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AS IMMIGRATION STATUS DIVIDES FAMILIES, 'YOU CAN FEEL THE FEAR'

Families with American-born children face tough choices.

Fear of detention and deportation is forcing some illegal immigrants into making painful choices for themselves and their American-born children.

Many are making arrangements with family and friends to care for their children if they are forced to leave the country.

In the wake of stepped-up immigration enforcement, "You can feel the fear,'' said Jose Fernandez, immigration program manager for Catholic Charities.

Advocates for illegal immigrants tell of children snatched from their parents' arms during federal immigration raids, hasty custody arrangements and arbitrary assignments to foster care.

"We've taken lots of statements from mothers and fathers about what happens when there's a knock on the door in the wee hours in the morning and their lives are turned upside down. It's heartbreaking,'' said Cheryl Little, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center in Miami.

The center is trying to educate illegal immigrants about the need to make arrangements for their children if they are deported.

In response to the outcry over separating children and their parents, immigration officials say they're simply doing their jobs. They also say the claims of advocates are exaggerated and sometimes outright wrong.

Their priority is to enforce immigration laws to ensure national security and public safety, said Barbara Gonzalez, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

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There aren't any firm statistics on how many of the country's estimated 12-million undocumented immigrants have American-born children.

But there is an effort to mobilize them by organizations like the Detention Watch Network in Washington, D.C., and the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center.

Rep. Jose E. Serrano, D-N.Y., is trying to gain support for a bill that would allow immigration judges to consider the best interests of American-born children before a parent is deported.

But such legislation could come too late, if at all, for some Tampa Bay area families.

Ayyoub Zomot, 48, was working at the Sea Stone Resort in Clearwater Beach when he was arrested May 8.

Zomot and his wife, Eyman, came to the United States from Jordan nearly a decade ago and overstayed their tourist visas. They have two children. Yousef, 7, was born here.

Eyman Zomot, 32, was not arrested. She said the couple left Jordan because of religious persecution over the fact that her husband is Christian and she is Muslim.

The First Lutheran Church in Clearwater has stepped in to help her make ends meet. Yousef, she said, has taken to sleeping with his father's picture under his pillow.

Friday brought good news for the family. An immigration judge agreed to release Ayyoub Zomot on $20,000 in bail. Now the family just has to find the money. A judge will hear his request to remain in the country in September.

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There is no official immigration policy on how to deal with detained undocumented immigrants who have American children. Each case is evaluated individually, Gonzalez said.

In general, when immigration officers detain parents, they try to work with them to find a legal caregiver for the children, she said.

If that doesn't work, "ICE may exercise discretion in certain cases and allow one parent to remain with the children while the removal process takes place," Gonzalez said.

Another option is to place the children in foster care, she said.

A spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Children and Families said the agency does not keep statistics about children of immigrants in foster care.

Advocates decry immigration laws that force illegal immigrants to choose between taking their U.S.-born children home to countries they don't know or leaving them behind.

It's a dreadful choice, said Maria Rodriguez, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Coalition in Miami: "Would I take them back to my slum in Honduras or leave them here?''

Charu al-Sahli of Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, which provides free legal help to illegal immigrants and their families, said leaving children with a guardian is fraught with pitfalls. "Often it is done in a matter of minutes,'' with not enough time for caregivers to learn the emotional and physical needs of children or even get power of attorney to register them in school, she said.

"One of the most tragic things I've seen is when parents are detained and then their U.S.-born children have been placed in foster care. We are aware of several cases like that in Florida,'' she said.

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Mireya De Los Santos was arrested when she went to register at a Tampa probation office. The 31-year-old Mexican is on probation because of a series of traffic tickets.

De Los Santos, who was detained in March and is now out on bail and awaiting a deportation hearing, said her biggest fear is for her three girls: Jennifer, 9, Jessica, 4, and Emily, 1, who were born in the United States. Her husband also is here illegally.

Sitting in her tiny West Tampa home, De Los Santos said she hopes her attorney will help her to remain in America.

"There is a bigger possibility here to give something for your children,'' she said.

In St. Petersburg, Israt Jahan Rikta, 36, weeps every time she talks about her husband, Mohhamed Golam Sarowar Khan, 38.

He was arrested on Mother's Day. A temporary stay stopped his deportation to Bangladesh a few days ago. While he remains in detention, his wife, also in the country illegally, is taking care of their 3-year-old American-born daughter.

Salim Sheikh, the New York attorney handling her husband's case, says Rikta was lucky she wasn't detained as well.

"That's a courtesy from the government. I would say that the government has been very gracious and kind,'' he said.

Recently New York resident Betsy DeWitt traveled to Washington to lobby on behalf of the proposed Child Citizen Protection Act, which would give judges leeway in deporting parents of American children.

DeWitt, a member of the group Families for Freedom, lost her own battle. Her Italian-born husband is about to be deported for a 2003 conviction for selling marijuana.

"I want people to understand that the immigration debate is about more than protecting our borders and sending 'illegals' back," she said in commentary she wrote about her experience for New American Media, a nonprofit media group.

"It's about children that are left out of the equation because they do not have a voice.''

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at (727) 892-2283 or moore@sptimes.com.

FAST FACTS

Deportation figures

149,376 People deported nationwide in fiscal 2007.

59,491 Deportations associated with crime.

Nationality breakdown

Mexico 87,231

Honduras 18,419

Guatemala 14,234

El Salvador 12,499

Source: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement

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