Every morning on the walk to her bus stop near Pilot Butte, Karleen Ramos gets a phone call. It's her mother, Liliana Ramos, calling from Tijuana to wish her 12-year-old daughter a good day at school.
"The other kids say, 'What are you doing?' And I say 'Talking to my mom,' "said Karleen Ramos. "She tells me to be good and not to be mad and to try my best."
In September 2011, Liliana Ramos, 40, an undocumented immigrant and single mother of three U.S. citizen children, was deported. When she was picked up by Immigration Customs Enforcement from her job as a housekeeper at Inn of the Seventh Mountain, she had been living in the United States for more than 20 years, about half of that time in Central Oregon.
She was highly involved in her Bend church. She had a working Social Security number. She was paying taxes. None of that mattered that January day.
"I got a phone call," remembered her oldest son Brian Ramos, who was 18 when his mother was taken into custody. "It was my Mom. She sounded really weird—she was crying. I asked what's wrong and she said 'They got me, they got me,' in Spanish, 'Me agarraron, me agarraron.' "
Before her deportation to Mexico, Liliana Ramos was one of an estimated 11 million undocumented migrants living in the United States under an immigration policy that is in desperate need of an overhaul. President Barack Obama has championed immigration reform as a priority for his administration. His leadership team has worked within existing laws to aide immigrants while simultaneously shattering records for deportations. But comprehensive reform has been a tough sell, leaving families like the Ramoses separated as Liliana Ramos works on her immigration status on the other side of the border, 950 miles from her children.
Not Just Numbers
Liliana Ramos gave her son specific instructions over the phone on the day of her incarceration: Contact the church, empty the bank accounts and, most importantly, pick up his underage sisters from school.
"When parents get deported, the authorities pick up the children and take them to foster care," said Brian Ramos. "They knew my mom was single so my sisters didn't have a guardian. They were at risk of being picked up."
For this family, it was the first in a series of challenges to keep the siblings together and on track without a parent. It's not one Liliana Ramos ever meant for her children to go through.
She had started a citizenship process with her ex-husband after they emigrated from Mexico, but had abandoned work on her case after he left their family in 2004.
"She talked about it sometimes, fixing her legal status," said Brian Ramos. "She had a case pending, but she thought everything was good. We didn't talk about immigration because it wasn't something to worry about for us."
Her church, La Roca Comunidad Cristiana, put on a tamale sale to raise money for Liliana Ramos' bail, and within 72 hours she was home with her family with a timeline of three months to leave the country.
Several fortunate extensions allowed for Liliana Ramos to remain in Bend from January until September to arrange her affairs. Then, in September 2011, she completed a self-deportation. That meant she left her children in the care of other relatives living in Bend, drove through California and then across the border to Tijuana. She's been living there, the closest she can get to her kids, for the past two years.
"We are pretty much orphans. That's what we're labeled as," said Brian Ramos. "I feel like I need my mom still, even to this day. She was the one who took care of everything. Everything was because of her."
Since the deportation, things have changed for her three children. No more Sunday movies, no more going out on weekends, no more pancake breakfasts. The three young adults currently live with their grandparents in Bend.
"Lots of things have changed—now no one tucks me into bed," said Karleen Ramos the youngest of the siblings, now 12 years old.
In 2011, when Liliana Ramos returned to Mexico, her story made the front page of USA Today, but her plight is far from uncommon. ICE reported that from January to June 2011, it removed—which is the legally correct term for deported—46,486 aliens who claimed at least one U.S. citizen child.
In many cases when parents are deported, the government encourages them to take their kids with them, despite the children's U.S. citizenship.
"These are American kids that are being told, 'Your mother doesn't have papers so you can't have your mother,' " said Greg Delgado, a friend of the family and community coordinator for Recursos and Causa, which are local and state immigrant rights coalitions. "Families get told to take their [U.S. citizen] kids with them. We're deporting U.S. citizens, too."
Those U.S. citizen children who stay in America often face a sad fate without thier families.
A study "Shattered Families," conducted by the Applied Research Center, reported that over 5,000 children in the foster care system have detained or deported parents. The effect on these children's lives is irreversible.
"These are bright young kids who are dealing with anger and hate and depression," said Delgado.
Liliana Ramos' children are no different.
"Right now she's got a 20-year-old and 17-year-old who are working fast food. They should be going to college and having lives as U.S. citizens. Instead they're working to put bread on the table and survive," said Delgado, a gregarious man whose passion for empowering the local Latino community fills every room he steps into. "This story is as much about her as it is about her children. They're all U.S. citizens. Don't they have the right to have a family?"
The Ramoses situation was fortunate compared to many deportees because the children have been able to stay together, but the sad truth is they are still separated from their mother.
"Brian now has to be the mother, the father, the sister, the brother—he has to be everything for this family," said Delgado. "He stopped being a young adult and looking for future and dreams. Now his dream is to get his mom back."
Nationally, it's a problem that can't be put off any longer.
In January, a bipartisan team of eight senators began work on a comprehensive immigration reform plan that would, in theory, offer a path to citizenship for the approximately 11 million illegal immigrants already in the United States. A plan could be released as early as next week, according to media sources.
"The biggest misperception is that there is just a line that people can get in and immigrate," said Bend immigration lawyer Callie Gautreaux. "The lines that do exist are extremely long. It's been so long since there's been any immigration reform there are a lot of people who are stuck without a line to get into."
Since Obama took office, those who haven't gotten in line have been sent back home in record numbers. The administration deported 409,849 illegal immigrants in the 2012 fiscal year—more than any other U.S. president has deported before in a single year.
The Obama administration has worked within current laws to allow non-citizen children of immigrants to stay in the United States while working toward permanent residency with the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. The administration has emphasized deportation of criminals over "low priority" removals, and has championed permanent residency for illegal aliens who graduate from U.S. high schools through the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, or DREAM Act.
Jim Ludwick, communications director for Oregonians for Immigration Reform, has a more conservative view for the future of immigration. He and members of his organization are in favor of a system that promotes secure borders, has better controls for overstayed visas and lowers numbers of work visas issued. As far as currently proposed reform legislation goes, he is not in favor.
"U.S. Sen. John McCain has resurrected his amnesty bill, and it would reward people who came into the country illegally," said Ludwick. "It would be a catastrophe for the country."
Just last week, Obama ordered the release of hundreds of incarcerated immigrants the government would no longer be able afford to hold because of potential sequester budget cuts.
Some have labeled this mass release a strong-arm move that would force a decision on legislation in Congress.
"He didn't release illegal aliens who got caught walking across the border—they were there for crimes and he turned them loose," said Ludwick. "It's a scare tactic that the Obama administration is using."
Tactical or not, the release keeps immigration reform in the headlines, where it has been consistently since the beginning of 2013. Dan Larsson, a local immigration lawyer and immigrant from Sweden, explained that the detention of captured immigrants interferes with their useful purpose in the states.
"You have people who have been pulled over for violation of a turn signal and they were sitting detained," explained Larsson. "The reason people come here illegally is not because people love football and hot dogs. It's because there's opportunity, there's freedom, but mostly it's because people can work."
But Ludwick and opponents of the immigration reform currently on the table question the effect that adding workers will have on an employment system that is already in peril for American citizens and people who immigrated here legally.
"There are 22 million Americans out of work. Why do we need to bring in millions more workers?" asked Ludwick. "It's like any other commodity—if you have an overabundance, then prices drop. There should be a moratorium if unemployment is above 5 percent.
Latinos in Central Oregon
According to the 2010 census, Latinos make up 7.7 percent of Deschutes County's population. Delgado estimates that in Central Oregon, 40 percent of the Latino population is undocumented. While numbers are hard to estimate in undocumented communities, that could mean more than 6,000 immigrants living undocumented in Central Oregon.
Locally, the issues mirror the national conversation. Problems regarding documentation for driver's license renewal, mixed citizenship families and migrant worker rights plague Central Oregon's undocumented immigrants.
Many of these undocumented immigrants would like to become citizens, said Delgado, but the path to citizenships is long and winding. Even the newly proposed legislation will require applicants to pay fines, learn English and get in line behind immigrants who are already going through the legal process.
"Half of the people in Oregon who are undocumented are eligible for a path to citizenship," said Delgado. "Causa is working to help, but the path to citizenship right now is a good five to seven to 10 years long, and it costs thousands of dollars. They're trying to integrate to our society, but we make it almost impossible. It's hard for a family to decide, 'Do I put shoes on my kid's feet or do I save this money to try to get a path to citizenship?' "
At an economic forecast conference held in Bend last month, Dr. Bill Watkins of the Center for Economic Research and Forecasting said that changing the outlook for our economic growth includes increasing legal immigration. These legal immigrants could become taxpaying, productive citizens who help to support the quickly retiring baby boomers, Watkins said.
"One thing that is a fundamental problem in the U.S. is the declining number of workers per retiree. You can solve that problem easily by importing workers," said Watkins in an interview with the Source. "The Path to Citizenship is a worthwhile step, but what we really need to be talking about is bringing in millions of new immigrants."
Long Road Ahead
While Washington meanders toward a solution, kids like Ashley, Karleen and Brian Ramos are still living without their mother.
Like many single parents who are removed, Liliana Ramos was told that if she couldn't make arrangements for her underage children's custody, she would have to take them with her to Mexico.
"They told her straight out, we want you to leave and take your daughters with you," said Brian Ramos. "My mom said no. They're not going to suffer because of me. I'm not going to change their lives."
Because the Ramos children are U.S. citizens, they will have the opportunity to sponsor their mother's citizenship when they turn 21, but the process can be labor-intensive and can include long waits and require an extended departure from the country, up to 10 years, before citizenship is granted.
For now, all Brian Ramos can do is wait until his next birthday. He will turn 21 on March 21. At that point he can speak with an attorney and find out more about petitioning for his mother's citizenship.
"It's a lot of pressure," said Brian Ramos. "Everything I went through and everything I saw isn't the way the media talks about it. They make it seem that everything is going to be good, but in reality there are still deported people, there are families being torn apart every day. They broke all these families; they're affecting the younger generation. They have to do something about it—right now."