When the immigration crackdown tears apart families, a crisis team is ready

Published on
April 12, 2018

In the early hours one morning this February, with night still clinging to the horizon and cool air lingering over the surrounding strawberry fields, a couple headed to drop off their three children at daycare before taking the father to work for the day. They noticed flashing lights from an unmarked vehicle behind them on the country road in California’s Central Coast and pulled over. Less than an hour later, the father, an undocumented immigrant from El Salvador, would be on his way to San Francisco, in the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The wife went home with her young children, according to a local attorney, Doug Keegan, who spoke with the family shortly after the incident.

She began a process that’s familiar to many immigrants and mixed-status families in the U.S. She started looking for a lawyer, and tried to figure out how she could visit her husband, who was in a cell nearly 100 miles away. She also began fielding interview requests from media outlets and offers of support from local community groups.

It’s a common scene in California and communities scattered across the country, one that often leads to severe economic and emotional stress for the families involved. ICE reported making more than 143,000 arrests in the 2017 fiscal year. When one parent is taken away, the other is left figuring out how to pay the bills. Parents must have difficult conversations with children who are concerned for their safety, and often fearful that the other parent will be taken away as well. Those children head back to schools that are ill prepared to deal with their needs in a time of crisis.

Research shows intense stress can have long-lasting impacts. The good news is there are ways to mitigate the impacts. The challenge is that there are limited services, particularly for immigrants who don’t qualify for many kinds of public programs, and it can be hard to deliver the ones that are available effectively.

The so-called toxic stress that arises from these events isn’t just confined to those who have broken the law, or who have been picked up by immigration. Doctors, teachers and parents have reported behavioral changes among children who have non-citizen parents, even when they have legal status, since Trump took office and made all undocumented immigrants eligible for deportation. They have also reported an increase of racism and discrimination among people that aren’t immigrants at all, but happen to be of an ethnicity or religion people associate with immigration.

Just north of Salinas, one of the most important growing regions in the country, sits Watsonville, not far from where the family was stopped earlier this month. The community is more than 80 percent Hispanic, but the group is hardly monolithic — some families have been in the area for generations, others are recent arrivals for whom Spanish is a second language. It’s a diverse community that for decades has attracted recent migrants willing to work physically demanding, low-paying jobs in the farms that blanket the coast.

After Trump won the presidency, teachers in the area reported that some kids had stopped showing up to school, their parents keeping them at home out of fear. They also reported children expressing signs of severe stress. “Teachers were reporting children crying in the middle of class,” said MariaElena de la Garza, director of a local nonprofit.

Though nearly three-quarters of Watsonville residents are U.S. citizens, some of the workers are in the U.S. without authorization, and over the decades, the area has been a frequent target of federal immigration officials during periodic crackdowns on illegal immigration.

“That creates anxiety and insecurity in families,” said MariaElena de la Garza, the director of the Community Action Board, a nonprofit that works to promote equity in the area. She noted that many of the area’s mixed-status families, which have members with varying legal status, are already in a precarious position financially. “These are vulnerable, impoverished communities already.”

After Trump won the presidency, teachers in the area reported that some kids had stopped showing up to school, their parents keeping them at home out of fear. They also reported children expressing signs of severe stress. “Teachers were reporting children crying in the middle of class,” said de la Garza.

A recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation suggests these experiences are common. During focus groups with 100 parents from 15 countries, as well as interviews with 13 pediatricians, adults reported increases in stress, manifesting in symptoms such as insomnia, headaches, stomachaches and signs of depression.

The Kaiser study echoes previous research, which has found higher rates of PTSD among children with a parent who has been detained or deported, as well as other kinds of stress-induced behavioral changes. One study even found that a decrease in birthweight as a result of the largest single-site raid in U.S. history.

Combatting the stress and adversity of these situations for children and family members requires connecting them with mental health care, something that’s generally in short supply in the U.S.

In some immigrant communities, however, the needs of families threatened with deportation are well known, and local organizations are quick to step in and offer help after a raid takes place. That’s the case in Watsonville, which has produced a variety of grassroots and community organizations over the years.

These groups have recently turned to a well-worn model from natural disasters to try and better help families who’ve been hit by an arrest or deportation: a crisis response team. The idea is that the Community Action Board will serve as the main contact for the family, coordinating various services from other organizations. That includes legal services and financial support, but also mental health services. Support for the latter comes from Pajaro Valley Prevention and Student Assistance (PVPSA), a nonprofit that has long provided the counseling services for the public school system.

Angela di Novella, PVPSA’s director of programming, said that the idea was to create a trauma-informed model, one that would coordinate the service groups so that they weren’t putting additional burden on the family. Some families want to use the moment to make political statements about federal immigration policies, said di Novella, but for others, the cacophony of well-meaning offers can create more hurt than harm.

“Because of the political environment, I feel that sometimes we lose perspective of what we want to accomplish, and staying true to the family,” said di Novella. For a family that wants to speak out, she’s fully supportive, but she also knows that the spotlight can pose its own challenges.

Families facing the threat of deportation experience a lot of grief, di Novella said. PVPSA provides counseling services for the children and their parents, and works with the adults to detect signs of anxiety or depression in their kids.

The team has also held workshops with parents, helping them figure out how to communicate with their kids about the potential that they could get picked up by ICE. These are hard conversations, but de la Garza says they believe being prepared can help reduce the impact of stress and fear. Even if children don’t hear the concerns directly from their parents, they will often hear about it at school or elsewhere — it’s hard to shield kids altogether.

To that end, the consortium of organizations has also helped families learn to draw up official family plans — documents that outline what to do in the event that a family member is picked up by immigration. But again, di Novella believes this work must be done with care so that it doesn’t overwhelm the community with fear. “Information is power, but it can be overpowering too,” she said.