CHICAGO – It’s bath time for 19-month-old Lucas Guerra, who splashes in delight as his mother, Amy, washes him in their West Chicago home while his father looks on from Monterrey, Mexico.
“Can you lift the screen a little bit?” Carlos Guerra asks, his voice coming from the laptop computer that Amy Guerra has placed on top of a plastic bathroom hamper.
The laptop is adjusted and Carlos’ view changes from the lip of the bathtub to the smiling toddler he’s seen in person only twice since the boy was born. “That’s good, thank you,” Carlos says.
The Guerras’ arrangement – a father watching his child grow up through choppy digital bytes provided by a computer – is an increasingly common reality for thousands of families separated by U.S. immigration laws, prompting the creation of several online support groups.
Between the growing number of deportations since 2007 – 400,000 expected during the current fiscal year that ends in October alone – and the years-long wait for legal immigration applications to be processed, a sense of unity for many families rides on Internet access or long-distance telephone calls.
“It’s frustrating; It doesn’t feel like I’m doing parenting hands-on, or any parenting at all,” said Carlos Guerra, 29, an aspiring radiologist who has been barred for life from legal U.S. residency because a decision made for him when he was a teenager.
His mother had brought him and a younger brother into the U.S. illegally when he was 16, settling in west suburban Addison, Ill. After getting married, he and Amy left the U.S. of their own accord to live in Spain and Mexico. They tried to move back to the Chicago area when she was seven months pregnant.
But their marriage-based visa application was rejected because in 1996 Carlos’ mother had fraudulently used someone else’s U.S. passport for her then-teenage son. Under U.S. immigration laws, the use of a false document is enough to keep Carlos out of the country for the rest of his life.
At Carlos’ insistence, Amy moved back to the U.S. to give birth to Lucas. She took with her the laptop computer her husband had bought shortly after proposing marriage, and the computer has come to provide an imperfect, digital sense of intimacy.
For families separated by borders, the use of Web conversations, Facebook photos or late-night phone calls to stay in touch starts as a temporary arrangement while they wait for immigration court dates or changes in the law that might affect their cases, said Nancy Kuznetsov, Midwest president for www.americanfamiliesunited.org, a lobbying group that focuses on separation cases.
But as the months and years drag on, the tenuous online connections begin to seem permanent, said Kuznetsov, who lives in Schaumburg, Ill., and has used a computer to stay in touch with her husband, Vitaly, since he was deported to Belarus in 2007 for overstaying his visa.
“You can’t touch each other; you can’t see each other, that is, outside the computer screen,” she said. “I don’t even know how to describe it. It’s almost a surreal state of existence.”
The Guerras sought to avoid separation by moving to Barcelona shortly after they married in 2007. They tried to make a living teaching English.
But their work visas expired and they couldn’t get approval to stay in the country because of Spain’s own increasingly rigid immigration system.
They moved to Mexico and settled in Carlos Guerra’s native city of Monterrey, where by 2008 his mother and brother had also returned.
Life was hard in that smog-choked city, Amy Guerra said, describing a sudden onslaught of asthma attacks. Their Mexican salaries as teachers weren’t enough to cover payments on the nearly $16,000 they owed in U.S. student loans and credit card debts, she said.
After Amy became pregnant and they tried to move back to the Chicago area, they learned that Carlos could no longer return.
Though the act of identity fraud was his mother’s doing, a 1996 immigration law mandates that anyone who has entered the U.S. fraudulently is permanently ineligible for legal entry. Kuznetsov’s group and others have been pushing for exceptions to the law in the cases of children.
“The worst thing you can possibly hear is ‘lifetime ban’ and ‘no waiver,’ “ said Amy Guerra, 27, who recalled having a panic attack inside a Juarez hotel room near the U.S. Consulate when she learned of the hard-line stance against her husband.
“We’re about to have a baby and I’m being told my husband will never, ever be allowed to come into the country, no matter what I do?” she said. “I’m thinking: ‘What am I going to tell my family? I’m essentially a single mother.’ “
Despite the many miles that separate them, the Guerras strive for a sense of normalcy.
Some afternoons, when the parents are at their homes in West Chicago and Monterrey, the laptop is fired up so Carlos can have some bonding time with his wife and son. Often, however, Carlos can check in only during the evening, after his son has gone to bed.
“Lucas. Who’s that?” Amy Guerra prompted her son one recent evening, pointing to the face on the computer screen smiling, in a bad video feed, into a Web camera.
“Daddy!” the boy replied.
Worried that Lucas will forget his father, Amy shows the child a computer slideshow of pictures every night before he goes to sleep. The father and son have met twice during trips to Mexico, where Carlos taught his boy a little about soccer and the art of a proper “high-five.”
But, via computer, their interactions are brief and disjointed. Lucas, easily distracted by other things near him, wanders into and out of his father’s view. Carlos often must strain to hear what’s happening on the other end of the Internet feed over a constant rumble of trucks outside his window in Monterrey.
“I’ve missed out on Lucas as a baby,” Carlos lamented _ from the way his child smells after a bath to his first steps and words.
“With Amy and Lucas, I feel like a normal person, complete,” he said. “Without them, I’m not from here (Mexico) really.”
Increasingly frustrated, the couple are appealing the denial of their visa application. They’ve also started to discuss moving to another country, with Canada high on the list of possibilities.
But that would also be problematic. In 2009, Canada – where the Mexican population has been skyrocketing – began requiring Mexican nationals to enter with visas, giving higher priority to skilled professionals.
Carlos still hopes to go there as a Mexico-trained radiologist and Amy, a certified teacher in the U.S., hopes to get a Canadian educator’s license. She explained the situation as her husband strained to hear through a scratchy online connection.
“How long do you think it would take you to do radiology in Mexico?” Amy asked her husband.
“What is it? I’m sorry?” his voice chirped through static on the computer speaker, half drowned out by yet another truck roaring past his window.
While the two tried to hold a conversation, Lucas wandered off into another room as his father’s voice chirped with more static.