The Guardian: “Trump’s immigration crackdown is traumatizing a generation of children”

by Joseph McKeown

While the Trump administration dramatically increases immigration arrests and deportation orders, children of undocumented immigrant parents have reported a corresponding increase in fear, anxiety, and emotional trauma, and school officials have noted increased cases of absenteeism. Lisseth Rojas-Flores, an associate professor of marital and family therapy at Fuller Theological Seminary in California, explains to the Guardian what these children are going through: “Kids start lagging behind academically, having social stress, anxiety and depression. With the new administration and all the threats for deportation that are so vivid and so real, and all the rhetoric that’s going around, the anxiety escalates to a point that can be very paralyzing for some of these kids, who don’t want to go to school, or who go to school and sit in there and still worry about their families.”

More than ninety percent of those detained and deported are men, some of whom are their family’s primary financial supporter. Their deportation results in economic difficulties in addition to emotional trauma. In one example, the father of four children, ranging from twelve to nineteen, went outside one morning to get the newspaper. The father was arrested by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers. Their mother went outside to see what was going on, only to find herself arrested as well. Their eldest child, nineteen-year-old Francisco Duarte, says: “It was pretty traumatizing for my little sisters. They just took them right in front of them. One day everything was normal, and the next day, my parents were gone.”

Since the arrests, the children have started a GoFundMe campaign and posted a video on YouTube about this experience in hopes of raising money for food, rent, and their parents’ legal fees. In response to the Duarte family arrests, ICE have alleged that the parents were connected to a stash house for a human smuggling operation, though no criminal charges have been filed. The family has also denied these allegations.

Earlier this year the Center for American Progress reported unsurprisingly that emotional distress and economic insecurity, much like what the Duarte children now find themselves experiencing, can derail the future success of undocumented children. Currently, there are approximately one million undocumented children residing in the US. 4.5 million children born here have at least one undocumented parent. Noe Gonzalez, a fourteen-year-old freshman in Iowa whose parents are both Mexican immigrants, says that he like many others is constantly thinking of the possibility of his parents being deported. “I don’t know what would happen, if I would be deported too or if I’d go to a foster home," he tells the Guardian. "I’d like to stick with them, but yet I don’t want to leave the US.” 

The Trump administration’s crackdown has renewed anxieties that members of a small community in Iowa have not experienced in almost a decade. In 2008, Postville, Iowa, a small farming town of only about 2,000, experienced one of the largest immigration raids in US history. Immigration officers in helicopters, SUVs, and buses came in and arrested 389 workers at a kosher meatpacking plant. Many immigrant families were torn apart as a result of these arrests, while other families simply fled out of fear. One teen, who was only a young child when this raid occurred, recalled one instance of nineteen children hiding for weeks in a family’s basement. Other students claimed sanctuary in a local church.

Studies show that this raid left lasting effects on the town’s student population. A 2011 report by researchers at the University of Northern Iowa showed that some students stopped showing up for class altogether, while others that remained in school exhibited increased behavioral problems. Another report from the International Journal of Epidemiology showed that this raid affected some Latino children before they were even born. Babies born nine months after the raid were twenty-four percent more likely to have low birth weight than those born previously.

Today, students in Postville find themselves being too afraid to walk home. Others find themselves going into “alert mode” every time they see a helicopter. One student even told his first grade teacher that if his parents are deported back to Guatemala, the family’s plan is that he will have to live with her. Families are also now afraid that personal information and data collected by school officials can ultimately lead to enforcement action against them. While a 1982 Supreme Court decision ruled that all children living in the US have a legal right to attend public schools regardless of their immigration status, some families have chosen to keep their children at home.

Jennifer Elzea, a spokeswoman for ICE, said in a recent statement that the policy of avoiding enforcement activities at schools remains in effect under the Trump administration. Elzea further explained that the Department of Homeland Security is "committed to ensuring that people seeking to participate in activities or utilize services provided at any sensitive location are free to do so without fear or hesitation.” Elzea, however, stated that the authorities will “no longer exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement.”

As a result of this heightened enforcement, school officials nationwide are seeing significant drops in attendance of students of immigrant families. A school in New Mexico saw as much as a sixty percent increase in absences, following an immigration raid. Some students did not return to class for over a month. Tania Romero, a social worker at Flushing International High School in Queens, tells the Guardian that students are choosing to work rather than stay in school in order to save up money in case they are deported. Some schools have tried to implement “sanctuary policies” to show immigrant families that the education system is on their side. These “sanctuary policies,” though they do not carry much legal weight, include training principals and teachers in how to respond to immigration agents if they show up to school or request student information. 

Organizations and artists are developing creative ways to help these children cope with their fears. El Futuro, an outpost of the nonprofit organization Mighty Writers, has recently developed a puppet-making workshop for children of immigrant families. The program allows a dozen elementary students to write monologues about their personal immigrant experiences and created puppet-alter egos to perform them. The aim is to enable children to have an outlet in which to discuss, in a non-threatening setting, the reality of their immigration situations. While these children often understand their situation with surprising clarity, they have very few existing outlets in which to talk to sympathetic adults and peers about their individual immigration stories. Cybil Sanzetenea, one of the teachers in the program, says: “I was so surprised to hear how genuinely scared these kids were on a daily basis of coming home to find that their parents or family members had been taken." 

Vicko Alvarez, a Chicago-based artist, has created a comic and activity book to help children  talk about deportation. The book, titled Rosita Gets Scared, shares a story of a young, undocumented schoolgirl who reflects on her fears of deportation and ways she copes with them. As a child of immigrant parents herself, Alvarez created this comic book in hopes that children will be able to relate to Rosita, relieve some of their stress, and act as a reference point for their own anxieties and worries. She tells Newsy: “When kids are scared of what's underneath their beds, that's one thing. But when you're scared of your mother literally being taken from you to another country that you are not familiar with, that's a very different sort of fear. And we have to create material that's culturally relevant to that particular fear."