Family Forced to Abandon The US in Order To Be Together

By Beth Caldwell & Joel Medina, New America Media

Rodrigo Ortega, 35, lives in Rosarito, Mexico with his American wife and two American-citizen children. A little over a year ago, Ortega was deported. Since then, his wife and kids have relocated to Mexico in order to be with him.

He wishes that his kids, now 3 and 7 years old, could attend school in the U.S. He wanted to continue providing them with the kind of life they were accustomed to in California, complete with hot showers and the occasional hamburger.

“We’re living day to day now,” Ortega explained in a recent interview. “I want to give my kids a better life than this. I can’t even buy them a Whopper because it’s kind of expensive and I can’t afford it.”
Today, he works as a security guard in a Mexican shopping center occupied by American companies like Walmart and Applebee’s, earning roughly $100 for a 72 hour work-week. That breaks down to less than $1.50 per hour.

In the United States, Ortega earned $600 to $700 per week doing agricultural work in California’s San Joaquin valley.

The Ortega family is one of a growing number of American families who are forced to abandon their lives in the U.S. to stay together. ICE reports that 45,000 parents of American citizen children were deported in the first half of 2012. Human Rights Watch estimates that 1.6 million people in the United States were separated from a deported spouse or parent between 1997 and 2007.

The decision to move wasn’t easy. But after Ortega was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison for the crime of illegally re-entering the United States, the family decided it wasn’t worth it to remain in the United States.

Rodrigo’s wife had never been to Mexico, but he faced a long prison sentence if caught trying to illegally re-enter again. “It’s better for me to be with my kids than to go back to prison,” he said.

Immigration offenses are now the most prosecuted crimes in the federal court system. The Department of Justice reports that between July 2011 and July 2012, 54.7% of all federal criminal prosecutions were for immigration crimes.

The two most prosecuted offenses in federal district courts were for “entry of alien at improper time or place” and “reentry of deported alien.” Nearly 89% of the people prosecuted for these crimes are from Mexico and Central America.

Due to this focus on prosecution of immigration offenses, nearly 30% of all federal prisoners are serving time for immigration crimes — crimes like re-entering the country after being deported.

Although the crime of illegal reentry is punishable by up to twenty years in prison, many undocumented immigrants risk it because their ties to the U.S. are so strong. The most common reason deportees cite for going back is to reunite with their families.

That’s why Ortega originally tried to cross back. His wife had given birth to his son, and he couldn’t stand to be apart from them. But when he tried to cross, he was caught. By the time he was released from prison for illegal re-entry, Ortega’s son was two years old. He met his child for the first time when his wife and children moved to Mexico soon after his release and deportation.

According to Mary Galvan, a social worker at the Casa de Madre Asunta, a shelter that houses deported women and children in Tijuana, harsh penalties for the illegal re-entry will not keep people from trying to return to the U.S.

“The women who are being deported now are not going to stop trying to return to the United States,” she said. “In other words, if I’m separated from my children, I’m going to do the impossible to return to them.”
The U.S. government sees it differently.

When asked about the specific goals of prosecuting immigration crimes at such high rates, a spokesperson for the Department of Justice replied, “Federal criminal prosecution resources are focused on the prosecution of individuals who pose a national security or public safety risk, including violent criminals, convicted felons and repeat immigration law offenders.”

The collateral consequences of rising deportation numbers – the American citizen children and spouses who are forced to choose between living in exile or living apart from their loved ones – are not yet fully understood.

Social worker Mary Galvan predicts the situation will become more serious as these children grow up. “Imagine,” she says, “when they grow up and ask ‘why didn’t I grow up by my mother’s side? Because my country took her from me.’ This will become a very serious social problem.

This article was first published in New America Media.

Beth Caldwell & Joel Medina are part of a reporting team investigating the consequences of U.S. deportation policy in Mexico with support from a Soros Justice Media Fellowship. Their wokd can be read at

[Photo by n de la vega/New america Media]

Subscribe today!

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Must Read

Coronavirus: Mexican wrestlers sew Lucha Libre face masks

Victor Landa April 23, 2020

Unable to compete due to coronavirus, Mexico’s Lucha Libre wrestlers have taken up sewing face masks. Social distancing means the iconic sport is on hold for now, so fighters need […]

Latinos: COVID-19 Disrupts Finances, Daily Life, Mental Health

Victor Landa April 6, 2020

COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate. But U.S. Latinos are more likely than all Americans to say the coronavirus pandemic changed their daily lives, and disrupts their mental health, finances, and jobs, according to new Pew Research […]

A Profile of Coronavirus and the Latino Workforce

Victor Landa April 13, 2020

*This article was originally published in the NALCAB Blog. Over the last month, the Coronavirus pandemic has ravaged the lives and well-being of all Americans. It has disproportionately impacted the most […]

Hispanics more likely than Americans overall to see COVID-19 as a major threat to health and finances

Victor Landa April 14, 2020

Hispanics are more concerned than Americans overall about the threat the COVID-19 outbreak poses to the health of the U.S. population, their own financial situation and the day-to-day life of their local […]

Coronavirus could ‘decimate’ Latino wealth, which was hammered by the Great Recession

Victor Landa April 16, 2020

Octavia Nieto worked for over 10 years as a pastry chef at a bakery in Princeton, New Jersey. Now with the business closed indefinitely, she relies on a part-time job […]

Latino Teens: Distance Learning Is a Giant Stressor amid Coronavirus

Victor Landa April 22, 2020

Latino teens are more worried than their peers that they won’t be able to keep up with school work or extracurricular activities amid coronavirus, says a new survey by Common Sense and […]


Victor Landa

Despite these uncertain times, the 2020 NFL Draft will proceed as planned. But because of the COVID-19 outbreak, the 2020 NFL draft will be held virtually for the first time […]

Government Relief Less Likely To Reach Latino Businesses

Victor Landa April 23, 2020

Latino communities may face a generational setback in growing wealth, as the pandemic-driven downturn exacerbates an already present gap in funding for their small businesses. Juan Rios sits among the […]