America or Mom? Boy had to choose

At 8 years old, Clemixo López made a life-changing decision.

His parents presented him with a choice: Stay in Chattanooga with his father or move to Guatemala with his mother.

If he stayed, he would get a better education, perhaps the possibility of college and better health care. But he wouldn't have a mother.

Clemixo, who was born in Chattanooga and is now 11, chose to stay. He hasn't seen his mother in 2 1/2 years.

He stayed for one main reason.

"For school," the boy said. "I want to speak more English."

In 2009, there were about 112,000 U.S.-born children in Tennessee with at least one immigrant parent, according to the Migration Policy Institute , and there were 381,000 such children in Georgia. In both states, the U.S.-born children accounted for more than 80 percent of all children with immigrant - legal and illegal - parents.

"It's been hard for him because of his mom," Clemixo's father, Santos López, said, standing outside his home near East Side Elementary School where Clemixo is a rising fifth-grader.

Although they talk on the phone, he misses her tickles, he misses the way she played with him.

Family separation based on a parent's detention or deportation significantly impacts children's physical and emotional health as well as their educational and social development, according to a 2010 study, "Immigration Enforcement and Its Impact on Latino Children in the State of Georgia" by the Sapelo Foundation.

The Sapelo Foundation is a Georgia organization that promotes progressive social change, affecting, in particular, vulnerable populations, rural communities and the natural environment in the state of Georgia, according to its website.

On the morning of April 16, 2008, Santos López was sleeping when his cell phone rang. It was his wife, Nasaria García, calling from the Chattanooga Pilgrim's Pride chicken processing plant.

"I've been detained," she said, crying. "There was a raid; I don't know if they are going to let me go or deport me."

López also worked at the chicken processing plant, but on a different shift.

García was among 100 workers charged with being in the country illegally. She was released that same day with an ankle monitoring bracelet because she had small children to take care of, but in October she decided to go back to her native Guatemala and signed a voluntary departure form.

She arrived in the village of Chivarreto on Jan. 16, 2009 with her daughter, Thalia. She and her daughter, now 6, still live there.

Although Clemixo is only 11, he knows what a raid is.

"It's when a group of policemen come and take a group of people back to Guatemala," he says.

In a very short time ,Clemixo lost two very important people in his life.

Shortly after his mother left, his best friend, Wilmer, moved to Guatemala. His family, unauthorized to be in the United States, decided to leave.

The boys played soccer together after school, walked home together and, when Clemixo's father was at work, he stayed with Wilmer's family.

After Wilmer left, there were times Clemixo would just melt down and bawl his eyes out, said Leanne Chesney, a teacher at East Side Elementary who has known Clemixo since he was 6.

"Wilmer is my best friend, I'm going to miss him," he would tell her. "I don't want him to go back. I'm not going to have any friends anymore."

Chesney saw a change in Clemixo.

"When he started off the year he was a pretty happy kid," she said. "When his mother went back in the early spring of his second-grade year he definitely wasn't as confident, especially with his friends. He became a little bit more quiet and reserved."

At East Side, Clemixo is known as a good soccer player, she said. He plays forward for a local children's soccer league and his favorite teams are FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, both from Spain.

His dream is to be like "Leo" Messi, a 24-year-old Argentinian who plays for FC Barcelona and is considered one of the greatest soccer players in the world.

Clemixo's mother said it was difficult to leave her son behind.

"He tells me he misses me and he cries," Nasaria García said from her home in Chivarreto. "I would like for us to be together; it's hard being separated.

"But I'm happy he doesn't suffer over there," she said. "Over there he has milk, he can open the fridge and there's a gallon of milk; there's everything."

Time has helped Clemixo deal with not having a mother to take care of him. He has returned to being the old Clemixo, his teacher said.

"He's generally a very happy kid," Chesney said, "easygoing and always willing to jump into anything."

López wants to take Clemixo to visit his mother, but since he is in the country illegally, he worries about not being able to come back to Chattanooga, where he has lived since 1997 and considers home.

But Clemixo wants to go to Guatemala, perhaps even to live there.

"Maybe that place is good," he says in Spanish.

But, his father said, Clemixo's future is in the United States.