Undocumented immigrants with children
Anibal Fuentes, an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala, is facing deportation. He and his wife, who is also in the country illegally, fear for the future of their 7-month-old son if they are deported. [Photo by Sophia Nahli Allison]

On a cold December morning, a loud knock on the door woke Anibal Fuentes. When he opened the door, three U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents showed him a photo of a man they were looking for. Fuentes said he didn’t recognize the man, still agents checked his two-bedroom Albany Park apartment.

Fuentes, who came to this country illegally from Guatemala, was taken to an immigration detention center. That night, his 23-year-old wife couldn’t sleep. She saw the officers take her husband away and kept thinking they would come back for her. She too is living in the country illegally and declined to be named in this story for fear of being deported. But the worst part of the scenario was what would happen to their 7-month old baby, Franky.

“I was afraid,” said the immigrant from Guatemala. “I didn’t trust anyone. … I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat.”

After six days in a detention center,  Fuentes was released with an electronic monitor but he still faces  deportation. Last week, he was granted a temporary stay for 30 days, his attorney said.

Friends and activists advise the couple to draft a letter to grant temporary custody of their baby to a family member in case Fuentes’ wife is also arrested. The couple hasn’t drafted the letter, hoping Fuentes will be allowed to stay in the country; still, they think about this issue constantly.

The prospect of deportation has steered the couple into a serious conversation about the custody of their son. Their story is common among undocumented immigrants. In 2010, 4.5 million U.S.-born children had at least one undocumented parent, according to an analysis of U.S. census data by The Pew Hispanic Center, a project of the Pew Research Center.

In 2007, the Archdiocese of Chicago held workshops to help immigrants develop a plan of action in case a parent is placed in a detention center. Immigrants were told to keep documents, including birth certificates, passports and other legal documents, draft a temporary custody letter and obtain dual citizenship for their children so they can more easily move to the parent’s country of origin.

“This was a preventative type of workshop,” said William Becerra, pastoral organizer for the Office of Immigrant Affairs for the Archdiocese of Chicago. “Keep your documents in order and be prepared.”

But many immigrants facing deportation don’t think about this issue until it’s too late, immigration advocates say. 

“The reality of the situation is that people are more often than not caught by surprise, and they don’t have a plan of action,” said Salvador Cicero, an immigration attorney who’s representing Fuentes pro-bono.

That’s what happened to the Fuentes family.  They were just happy to enjoy their new baby, they said. But during the six days Fuentes spent in custody, his wife struggled to cope with the separation.

“What if they take my baby away?” she said. “What if they come and take me away. What’s going to happen to my baby?’

Her worst fear is that Franky could be taken by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. The couple says if they both are placed in a detention center they would want Franky to stay with Fuentes’ brothers, but they are living in the country illegally, too. That’s the main reason the couple hasn’t drafted a temporary custody letter. 

Karen Hawkins, deputy director of communications for DCFS, said the agency doesn’t check the immigration status of relatives when considering a child’s placement. The agency uses the same placement standard for children of the undocumented as they do for other children. However, the agency doesn’t take custody of children whose parents are arrested, including those facing deportation, unless the parents don’t have a care plan. 

DCFS doesn’t track the number of children in protective custody resulting from a parent’s arrest.

The situation is frustrating for Fuentes. He wants to stay with his wife and his baby in the city he now calls home.

“I don’t have anyone in Guatemala. What am I going to do over there?” he said in Spanish. “I want to stay here with my family.”

Fuentes, 27, came to Chicago in 2003 to look for work when he was 16. He worked construction jobs and stayed with his brothers and cousins. He decided to return to Guatemala in 2007 when his father suffered a stroke. He arrived shortly before his father’s death, he said.

He stayed in Guatemala for two years to help care for his mother. During that time he met his wife. When his mother died he decided to return to Chicago, but he was caught trying to cross the border in 2009 and deported to Guatemala. A year later, he succeeded in returning to Chicago. His wife came in 2011. Since then, he’s been working 10 to 12 hours in restaurants to support his family.

Immigration officials said Fuentes is considered an enforcement priority because of his previous deportation. A recent Reporter investigation found that deportations of people with prior removal orders jumped by 84 percent between 2008 and 2011. 

“The only thing I’ve ever done is to work,” he said. “I came here to work and help support my parents. Now, I work to support my wife and baby.”

María Inés Zamudio covers immigration as part of WBEZ's race, class and communities team. She's previously served on investigative teams for American Public Media, the Memphis Commercial Appeal and The...