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Realities Facing Children in Undocumented and Mixed-Status Families

A Look at the Realities Facing Children in Undocumented and Mixed-Status Families

After a record-setting number of deportations under the Obama Administration, Donald Trump is making good on his campaign promise to outdo his predecessor. Undocumented immigrant adults are mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, grandparents, neighbors, community members, and workers. The prospect and realities of often violent ICE raids, detentions, and deportations are potentially traumatizing, not only for them, but also for the children who love them, depend on them, and are only sometimes forcibly removed alongside them.

EmbraceRace co-founders, Melissa Giraud and Andrew Grant-Thomas, frame the discussion and facilitate the community conversation with expert guest, Dr. Cinthya Chin Herrera. An edited transcript of the conversation and related resources follow. (Let us know if there are others you’ve found useful.) Remember to sign up for the EmbraceRace twice monthly newsletter to keep informed about upcoming community conversations or events and to receive a curated collection of perspectives, articles and resources about race and raising kids.

Andrew: Let me start by asking you to say more about your practice in Oakland, CA. Who are you working with? And what does the work look like?

Cinthya: But my primary role is in our children’s mental health clinic in Oakland called West Coast Children’s Clinic where we provide mental health services to children and families who’ve been exposed often to trauma of various kinds, multiple times throughout their lifetimes. And a large percentage of the population that we’re serving are racial and ethnic minority groups. As a Spanish speaker, I have often found myself working with Latino families here. In my role presently, I’m doing less of the direct service work with the youth and families and more stuff related to supervision and trainings.

Basically, I help staff develop the knowledge and skill set that they need to provide the best services possible to the children and families that they’re serving. Helping folks really develop an understanding of what’s going on in communities, what communities are asking for and needing.

Andrew: Also in your bio you say that you draw upon Nicaragua and Mexican and Chinese roots and your experience as an immigrant to the U.S. to inform your practice. What does that look like?

Cinthya: Yeah. I am an immigrant myself I emigrated to the United States at a really young age from Latin America, but I was back and forth often to visit family which provided me with many opportunities to reflect on the different cultures and on my process of acculturation. At a certain point, I became very curious about how immigrants were treated where I grew up, in a small town in Florida. Agriculture was a big part of that community and I saw how immigrant families would try to find their way in that, and the disparities around health care and education and access to services and access to basic things. At a young age I realized how differently folks could be treated just based on their immigration status.

Andrew: OK. So what are some of the biggest takeaways points you can offer us about what the immigrant families and kids you’ve worked with in Oakland, and what you see when you go back to your hometown in Florida, are going through?

Refugees + Immigrants Welcome Here

Cinthya: Well, I want to start off by mentioning that the immigrant families I work with have a range of circumstances. You sometimes have children who are U.S.-born with a parent, or multiple parents, that were born in another country. Sometimes you have some family members that are documented and others that aren’t. I would say mixed-status families are more the norm than most folks would realize. I know there are a lot of educators participating tonight. The majority of the classrooms across the nation have probably at least one student and sometimes a majority of students with a parent or another important family member that’s undocumented and/or kids who are themselves undocumented. So, if anything I would want to emphasize that these kids whose lives are affected by this issue are all around us. Oftentimes they’re invisible and their struggles are invisible out of a need for safety and survival for their family. These kids are your straight-A students. They are the ones who you know might be staying late after school. They’re kids who might present with homework struggles. They’re kids like any other kids.

Andrew: Let’s open it up. Let me ask one question that may sound the biggest theme of any of the questions that we got before the webinar started. Someone asks: how can schools — meaning educators, administrators, social workers, etc. — be most supportive of children and families in this situation?

Cinthya: I think it’s a great question. These students oftentimes are maintaining a big secret on behalf of family members or for themselves. And so invisibility is a big thing that I think educators and folks working in school systems will have a difficult time coming up against. And one thing to know is that it’s important, one, to respect that privacy — that secrecy is there for a reason, for survival oftentimes.

These youth and their families are often subject to exploitation. They’re in a vulnerable position in that when things happen to them, they might be less likely to speak up or say something because of fear of putting themselves or their family at risk. And so I think having a stance of protection towards students that are coming from immigrant families is important.

Developing a trauma-informed practice in education is also really important. These students are sometimes anxious, sometimes fearful, sometimes angry. And rightfully so. Their communities and families around them, even if it’s not directly impacting them, they’re seeing their communities oftentimes ripped apart. And so it’s really important to have that in mind and the impact of those things on their educational well-being, and hold that in perspective when you might be going into a meeting with other teachers or with parents to talk about that in a way that integrates it all together. If a student is struggling with focusing, not just putting out a referral for medications for ADHD but really being curious about the various other things that might be impacting that child.

Andrew: Thanks for that. Here’s one more in the school space that speaks to the breadth of the trauma that some communities may be undergoing. Karen asks, in a program that provides treatment to Latino immigrant families impacted by trauma, we struggle with helping families focus on psychotherapy, especially when they have so many more urgent needs. We often hear from supervisees that it’s hard for them to keep hopeful. Also, how do you support clinicians who themselves are immigrants and feel as vulnerable as their clients?

Cinthya: When you’re providing support to communities that are so impacted by trauma — and immigrant communities that face the challenges of being undocumented, there’s so much vulnerability and exposure to trauma — I can’t separate the two [treating the trauma and meeting basic needs]. It’s hard to be a trauma-informed organization when you’re saturated with stories like the tragedy that happened in San Antonio just on Sunday. Multiple deaths reported in an immigrant community that rarely even make the news. [Such an incident] exacerbates the feeling of invisibility for immigrant clients. And because the basic struggles around access based on transportation or language are there, it really just compounds the community trauma.

One of the important pieces that we’ve realized in the organization where I work [West Coast Children’s Clinic] is the importance of developing a trauma-informed and also a healing framework as an organization in every way and having it really seep in a way we think about our structure, our policies, the way that we provide services from the top down. That’s really important.

Melissa: Here’s a question from Jason "I have had students from my class approach me for help applying to college when their parents are undocumented. Do you have strategies to help students in this scenario? Are there helpful resources to help students navigate the application and financial aid process?"

Cinthya: I think it’s a fantastic question because often the parents in the families I work with aren’t equipped to advise their children on the process of applying to college. You can really help those students either getting them information and/or hosting afterschool space where any students that are in the same boat might be able to support each other in the process. Sometimes that’s needed to really help students know how to navigate questions like: when do I apply for financial aid? Do I apply to more than one school? How do get my application fee waived? Finding ways to provide either the knowledge or space for youth to come together is really important. I saw a question from Sofia in the chat that really jumped out at me around whether undocumented families might assimilate to cope.

You see a big variety, different ways of acculturating. Some folks imitate and dive deep into the “host cultures,” they sink into the U.S. culture and find ways to become as “American” as possible. Other folks immigrate and maintain a lot in their culture from their homelands. Others find a way to be truly bicultural. And there’s debate on a few other ways of acculturating, too. There’s also this idea that there might be folks who reject both — American culture and the culture of their homeland — not feeling either one or the other.

And what we find is that folks who embrace both cultures tend to fare best. Now that isn’t to place added value on being bicultural, because folks assimilate or get marginalized for a variety of reasons. But I think there is something to be said for the push for assimilation to adopt American culture and to shed your native culture.

Oftentimes that comes at a big cost. Folks who lose the language, who lose ritual, who lose connection to their home countries, they often feel a great sense of loss of culture. And sometimes it’s not something that they feel when they’re in grade school. It often comes back later on in life, during the teen years and early adulthood when questions about “who am I” and identity resurface.

For folks who are working with children and youth in that position of like, “I don’t know that I want to learn the language.” Or “I don’t know that I want to continue cultural practices that my parents did.” There’s also a lot to be said for learning those pieces later on.

Andrew: Here’s another question on the political side. How can you be politically neutral when tens of thousands of people are being arrested and deported and millions live in fear of that and live with loss or fear of loss? Can you do this clinical work without being a political advocate?

Cinthya: In the act of providing services to immigrant populations you’re doing political work. There is a wide spectrum of what is political action. And folks will decide to be as active on the political scene as they feel comfortable with. But treating immigrants like humans is kind of a radical notion in a lot of parts of the country! And so providing services to immigrant families in and of itself is pretty darn awesome.

Melissa: So we have a question about what clinical interventions you might recommend when children of mixed status families are anxious about their parents being deported. It’s hard to ease their anxiety when you can’t say that it won’t happen. So how do you comfort kids knowing that you can’t lie to them, right?

Cinthya: Yes. I typically don’t suggest that you comfort kids by lying to them! But I do understand the question. There are different levels of intervention clinicians providing therapy can use. It really depends on the client. If what they’re looking for are tools to manage their anxiety, those tools are pretty straightforward.

Where the deeper work comes in is around the existential questions of … why is my family targeted? Why does everyone think that we’re bad people? And those are harder questions to answer because it really takes deconstructing that and doing some deeper level work. I have a lot of different examples that have ranged over the years. For example teenagers who would freeze up whenever they saw us a police car anywhere near their undocumented parents. In that particular family, this was managed with humor: ”Oh, don’t you know that immigrants are the safest drivers on the road!”

Sometimes there is room for bringing family in to help comfort or manage anxiety. But oftentimes in families, it’s not something that’s discussed. It’s a secret. We don’t talk about it.

Over the past few years I’ve seen folks really encourage developing custody plans. Essentially parents name who they would want to take custody of their child if they were deported. That can go both ways, there aren’t one-size-fits-all interventions. It also depends on the age of the child. Some are able to take more information than others.

Beyond managing anxiety, children of immigrants are faced with a real challenge around developing identity as children of immigrants in this country. Especially in families that have multiple children, you might have the first child that holds much more of the language and culture of the parents. The second or third child is less likely to speak the language, less likely to be able to communicate with their parents. So it’s not just the anxiety of mom or dad or abuelita being undocumented.

There’s this whole other piece around identity that’s important to treat as well.

Children of immigrants marching

Andrew: One more question from the ally angle. Certainly, both in the media from some perspectives, and in politics, it’s often the white Americans whom it is suggested are the enemy here. Certainly, Donald Trump and most of the lead figures in his administration. How can teachers, especially white teachers, and other professionals — and white allies in general- gain the trust of the children who do not trust white Americans?

Cinthya: I think that that mistrust is there for a really protective reason. So it’s not something that can be undone easily or quickly. One way to show yourself as an ally is to actually bring in information that will help students realize that certain conversations may be OK with you, might not be awful. I think what’s particularly hard is when somebody says I support this policy that the child believes could jeopardize their family’s safety. In that instance, I wouldn’t expect a child to develop trust with a professional. For others folks, there’s the question of — how do I show my true colors if it would go against the policies of my school district or my agency.

In those instances, it takes a bit of finesse. It takes bringing in something in the news or some knowledge that hints at what a clinician, what a teacher, what a mentor’s stance might be.

Melissa: I like this question. I am considering starting a group for children with anxiety around ICE deportation of family members but am concerned that they may only make each other more anxious by sharing their fears. Thoughts?

Cinthya: Yeah I like this question. Groups can be really helpful for a lot of reasons. They give folks a sense that they’re not alone. In families where kids have been told you can’t say this, it’s a big family secret, it could jeopardize our safety, secrecy is a big thing. Groups can be really helpful for kids to come together and know other folks are dealing with this too.

Also, what research tells us is that when you’re anxious sometimes what you don’t want is somebody to be all zen and tell you it’s going to be alright. But rather, you might gravitate towards somebody that really gets and understands why you’re anxious and can join you in that place.

But there are some downsides to groups, too. In immigrant populations, there’s a lot of uncertainty. You don’t know if somebody’s family members are going to be detained. The odds are that a family member won’t be detained. But you really can’t predict that. Obviously, you don’t want to create a scenario where you might incite mass panic by having folks come and tell stories about how ICE raided them in the middle of the night. I think keeping groups small is important, being prepared for the worst, and knowing how you might manage in the event that a kid comes in and says, my parents were just detained. Maybe taking extra time before and after groups to check in with folks individually, and referring out for individual work when that seems appropriate would be important, too.

Andrew: That’s a great answer, Cinthya. And from that particular to this broad also great question about how we help undocumented immigrant communities build resilience. We at EmbraceRace talk about resilience quite a bit, it’s one of our central goals. In answering the question, I wonder if you could give us a little working definition of what you mean by resilience or even how we might think about resilience in this context?

Cinthya: Resilience comes from within. When we talk about people being resourceful, we mean they can access outside resources. But with resilience, we’re talking about folks’ capacity to bounce back. And I think it’s an important piece to emphasize because often when we’re looking at communities that are impacted by trauma, community violence, political decisions … we’re looking at the despair and hopelessness and the impact of those things on them. And sometimes what can be hard is to see how they continue to be resilient in the face of those things.

Doctor Cesar Cruz, someone who I deeply respect and admire, puts it this way. If we’re talking about a 20 foot wall, resilience is the 21 foot ladder that we have inside of ourselves that helps us overcome those obstacles. Some folks have that more readily available and access that internal strength more easily than others. I don’t think that it’s just naturally at the surface and so I think as providers or teachers who engage with youth, it’s important to be thinking about, how do you foster resilience within those communities? Sometimes that is as or more helpful than just managing anxiety.

Melissa: Cinthya, I’m wondering about Dreamers and the popular image of the undocumented immigrant that a lot of Americans get behind. But the Dreamer is actually exceptional, right, the person who’s been able to get into, pay for, and get through four years of college is an exception. When you’re a kid or a young adult shaping your identity and you’re being told you need to be exceptional to have a shot at being included in American society … I wonder if you come across kids and adults reacting to that? Are there ways in which that particular image has not served a lot of people?

Cinthya: Well, the movement around Dreamers has been very important and has really laid some important foundation. I would hesitate to say that any kind of problem has been solved in mass quantity because so many folks aren’t Dreamers. They don’t fit that. There’s so many obstacles to being able to go to college even when there’re certain road blocks removed, there are other roadblocks that are in place. What about all the other youth who would be college-bound were it not for finances, or needing to work while going to college, or having to support their families … There’re so many other pieces. It’s really sad to me that these youth get no airtime and that, for a lot of the nation, there’s this idea that the Dreamers was a solution when it’s really just a Band-Aid for a really big wound.

Andrew: I want to close by underlining something embedded in Melissa’s question. I’ve read so many stories about really exemplary immigrants who have been arrested and deported and it drives me crazy! Not simply because of the deportation part, but because folks who understand themselves as allies are lifting up the story of these people who almost none of us are. They’re so remarkable and so wonderful — and obviously that’s to their credit. But then I think, is the message that you have to be this paragon of virtue for us to empathize with the circumstances under which you’re suddenly ripped away from everything you had known? What about the vast majority of us, of any race/ethnicity, etc, who can’t quite reach those very lofty standards? Does that mean that we have no rights and no claim to fairness? So obviously I’m revealing my take on all that but, I just wonder what do you make of it. As we close … give us some wisdom, Cinthya!

Cinthya: You know I think it really calls on us to challenge our notions about immigrants. I often feel like immigrants are talked about in a way that’s very dehumanizing, particularly in the media. So are many policies that are put in place around immigrants. Sometimes from a journalist standpoint you’re looking to make your subject as positive as possible, as super human as you can make them seem in order to counteract some of those forces. I really appreciate you guys bringing that question.

And I have a short story for you about one of the most influential pieces of my adolescence. I was in high school in a photography class and my mother comes home and she had her papers and was often someone within the immigrant community that folks would call upon to be a translator, to help navigate various systems. And she comes at me one time and says, “Somebody died on the strawberry fields. He had an aneurism and nobody came and nobody called the police and he just died.” She came to me because I was in a photography class and she wanted me to document it and send it to the paper.

She ended up calling the local newspaper and the story was published in the paper. Why does someone have to die because they’re undocumented, because they didn’t want to jeopardize their family? They couldn’t access treatment. It’s hard to know with an aneurism. He might have been doomed from the start but he didn’t even have a chance because of his status. That was a really defining moment of my adolescence because I knew that whether you live or die shouldn’t come down to your legal status. That shouldn’t be a decision that anyone has to make.

Related Resources

Abriendo Puertas/Opening Doors — Although geared primarily at Latino parents and families affected directly or indirectly by status uncertainty, this site has many great resources relevant to other immigrant groups and to service providers of said groups.

American Psychological Association on Child and Trauma — Report on what is currently known and not known about child and adolescent PTSD and trauma (a relatively young field of study), including how mental help professionals can help.

Black Emotional and Mental Health (BEAM) — “Our mission is to remove the barriers that Black people experience getting access to or staying connected with emotional health care and healing. We do this through education, training, advocacy and the creative arts.”

National Child Traumatic Stress Network — Many resources compiled to “raise the standard of care and improve access to services for traumatized children, their families and communities throughout the United States.” Includes resources many families, educators and other providers.

Resources for Schools to Help Students Affected by Trauma Learn — A bibliography of resources put out by the Wisconsin Ed Department.

Cinthya Chin Herrera

Dr. Cinthya Chin Herrera is a child and family psychologist whose work centers on providing culturally sensitive, trauma-informed services to vulnerable children, youth, and families in community-based mental health settings. In her roles as… More about Cinthya Chin >
Cinthya Chin Herrera 360 x 360 px