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A Great Familial Divide

As one immigrant's story illustrates, child custody fights are vastly more complicated when the U.S.-Mexico border separates the parties.

June 23, 2004|Jennifer Mena | Times Staff Writer

GUANAJUATO, Mexico — One night as she was practicing her penmanship, 10-year-old Daniela Cazares overheard her grandmother and uncle talking in hushed tones in the bedroom next door.

Her mother had called, she heard them say. She had threatened to kidnap Daniela and bring her back across the border to Southern California.

"If my mom loves me, why would she do this?" Daniela recalls wondering.

Daniela was born in Orange County -- 2,000 miles from this city of Colonial churches and winding cobblestone streets. Her mother, Maria Gutierrez, who works as a $14-an-hour nanny in Tustin, sent her to Mexico nine years ago when she felt overwhelmed by financial worries and health problems.

Now, Gutierrez wants the girl back. Her grandmother, Maria del Carmen Ramirez, will not let her go.

Ramirez and other relatives have decided Daniela is better off in Mexico than she would be in the United States, where they fear she could be lured into a world of drugs and sex.

Gutierrez, 37, has few legal avenues to get her daughter back. She said she made the kidnapping threat out of desperation, never intending to do any such thing.

Many immigrant parents are waging similar cross-border child custody battles with their families, according to Mexican government officials and U.S. legal experts. No one has an accurate tally because the complaints are not filed in courtrooms; instead, they fester unresolved for years, exacting a heavy emotional toll.

Families quarrel over which country provides a better quality of life and whether an aunt, grandmother or neighbor can truly replace a mother.

The custody disputes are commonplace -- and destructive, said Jorge A. Bustamante, a professor of sociology at the College of the Northern Border in Tijuana and an expert on migration.

"When children are separated from their parents, we are creating problems that can potentially affect the communities where these children live," he said. "Every child deserves to be with their mother, if that mother is kind and loving."

Battling relatives don't turn to the courts for various reasons. It is expensive. They find it distasteful to air family feuds before a judge. And many -- like Gutierrez -- won't pursue litigation in the United States because they are here illegally.

"This is a cancer affecting Mexican families, and it's spreading," said Miguel Ortiz Haro, the Mexican consul in Santa Ana. "We are seeing more and more cases like these, and there's very little we can do to bring parents and children together again."

Wrenching Decisions

Gutierrez settled in Orange County after a hair-raising trip across the border. She disguised herself as a boy and joined a group of young men dashing across the desert at night.

She gave birth to a son in 1989 but soon left the child's father to marry another man -- Guadalupe Cazares, who treated the boy as his own.

In 1994, five months after Daniela was born, Cazares was arrested on suspicion of drunk driving. Gutierrez feared her husband, who had struggled with alcoholism, would be in jail for months. She had no job at the time and had been suffering seizures.

She worried that she would be unable to feed her children. So she sent Daniela and her half-brother, Dany, to stay with her mother in Mexico.

Cazares, it turned out, was released within days, and Gutierrez asked her mother to return the children. Home, she said, was Orange County.

"My mother obviously didn't see it that way," Gutierrez said. "Once I began asking for them back, she kept putting me off. 'Just let them finish this school year, just a little while longer,' she'd say."

By 2000, Gutierrez had been working as a nanny for several years, and her seizures were under control. She said she told her mother that if Dany, then 10, wasn't returned, Cazares would divorce her.

The grandmother permitted a family friend to bring the boy back to the United States, where he now lives with his mother and stepfather in a two-bedroom apartment in Orange.

Ramirez, 63, said she relented because Dany wanted to see his mother: "He knew her. He remembered her," Ramirez said. "Daniela was another story, though."

Ramirez said the girl has never known her mother. She refuses to let her go to Orange County even for a visit.

"This girl is not a billiard ball meant to be tossed from one place to another," Ramirez said. "If her mother is so interested in her, she should try to know the girl first. She should come here."

Gutierrez said that would put her way of life at risk: She would have to leave her job, her husband and the couple's two other children -- Marisol, 7, and Gabriela, 8 months. The journey back would require a risky, illegal reentry to the United States. Moving back to Mexico for good would mean starting over.

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