by Robin Valenzuela

This continues our series highlighting women who advocate for, document, and aid immigrants caught in the dragnet of our country's immigration system.

Frida Espinosa Cárdenas is the former Transnational Family Advocacy Coordinator at el Instituto para las Mujeres en la Migración (IMUMI) in Mexico City, Mexico, a non-profit organization that helps Mexican women with migration-related issues. Currently, she works as an Independent Transnational Consultant.

Robin Valenzuela: What got you interested in the intersection of immigration enforcement and child welfare?

Frida Espinosa Cárdenas: Well, this work started from doing just deportation defense efforts in Tucson, Arizona, where I became an activist for immigrant rights, starting with the marches in 2006-2007.  The community started to aggressively build community resources in order to protect families from deportation and prevent family separation.

However, once I began working in Mexico City at IMUMI, I became familiar with the other side of the coin. Parents get deported.  Mothers get deported, and a lot of the time, even though each case is very different, it is often the parents that did not have any type of community protection. It might also be the case that a parent had some type of criminal charge. And so, even though deportation defense works well for a lot of people who have community support, people that are in highly vulnerable situations (e.g. have a criminal charge, a mental health issue, a substance abuse problem) are more likely to become separated from their families. At IMUMI I started learning more about the intricacies of the families who are separated and the children who are left behind by their parents once they are deported back to their country of origin.

RV: What types of work have you done over the span of your career to help those who have been detained, deported, or placed in deportation proceedings?

FEC: My main focus, especially since working at IMUMI, has been family reunification, or the intersection between child welfare and immigration more broadly. This includes helping detained parents and parents who have been deported or are facing deportation by creating capacity within civil organizations and local state and federal governments. I did this work when I was at IMUMI and, most recently, with local county governments in the United States.  

I bring stakeholders together to talk about what detained and deported parents face, and obviously, what the children of detained and deported parents face.  I make sure that there are information and guidelines provided for those stakeholders every step of the way, from the first social worker or caseworker that the family contacts to the attorneys involved—including the child’s attorney, the parents’ attorneys, and then also the local Consulates—and then the judges.

It’s highly important for judges to be trained, to become familiar with the issues of parents who are detained, not only regarding their own wellbeing but the wellbeing of their families and children. It’s also important for authorities at different levels in Mexico to familiarize themselves with the process of family reunification or family separation, especially when child welfare is involved.

RV: What was it like navigating (transnational) institutional relationships in Mexico, especially after Trump took office in 2016?

FEC: I left Mexico in October of 2017. In Mexico, the government was changing [following the Mexican presidential elections]. That is one of the biggest challenges of working in Mexico, especially when you’re pushing a policy at the state or federal level. It’s a challenge to maintain a continuous relationship with government personnel over the span of a project. At the same time, there was a new U.S administration. I think for us at IMUMI, being in Mexican civil society, it just became more urgent to provide the most accurate information regarding the actual deportation or detention process. One of the biggest uncertainties was the Parental Interest Directive, which we weren’t sure if the U.S President was going to just completely do away with.  The administration actually decided to leave it, so it’s still in place. But, people in local detention centers don’t always implement it.

Frida Espinosa Cárdenas

It was really interesting to go from doing public policy work in Mexico City to the Midwest of the U.S in a small city where there is no Mexican Consulate in the state, and also no detention centers. Parents are detained in county jails, so that really changes the type of education that needs to be provided to local stakeholder groups or working groups, because everything depends on where the parent is being detained. In Des Moines, Iowa, we had a pretty good one-on-one conversation with ICE. They told us directly that every county jail can be guided by a different version of ICE standards. And so it just depends on what standards are being implemented in the county jail where the parents are, and how that affects visitation rights, or whether the parent can speak to their child over the phone, or over video conferencing, or actually have in-person visits.

Every step of the way, in my experience, you have a wealth of information that needs to be shared. That is something that is very urgently needed for stakeholders, but it adds layers of complexity in terms of how people are detained and separated from their families in this country.

RV: What are the challenges deported parents face upon their return to Mexico?

FEC: The first biggest challenge for people who have been returned or deported to Mexico is their lack of identity documents. If they left for a long time or haven’t traveled to Mexico, they might or might not have their Mexican passport. They really can’t do anything without a Voter Registration card, which is the official form of identification in Mexico. Another challenge is getting their birth certificate from wherever they were born, if they don’t have it.

The next biggest challenge is getting a job. For deported parents who want to be reunified with their children (meaning that there’s no way they can go back to the U.S and so they want to bring their young children to Mexico to live), the first thing they’re going to need is a job.

They need to be able to document this for the judge in charge of their child welfare case. It doesn’t have to be a well-paying job, but they need to show some kind of compensation. Parents usually can’t prove this unless they have the type of job that requires official identification. That’s also going to be a part of the home study that any separated parent will need to comply with, to prove that they have a place to bring their children to live, that there’s a steady income, and that those children will also have the opportunity to attend school. It’s particularly challenging for children who were born in the U.S. and are now in Mexico and have never been registered as Mexican nationals at the Mexican Consulate in the United States.

RV: What are some of the recommendations you have for stakeholders or deported parents whose children are in the custody of child welfare agencies in the U.S?

FEC: One of the things I did for my daughter was to include both of our (both parents’) last names on her U.S birth certificate, because that is one of our biggest recommendations—to make sure that children have their mom’s and dad’s last names (or, in the case of a single mother, both of the mother’s last names).
Another recommendation is for parents to register their U.S-born children as dual nationals.  Parents can do this through their Consulate. They can also do this in Mexico, although this is a huge obstacle, but it’s highly recommended in order to gain access to education and healthcare for their children.

Ultimately, it’s not only the parents’ obligation to know all this information, but if there’s a child’s attorney and a social worker and a judge that are looking out for the wellbeing of children, they should also know what the children’s legal needs will be when they get to Mexico.

Frida Espinosa Cárdenas worked as a specialist in transnational family reunification between the United States and Mexico.  In particular, she has worked to build resources and guidelines for cases involving deported parents who seek reunification with their children, who are under the custody of child protective services in the United States.  Frida most recently worked for the U.S Committee for Refugees and Immigrants in Des Moines, Iowa in the Refugee Wellness Program.   During her time in Iowa, she became a founding member of the Child Welfare and Immigration Committee led by Judge Colin Witt of Polk County and worked to establish guidelines for social workers and attorneys who work with transnational families separated by detainment or deportation. Frida is now an Independent Transnational Consultant.

Robin Valenzuela is a PhD candidate in Cultural Anthropology at Indiana University. She also has a BA and MA in Spanish, a MA in Cultural Anthropology, and a Graduate Certificate in Latin American Studies. In addition to her academic pursuits, Robin has worked at the Mexican Consulate in Chicago and as a legal advocate for immigrant/refugee victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking.