María Mora lost four of her children when they were kidnapped as babies by their father 1994. She never heard from them again. Another died of a heart attack.
Thirteen others are in the custody of the Georgia Department of Human Services, all U.S.-born. An undocumented Mexican, Mora has been in an immigration jail since July 2017 after an arrest for driving without a license.
"By giving me permission to stay here, my children will be returned to me, but if the immigration judge decides that I have to return to my country my children will be put up for adoption," she told Univision's Atlanta correspondent, Xeyli Alfaro, in an interview at the Irwin County Detention Center.
Her case is due to go to go April 10.
Meanwhile, Monica, Amy, Christian, Louis, Lourdes, Solomon, and the rest of their siblings aged between 18 months and 19 years old, are held separately in the homes of different families, allowed to meet twice a month on Fridays to receive a phone call from their mother.
"If she wins this case, they would give her residency," explained her lawyer, Shirley Zambrano, who is seeking a special 'Violence Against Women' (VAWA) status reserved for the victims of domestic violence.
The 43-year-old Mexican came illegally to the United States in 1988 when she was 13 years old, according to court documents. She arrived with her three brothers and her parents, but after crossing the border she was left in the care of a religious family. It was not long before she became pregnant with her first child. The father was a twenty-year-old U.S. resident, Hugo Mora, living in the same house. Because of the strict religious values in the home she was forced to marry aged 14.
From that point in her life Mora was subjected to contant emotional abuse, including threats from her husband that he would take their children away, according to Zambrano. She was punched and beaten, even while pregnant. The beatings were documented in a police domestic violence report, oen of the few pieces of evidences supporting her legal efforts to avoid deportation. "She tried to defend herself against a couple who mistreated her, and were arrested, but they were allowed out on parole," the lawyer said.
Her husband eventually took the four children, and vanished. She has tried in vain to locate him, including calling his parents. She suspects they may be in Mexico, also her husband's native country.
She has never divorced, despite which she had 14 more children with eight different men. "She has so many children because María does not believe in abortion and because she always thought that her boyfriends were the love of her life," her lawyer said.
The 18th child, a boy, was the product of a rape, Mora told her lawyer. The perpetrator was her last boss in a construction job.
Zambrano says not all Mora's boyfriends were abusive and she has fond memories of one in particular. "She had a good relationship with him and his children, but he was deported to Mexico," the lawyer said.
Mora was arrested last July, just a week before a Georgia court returned custody of her children to her, for the second time.
The first time she lost them was after death one of child due to a heart attack. "When I arrived at the hospital, the nurse told me that I had five minutes after my child died, and when I returned home they took my children," Mora said, wiping away tears.
During the investigation into the death by the Georgia Department of Human Services Mora lost parental rights of the remaining 13 children.
Her rights were restored only after the investigation concluded that the child died of natural causes.
According to her lawyer, Mora lost everything she had in the battle to get her children back, including savings, and her job and home. She and the 13 children moved in with her brother, crowded into one room. However, the children were removed again after a visit by human services. "They imposed conditions to recover them, like looking for a job, and she complied, but then she was stopped for driving without a license," said Zambrano.
Mora plans to appeal if the judge orders her deportated and she loses custody of the children.