By Saundra Amrhein
TAMPA, Florida (Reuters) - Epifania Rojas' family broke apart in stages. At age 12, she learned how to live without her father. At 16, she is learning how to live without her mother.
The disintegration of Rojas' family began four years ago when she, her parents and four U.S.-born siblings became one of many thousands of families separated by immigration regulations or record-level deportations.
Hopes of reunification for many families swelled this summer with the passage of a sweeping immigration reform bill in the U.S. Senate, only to be dashed by subsequent efforts to kill the bill in the U.S. House of Representatives, where members are focused instead on piecemeal bills heavy on enforcement and more spending on border security.
"It has been an emotional roller coaster," said Cheryl Little, executive director of the Miami-based advocacy group Americans for Immigrant Justice.
U.S. immigration policy has long favored families, though conservative advocates of reform, including former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, argue that the number of relatives who are allowed to immigrate to be reunited with family members is too high.
Family-based immigration places a strain on the economy because many who are allowed entry are not of working age and "typically do not produce economic benefits," Bush wrote in his recent book "Immigration Wars."
Expectations among separated immigrant families and advocates ran high after the Senate passed its version of a comprehensive immigration bill on June 27. The bill, were it to become law, would offer a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants in the United States while also bolstering spending on border security.
Although Little and other advocates for immigrant families did not approve of provisions that would end sibling sponsorship by U.S. citizens and permanent residents, they applauded other measures that would wipe out a backlog for millions of people waiting years on family-based petitions.
They also celebrated another provision that could make it easier for U.S. citizens and permanent residents to petition for parents, children or spouses who have been deported or blocked from returning to the United States.
"It would be wonderful to see this issue addressed in a humane way," Little said. "We've seen countless wonderful families torn apart."
'THESE KIDS HAVE PARENTS'
Republican House leaders have voiced willingness to support legislation to help undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children - known as "Dreamers" - but not their parents.
The issue was debated Tuesday during a House judiciary subcommittee hearing where key Republicans suggested they would support an exception for the children.
"They surely don't share the culpability of their parents," House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte said at the hearing. "I do not believe that parents who made the decision to illegally enter the U.S. while forcing their children to join them should be afforded the same treatment as these kids."
Dreamers have been vocal about their rejection of such a proposal that would benefit them, but not their mothers and fathers. The idea also chafed at Little.
"These kids have parents," she said. "To suggest that these children are entitled to a break but we're not going to do anything to keep these families together - it's very disingenuous ... They continue to suffer until that family is made whole."
There are no figures on the exact number of families separated by immigration enforcement. However, among the unprecedented number of deportations that have occurred during the Obama administration - 1.5 million people in his first term - almost 205,000 immigrants deported from July 2010 to the end of September 2012 were parents of U.S.-citizen children, according to official statistics.
Many immigrant families have been separated by other ways, including regulations that blocked immigrants from returning to the United States if they had been in the country illegally for more than a short duration.
In 2009, eight years after her father petitioned as a permanent resident for green cards for Rojas and her mother, they were summoned to a U.S. Consulate office in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, for an appointment. Once there, Rojas was told she could not return with her father and four U.S.-born younger siblings. Her mother was barred from coming back for 10 years.
Rojas tried to calm her weeping siblings. "I told them maybe in a few days or weeks we'll be together again," she said.
Her father, Josefino Rojas, returned to work in the United States with one of Epifania's younger sisters, while his wife took the rest back to her birthplace near Oaxaca.
Epifania was later able to obtain a green card, and she and three of her siblings now live with their father. Between schoolwork, Epifania helps her father in the fields as they migrate between Florida's strawberry fields and Midwest vegetable crops.
Josefino Rojas said he saves what he can after gasoline, rent and food to send to Mexico or to help pay for the next trip there to see his wife and their 5-year-old daughter, also a U.S. citizen.
For some families under the financial and emotional strain of separation, reform may be too late.
This spring, when Juan Aquino graduated with honors from a high school east of Tampa, Florida, one person was missing: his father.
Deported three years ago, Aquino's father pleaded in phone calls with his mother to bring the family to Mexico. Then, last year, giving up on reuniting with his family, he broke the news that he had met another woman in Mexico.
Juan, 18, now enrolled in college courses and active in marches for immigration reform, hopes his mother can gain legal status and that other families won't be split apart. But he no longer dreams of reuniting with his father.
"I don't want to see him anymore," Juan said.
(Editing by David Adams and Douglas Royalty)