They're Caught between countries. Children of illegal aliens live under a cloud of uncertainty

LIKE most sixth-grade boys, Gerard Rodriguez likes to ride his bicycle. While whizzing up and down the streets near the small house his family rents in this town west of Houston, he dreams of getting big and strong so that he can play football one day. In Houston, Miguel Fernandez fidgets on the sofa in the modest, but comfortable, tract home his family owns. The shy 10-year-old says he likes to use his school's computer and hopes to be a doctor someday.

But Miguel, like Gerard, has another big dream, one that never concerns most children in the United States. ``I want my family to live in this country,'' he says, staring at his hands. ``I don't want us to have to move anywhere else.''

Both Gerard and Miguel are the children of illegal aliens. Their cases are different, in that Gerard was born in Mexico, while Miguel was born in the United States and is therefore an American citizen. Yet because their parents came here illegally, both boys have faced the same worry, the same uncertainty.

Both of their families are under deportation orders, which they are fighting in court. American or not, the youngsters have lived with the fact that one day they could be forced to leave the only country they ever considered home.

Those cares eased when President Reagan signed the immigration reform bill in November. That reform virtually ensures that neither Gerard nor Miguel, nor their families, will be deported. Both the Rodriguezes and the Fernandezes have been in the US since the late '70s, so they will qualify under the amnesty provision requiring uninterrupted residence here since 1982.

But thousands of other children, many of them American citizens by birth, many with little or no knowledge of another country or culture, will continue to live daily with the knowledge that they and their families could be deported. Meantime, both the ``citizen-child'' and the ``undocumented child,'' as they are called by researchers and immigration attorneys, will continue their education in US schools, will associate and talk with American children - most often in English - will learn the ropes of American life, and will dream such typically American dreams as someday playing football.

No one knows how many such children live in the US, just as no one knows the total illegal alien population. The Census Bureau has estimated that about 18 percent, or 360,000, of the 2 million illegal aliens counted in the 1980 census were under 15 years of age.

That figure does not include the citizen-children of undocumented aliens - those born in the US of undocumented parents. Past surveys have shown that better than 40 percent of households headed by an undocumented adult in California and Texas had at least one US-born member. Many researchers believe that the numbers of young citizens-by-birth have grown as more Mexicans working here illegally opt to settle in the US as migration between the two countries becomes more difficult and economic conditions in Mexico deteriorate.

Often, it is the formation of families that changes the illegal aliens' relationship to the US. This is especially true in the case of Mexicans, who make up 90 percent of the aliens apprehended by the Border Patrol. Most are young single males continuing the decades-old pattern of migrating to work here, while maintaining a home in Mexico. Increasingly, however, they hope to raise their children in the US.

``Every year, a percentage of the annual flow decides to stay and have kids,'' says Leo Chavez, a research associate with the Center for US-Mexico Studies at the University of California at San Diego. ``At that point the pattern [of migration] changes. They tend to become settlers'' and put down roots, he says.

``When I first came over, I knew it was a risk, but I wanted to make good money,'' says Abel Rodriguez, Gerard's father, who left his family behind to come here in 1977. ``But then I saw the future is better here, it's better for the children.'' Within two years he had sent for his wife and five of the seven children they now have.

Like many other illegal-alien parents, Mr. Rodriguez says his biggest concern is that his children would be ill-prepared to move back to Mexico. ``They speak Spanish with us,'' he says in his native tongue, ``but otherwise we want them to learn English. They don't read or write in Spanish at all, so going over there would mean starting all over.''

The US Supreme Court ruled in 1982 that the children of illegal aliens cannot be excluded from public schools. The court said there was no basis for denying an education, since the children were undocumented through no fault of their own. It also noted that denying an education would be shortsighted, since many illegal-alien children later gain permanent residence and citizenship. On the other hand, a 1976 amendment to US immigration laws prevents citizen-children from petitioning to keep their illegal-alien parents in the country. This can put the US in the awkward position of ordering ``de facto'' deportations of its own citizens, since few families are willing to leave their children behind.

``I've been told time and again that especially if they're under 10 years old, the children won't have any problems [adjusting to a different country],'' says Joe Vail, a Houston immigration lawyer. ``Looking at the cases I've had, that's hard to accept.''

In addition, alien parents are often reluctant to seek the social benefits - medical care, food stamps, Aid to Families with Dependent Children - their citizen-children are entitled to. In immigration court, the use of public assistance can be enough to warrant deportation, even if the aid is legally sought for citizen-members of the family.

The thought of deportation - an imminent possibility until the reform bill was signed two months ago - has been especially hard on Miguel Fernandez and his twin brother, Francisco. Their grades in school have fallen over the past year, and teachers and child psychologists have filed affidavits with the immigration court, where the Fernandezes' case was being weighed, testifying to signs of stress in the boys - irregular school work, bad dreams, sleepless nights. THE court even acknowledged the ``psychological stress'' the two boys have experienced as a result of their parents' deportation case, but stated that those problems could be treated just as well in Mexico as in the US.

``I'm sometimes afraid of living in Mexico,'' says Miguel, who has been south of the border to visit his grandparents. He worries that he doesn't know how to read and write Spanish, which he thinks would be important if he had to move. And he says he's ``a little bit mad'' at the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). ``I don't understand why they don't want us in Houston,'' he says. ``We don't do anything bad.''

In Brownsville, Texas, a young widow who is an illegal alien and the mother of four American children says her nine-year-old son warns her, and sometimes cries, whenever she goes out of the house. ``He begs me to be careful, not to get `fished' by the Border Patrol,'' she says. ``He knows a lot about what could happen, because he translates the television news for me. He always says, `They don't want the Mexicans here, but I don't want to move to Mexico.' He's visited there, but he doesn't like it.'' THIS year's immigration reform lifts the pall of uncertainty from many illegal families, but for others, questions remain. What happens if the father has been here since before 1982, but the mother has not? Or if some children were born here, but others weren't?

``These questions will have to be decided on a case-by-case basis,'' says Duke Austin, a spokesman for the INS in Washington. He points out that under the reform legislation, anyone not here before the cutoff date would be ineligible for amnesty. On the other hand, he says, traditionally ``if you are granted asylum, your spouse and children are derivative benefactors of that decision.'' Regulations that could provide some answers to these questions should be formulated by February, according to Mr. Austin. He adds that, ``Generally speaking, the philosophy of INS is family unification.''

Immigration lawyer Vail says experience has taught him otherwise. ``I've had dozens of cases, especially when there are both alien and citizen-children involved, where I've told them, `You're splitting up this family,'' he says. ``Their response? `We're not splitting the family, because those kids can follow their parents as easily as stay here.'''

At the Rodriguez house, Gerard and his sister Lillia at first exhibit the typical concerns of any children faced with a possible family move. ``I never think about it,'' says Lillia, ``but I would be sad, because all our friends are here.''

But Gerard says he would be sad because he wants ``to be an American. It's much better here,'' he says, going on his father's word, since he hasn't been to Mexico since he first came here as an infant. When asked why he wants to be an American - how, for example, he would answer that question if asked by his teacher - he says, ``I wouldn't want to talk about that in school, I'm afraid I'd be called names.''

What kinds of names? ``Oh, they have lots of names,'' he says cautiously. ``They'd tell me to go back and stuff like that.''

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