Border Patrol Separates Family with Mixed Citizenship

A U.S. Border Patrol operation on a California highway recently netted the parents of a 12-year-old girl. The parents were in the country illegally and were deported, while their daughter is an American citizen and remains in the U.S. Critics say officials were using racial profiling in deciding who to pull over.

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Here's another story we're following. A Border Patrol roundup, along Interstate 40 in California, has prompted a call for a federal investigation. A Los Angeles attorney says agents were only pulling over people with brown skin, which he says is racial profiling. The attorney represents a 12-year-old girl who is an American citizen. Her parents are not. Yesterday, she talked about what happened after the Border Patrol stopped her family's car.

NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.

CARRIE KAHN reporting:

Twelve-year-old Wendy Ortiz says last week her family set off from Arizona to California on Interstate 40. She says it was late. She was in the back seat and asleep, until an officer shined his flashlight in her face.

Ms. WENDY ORTIZ (Plaintiff): And then that's what woke me up, because they were checking if there were any people in the back. And then they asked us if we're born here. And then my parents said no, and then they didn't know what to do.

KAHN: Ortiz is a U.S. citizen, says the whole family was detained. She claims her mother was forced to sign a voluntary departure form. After both parents were deported, an aunt picked up the three youngest children and brought them all back to Los Angeles. That's the last time Wendy saw her mother.

Ms. ORTIZ: I miss her a lot. My little brothers miss her too, because I've never been separated that long from her.

KAHN: The Ortiz family was stopped as part of what the Border Patrol called Operation Desert Denial. It was a five-day long crackdown on immigrant smugglers who used the busy I-40 East-West Corridor. At a news conference yesterday, attorney Luis Carrillo claimed the Ortiz family were victims of racial profiling. He says agents were focused on pulling over Latinos when they should have been stopping drug traffickers and smugglers at the border.

Mr. LUIS CARRILLO (Attorney): Meanwhile, they're 200 miles north of the border picking on little girls, on mothers, on workers.

KAHN: Border Patrol officials insist that only suspicious vehicles were pulled over.

Advocates for tighter immigration enforcement applaud such operations, even if some children are separated from their families. Today as many as three million U.S.-borne children have at least one parent who is in the country illegally.

Steve Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies says tougher enforcement is the only way to get the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the country to leave.

Mr. STEVEN CAMAROTA (Director of Research, Center for Immigration Studies): Of course that's going to produce compelling anecdotes about U.S.-born children, for example. But in the end, we may make some exceptions. We could do that. But I think what most people want, and what makes sense, is to begin to enforce the law and prove that we're serious about it.

KAHN: Others, however, wonder if the American public has the stomach for breaking up immigrant families where the children are U.S. citizens. Angela Kelley is with the National Immigration Forum, a group that favors giving illegal immigrants a pathway to U.S. citizenship.

Ms. ANGELA KELLEY (Deputy Director, National Immigration Forum): It's just so foolhardy and naïve, quite frankly, to think that we could just kind of pick away at some of these people, and sweep them, you know, under the rug, if you will, by just deporting them. Or that people will leave on their own.

KAHN: Meanwhile, 12-year-old Wendy Ortiz says she's only been to Mexico once and doesn't want to live there. She hopes immigration authorities will let her mother back in the country.

Ms. ORTIZ: My mom's not a criminal. She just wants the best for us.

KAHN: Ortiz's lawyer is asking for an investigation into the highway stops, and will ask authorities for a humanitarian visa for Wendy's mother.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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