Families arm kids with emergency plans

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Deportations can be examined in numbers, but the lasting impact on family members who remain in the United States is more challenging to categorize, especially for young people who face emotional challenges after parents or siblings are deported.

Jackie has struggled in the years since her older brother was deported. She’s a quiet high school sophomore with a big, sweet smile. Jackie says she and her brother were inseparable growing up.

“He’d put his hat on and we’d have tea parties,” she says. “He was basically my best friend.”

Jackie says she was almost a different person before her brother was removed from the United States.

“I was more happy and active and with my friends and teachers,” she says. “I wanted to be friends with almost everybody.”

Her brother was accused of carrying on a sexual relationship with a minor three years ago and went to court. Jackie was at her aunt’s house when she learned that her brother was detained by immigration officers and would be removed from the United States. She broke down crying.

“Who am I going to go talk to when I’m sad?” she asked. “Who am I going to go to when I’m scared?”

Both of her parents are living in the United States without legal status, and her father was detained with her brother. Her father was released from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody because he didn’t have a criminal record. Jackie says she is now worried both her parents might be deported.

The exact number of immigrant parents deported from the United States is unknown, but Congress requested in 2010 that ICE collect data on those deportations. The news site Colorlines obtained Department of Homeland Security data that indicated over 200,000 individuals who were deported from 2010 through 2012 reported that they had U.S. citizen children.

Sarah Nolan is the executive director of Comunidades en Accion y de Fe, an immigrants’ rights organization known as CAFÉ, in Las Cruces near the U.S.-Mexico border. Nolan says parents who are vulnerable have created deportation readiness plans.

“They have an emergency plan for if one or both parents get deported and what happens when they’re alone,” she says.

Nolan compares this preparation to families who teach their kids how to get out of the house during a fire.

“They have points of contact,” she says. “They have armed their older children with a rapid response.”

Nolan says a parent’s deportation is a huge burden on teens. They don’t often talk about how they are feeling, but she says parents report to her that their children’s “grades are going down or they got in trouble in school. They cry a lot or they just get very quiet.”

Angelica Regino, a social worker in the South Valley near Albuquerque, says younger children may show the stress in different ways says. “The adults can tell you exactly how they’re feeling,” she says. But for the children, Regino says, “it’s different. They don’t have those words.”

Regino works at Centro Savila, an organization that offers counseling and other support services to immigrant families. Clients pay by donation and no one is turned away if they don’t have insurance or can’t afford an hour-long session. This is a unique model that’s hard to find anywhere else in New Mexico.

The counselors and in social workers see children, and adults like John (not his real name). John is worried about speaking publicly. He’s 24 and says he lived through many stressful years growing up, knowing he or his parents could face deportation.

John says his mom worried constantly.

“She has plan Bs and plan Cs, and she has money stashed,” he says. “Depending on what situation, she has different ways to react to them.” But John says his dad didn’t talk openly about his feelings, adding “he’s very brave.”

John didn’t discuss his emotions until his daughter was born nearly two years ago.

“She counts on me,” John says. “Having depression and feeling suicidal, those are not an option anymore because I have a daughter now. I would be hurting her if I did something to me.”

John recently became a legal permanent resident, but he is still dealing with the effects of years of anxiety. He says coming to Centro Savila made a big difference for him.

The organization started last year with volunteers and now has four staff members. Centro Savila is growing, but the organization recently had to start a waiting list for new clients.

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