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Amid immigration crackdown, a growing family hunkers down in state of anxiety

Amid immigration crackdown, a growing family hunkers down in state of anxiety

Picture of Martha Escudero
[Photo by John Moore/Getty Images]

When Guadalupe came to my office with a newborn baby, she was clearly in a state of anxiety. She spoke very quickly and did not make much eye contact. She said that she has been in a constant panic since President Trump had been elected a month ago. She and her husband, both undocumented immigrants from Mexico, could not sleep and ate very little, Guadalupe said. She rarely stepped outside her house in fear of ICE agents and deportation. Her 5-year-old son was struggling with the same emotions and refused to attend school because he did not want to leave his mother alone.

Most if not all of the undocumented clients and their children I have worked with described similar feelings since the presidential elections. While Guadalupe told me her story, I recalled my childhood during the ’80s. My mother was undocumented and there were immigration raids at her work. Just as my client’s children now lived in fear, I had been afraid of not having my mother with me. Our fears were even reflected in childhood games we played, a version of hide and seek in which La Migra (border patrol) would search for the hidden undocumented. With all these memories, I understood how these families felt and wanted to do more to help them.

Guadalupe was already seeing a psychologist at the county hospital’s maternal wellness clinic, where I had referred her. She was getting the mental health help she needed, but she also needed help with other issues that had come up because of her anxiety. She shared that she had a difficult time breastfeeding and that her baby would not stop crying day and night. These are typical behaviors of babies with stressed and anxious mothers. Stress creates a rise in cortisol levels and if the mother is affected, so is the baby. Dr. Gabor Maté, a well-known psychologist, has said that non-stop crying was a common behavior among Jewish babies during the Nazi era. I assured Guadalupe that although stress may reduce the flow of milk, as long as she keeps breastfeeding she will still produce milk. Breastfeeding has the added benefit of producing oxytocin, a hormone that helps relieve stress for mother.

I shared with Guadalupe the same resources I gave all my undocumented clients who were living in fear of deportation. I gave her a “Know Your Rights” wallet card provided by the center where I worked. The cards have basic information on undocumented peoples’ rights should they be approached by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in various locations. And the cards provide the numbers of community organizations with lawyers willing to help in these cases. I provided her with flyers of local “Know Your Rights” workshops she could attend for more information. I also gave her a copy on how to create a family plan, in case she or her husband was detained. The plan specifies things such as who her children would go to, and where important documents are stored.

Being prepared for the worst helped ease Guadalupe’s anxiety because at least she knew where her children would go if one or both parents were deported. Even with many resources and information in available in her community, the fear was present and real, since deportations were already taking place in her neighborhood — even in public spaces such as in front of schools.

This country continues to struggle with the issue of undocumented people. In my view, we should be able to find a way to legalize those already in the country instead of deporting them, especially if deportation means the separation of families with young children. Separation is even more traumatic if the children are young and do not understand what’s happening. Most of my clients came to this country in part due to the United States’ involvement in creating poverty and violence in their countries. One of my clients told me that the MS-13 gang, which got its start in Los Angeles during the 1980s, had killed her brother and threaten to kill her husband. She fled while pregnant and feared that she would be killed if she was deported back to El Salvador. Many other clients shared similar stories. Deporting people to be killed is a form of violence, as The New Yorker recently reported in great detail.

As a case manager who worked with low-income moms in East L.A., I did what I could to connect moms with support and information. In Guadalupe’s case, her child was able to receive counseling sessions and discuss his fears related to deportation at the Los Angeles public school he attended. Guadalupe was able to continue breastfeeding yet she also continued to live in fear. She slowly left home more but she still endured many nights of insomnia. Living in fear of deportation has led to a rise in mental health issues in the mothers I’ve worked with. The depression, anxiety and stress it can cause make it difficult for them be present as mothers, to fully meet their child’s needs. For mothers like Guadalupe, the agonizing uncertainty continues.

[Photo by John Moore/Getty Images]


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