In this essay April Schueths shares the story of Maria Luis to illustrate how the U.S. immigration and juvenile court systems frequently force mixed-status families to separate despite claiming family reunification as one of their primary goals.
In the spring of 2005, Maria Luis heard a knock on her door. Had she known that on the other side of that door was a life changing event, she might not have opened it. But she couldn’t have known that, so she opened her door to find a police officer and a child protective services worker who were there to investigate why Ms. Luis had failed to bring her one-year-old daughter to a medical appointment.
Ms. Luis was a citizen of Guatemala living in the U.S. without the legal documentation to do so. She had been working at a meat packing plant, which was a tough job, but she earned more in one day than she could working for an entire month in Guatemala. Part of each paycheck she earned was sent to Guatemala to support her family there.
After a brief investigation, Ms. Luis was deported and her two U.S. citizen children were placed in foster care. When children are placed into foster care, parents must go before a juvenile court judge where they will be given a list of safety requirements that they must complete before their children can come home. One of these requirements for Ms. Luis was to attend parenting classes and undergo a psychological evaluation. Given that she was in Guatemala, Ms. Luis was unable to complete the classes and evaluation in Nebraska. However, Ms. Luis had two separate home studies by Guatemalan officials and each found her to be a fit parent.
The state of Nebraska never found Ms. Luis to be an unfit parent, but still argued that she was unable to meet the requirements for reunification with her children. With this justification, the state terminated her parental rights (i.e., they legally severed the parent-child relationship). The state also argued that living in Guatemala was not in the children’s best interest.
Five years later, in 2010, the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled that the state had wrongly terminated Maria’s rights. The Luis’s case, although heartbreaking to many, is one of the examples of a somewhat “happier ending.” Many families are never reunited.
The Social Context Surrounding Maria Luis
In many ways, Ms. Luis’s experience in the U.S. is emblematic of most immigrants. The job market in Guatemala had little to offer Ms. Luis compared to the wealth of job opportunities in the U.S. In sociological terms, the struggling Guatemalan economy was a push factor: a condition that encourage local residents to emigrate or leave. Similarly, the U.S. job opportunities served as pull factors: conditions in another country that encourage immigration. The money Ms. Luis sent to Guatemala was just a single instance of what sociologists call migrant remittances. These transfers of money are an extremely important source of money for struggling countries; the World Bank estimated in 2010 that worldwide migrant remittances accounted for $440 billion flowing across national borders.
In this essay April Schueths shares the story of how US immigration policy denies US citizens (and non-citizens) the right to choose their partners and live with their families.
Manuel and Abby Carrion have been together for more than 6 years. During a research interview, Abby told me: “We’ve been through more in the six years that we’ve been together than I think a lot of people have been through in a lifetime. I always tell him [Manuel] that if we made it together this far, then nothing can stop us now.”
Abby grew up in a small rural town with a close knit family. Her community was predominantly white, with virtually no people of other race/ethnicities living there. “I never in a million years imagined that I would marry a Mexican man.” She met her now husband, Manuel at a restaurant where they both worked. They were friends for about a year and then something shifted between them. Abby and Manuel began dating. She said, “I knew I loved him; in a matter of weeks [after they started dating] I knew I was going to marry him.”
Similar to Abby, Manuel never imagined he would marry an American woman. For one, he wasn’t planning on staying in the states long. In addition, when he first came to the US he believed many false stereotypes about American women. He thought they were too wild for his conservative tastes. He said, “That they like to go out, drink too much, party.” He soon learned that this was indeed a stereotype and found himself attracted to Abby. He said, “I asked her if she wanted to go out with me…she said she needed to think about it and would let me know in a week.” The answer was yes.
Once they started dating Manuel and Abby were inseparable. They worked the same shift so they could spend all of their free time together. They got engaged, moved in together, and soon marriage and a baby followed. Abby says that since the day they started dating, “We were never apart.”
The Carrions didn’t realize that soon they would be forced to live in two different countries.