a 23-year-old student at the University of Texas in Austin, has been taking care of three younger siblings while their mother, Sergia, held in a Houston immigration detention center for nearly 18 months, fights deportation.
Sergia Santibanez, a legal resident for more than 15 years, was ordered deported after she served four months behind bars for transporting illegal immigrants. She said the illegal immigrants were three friends who asked for a ride, and that she didn't know their immigration status and never asked.
"The hardest thing is that my children are suffering and I can't do anything about it," Sergia, who worked in a factory and cleaned houses before her arrest, said by telephone from the detention center. "This will destroy their future."
Luissana has been supporting her two brothers and one sister on food stamps and student grants. All are U.S. citizens.
"As a country, we should not put our youngest citizens at risk of hunger, homelessness and living without parents," said Ali Noorani, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition. "Our immigration system has to be squared with values."