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Immigrant children living in fear

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

By Andrea Somoza-Norton and Erica Ruvalcaba-Heredia

Tribune News Service

When some immigrant children go to school, they’re focused not on learning but on fear.

Will immigration authorities remove them from school? Will their families be at home when they come back?

To better understand how President Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric is affecting children and families, we spoke to teachers and parents in Santa Maria, Calif., close to where we both work as college professors. The teachers, from a local elementary school, were Chrystal LeSuer and Spencer LeSuer. Both had empty chairs in their classrooms on Feb. 16, what was declared the Day Without Immigrants, when many students stayed home to convey an alarming message: For students, school is no longer a safe haven.

“It is a scary time, and I have received concerned letters from families who fear what the future holds,” Chrystal said. “I have calmed worried students and listened to concerns about their parents being deported.”

Spencer, whose students are mostly children of migrant workers, has introduced a current-news class activity in which students can discuss various topics. “They are very curious and, at a young age, good enough to jump to conclusions,” he said. “They become informed and relay this information to their parents.”

And while both teachers try to be reassuring, “The possibility of [deportation] seems very real to some of my students,” Chrystal said.

Constant stress and anxiety are known to impact children’s social, emotional and cognitive development. For some immigrant children already suffering from earlier traumatic experiences, coping with additional stress can make matters worse.

Since Trump took office, distress has visibly increased in Santa Maria, where nearly three-fourths of the population is Latino.

“Paula,” a mother of two small children (the name is a pseudonym), said she has lived in agony since the new administration took office. “My kids always ask me if I’m coming back from work,” she said. “That makes me feel sadder because I go to work with fear and uncertainty over what is going to happen today – whether I will make it back.”

Many of these families do not have relatives in this country who could look after the children of deported parents. They worry all the time. “What if we will never see our children again?” asked a mother we’ll call Sophia. “Who will take care of them? What would happen to them?”

Community agencies need to do more to provide social and emotional support for immigrant children and their families. More must be done to inform parents of their rights. School faculty and staff should receive training to deal with these issues. We need community collaboration, effort and determination.

As Marian Wright Edelman once said, “If we don’t stand up for children, then we don’t stand for much.”

Andrea Somoza-Norton is an assistant professor at the School of Education at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, Calif. Erica Ruvalcaba-Heredia is a professor at Allan Hancock College and co-ordinator for the Promotores Collaborative at San Luis Obispo County. They wrote this for Progressive Media Project, a source of liberal commentary on domestic and international issues.