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The Painful Plight Of Satellite Babies: Family Separation And Reunification

– Posted in: Immigration Law, Policy & Politics | Family Immigration
Asian American Female Satellite Baby

Like many immigrants who visit my office, Danny had run into problems when he tried to enter the United States.

It wasn’t the lack of entry documents.

It wasn’t due to an expired visa.

It wasn’t the result of a criminal history.

Rather, it was the lack of his ability to speak English fluently.

Danny was a U.S. citizen, born 18 years earlier. Shortly after his birth, his parents sent him back to their country of origin to be raised by his grandparents.

Danny was a satellite baby.

What Is A Satellite Baby?

Satellite babies are U.S born children separated from parents, while in infancy, and placed in the care of relatives abroad.

The term was coined by Yvonne Bohr, a Canadian clinical psychologist, to refer to infants who have been shuttled back and forth from one country to another between different sets of caregivers who live thousands of miles apart.

Although a relatively unknown concept, public discussion about transnational parenting experiences has increased following a National Public Radio broadcast.  The majority of the focus has been on the Chinese-American community.

Transnational Parenting: A Strategy For Immigrant Family Survival

The number of satellite babies living in the United States is unknown.

On a worldwide basis, it is estimated that 60 million Chinese children are taken care of by long- distance family members, primarily their grandparents.

As a result of this huge total, the few studies on satellite babies have been largely limited to Chinese immigrant communities.

Cindy Lu, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School who recently directed a research project studying Chinese satellite baby families, described its enormity in simplistic  terms.  “Anytime you eat at a Chinese restaurant,” Lu said, “it’s likely that somebody in that restaurant has a child who is in China at the moment.”

Describing the satellite baby metaphor, she adds, “Like satellites in space, these children leave and return to the same spot.”

That’s not entirely accurate. In a limited, physical location sense, her statement may be valid.

But in my practice as a immigration citizenship attorney, I’ve learned the effects upon both  the U.S. children and their parents are far too widespread, and the impact of separation and reunification can leave lifelong scars that never heal.

Struggles can be broken into three categories: child-focused concerns, parent-focused concerns, and parent-child relationship concerns.

U.S. Citizen Children Satellite Babies

The satellite babies phenomenon, however, is not limited to immigration families from China. A similar pattern of parent-child separation exists in South Asian, African, Caribbean, and Filipino immigrant communities.

Within each cultural group, the patterns of parent-child separation are varied, including timing and length of separation.

For instance, whereas Chinese children reunite with their parents at the ages of 5 or 6 before school begins, Haitian, Jamaican, and South Asian children are separated from parents for periods of 10 years and longer.

Marguerita Jane Dentino, the Director of Casa Freehold, a non-profit organization serving Spanish-speaking communities, notes that despite the lack of comprehensive reports, the satellite baby problem is not uncommon to Hispanic children. “In Latino families,” Dentino explains, “the children go to their parents’ home country when they are small, 1-3 years old, and stay until age 14-15, when they come back to go to work. When they return, they are confused about their national and family identity and are often lost, not grounded.”

The practice is not limited to the United States. Canada, Australia, and England have sizeable ethnic satellite baby communities.

Nor is the practice new. Besides Chinese and Filipino immigrants, families of Mexican, Jewish, Polish, and Italian descent living in the U.S. engaged in similar child-rearing behaviors during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Troublesome Satellite Baby Repercussions On Parent-Child Reunification

The few studies which have focused on the satellite babies phenomenon point out that family separations and transnational parenting arrangements are a natural outgrowth of globalization.

Like innumerable aspects of globalization, the impact was not projected in advance.

As the NPR story discussed, in countries like the United States with a high influx of new immigrants, many of the parents born in foreign countries cannot afford the high cost of living without working long hours to make ends meet.

The situation presents an excruciating dilemma.  Expressing the hardship she felt in direct details, one parent openly reflected, “I’ve built this bonding with my baby boy, seeing him grow every day. It is hard to be separated from him”, but “To keep him here, I can’t go to English classes or get a job.  I really don’t know what to do.”

Lacking both an extended family support system and affordable child care, they send their children abroad, in anticipation of developing stable employment, strengthening their lives here, and saving money for the day their children return.

South Asian Immigrant Satellite Baby

It doesn’t quite work out that way many times. The homecoming often takes longer than anticipated.

Moreover, when it happens, children and parents are not always ready for the reunion.

Upon their re-entry, a vast majority of the satellite babies suffer from English language deficiencies.  Several suffer attachment disorders related to being separated from their surrogate parents abroad. In some cases, the children experience deep psychological trauma, attempt to commit suicide, and engage in violence towards other children.

Many parents, on the other hand, expect their children to be happy to be back with them. They fail to grasp that, for their children, the United States is not their home. Having lost several years of active parenting and bonding, they lack knowledge about their children’s personalities, their interests, and what makes them happy, causing an internal sense of emotional disconnection and depression.

Satellite baby communities require the support of social agencies, offering parent-child counseling services, and health care professionals to help both parents and children through the transition period. Unfortunately, such services are in short supply.

Given the current mood towards immigrants in general, and current policies disfavoring the use of public benefits, this shortcoming is unlikely to be addressed any time soon.

Satellite Baby Families Advocacy

The circumstances of satellite baby families, like many conditions of the immigrant experience, are relatively invisible to the American public.

The few studies on the topic show most parents of satellite babies are legal residents, a  factor minimized in the general disdain for providing government-sponsored services to this subset of the immigrant community.

Additionally, no known studies have addressed the long-term effects of transnational parent-child separation and reunification.

Yet, for many children such as Danny, overcoming the obstacles to admission is only the first step of a long immigrant journey to life in the United States, the mere prelude to multi-faceted challenges he would face upon reuniting with his mother.

In my view, more advocacy, outside the ranks of mental health experts, is needed.

I say this both as a San Bernardino immigration lawyer and as an immigrant advocate.

While such issues may not fit within the purview of an immigration attorney’s role, it is an issue about which more lawyers should take an active role in stimulating discussion and debate – to spark not only public discourse about a seldom talked-about matter, but also government support for families during the reunification phase.

Your voice is needed as well.

By Carlos Batara, Immigration Law, Policy, And Politics


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